Bulldozer clears the way for 4wds trapped in snow in Cental Otago

By Lynda van Kempen

The convoy of vehicles makes its way off the Old Man Range yesterday following a specially bulldozed path. Photo / Photos by Joy Bennett, supplied via Otago Daily Times
The convoy of vehicles makes its way off the Old Man Range yesterday following a specially bulldozed path. Photo / Photos by Joy Bennett, supplied via Otago Daily Times

A week of planning and two days of hard graft using a bulldozer was what it took to free 13 4WD vehicles stuck in the snow for a fortnight up the Old Man Range.

The retrieval mission began at dawn on Saturday and finished after dark yesterday.

The bulldozer was used to carve a path uphill through 2m-3m of snow on Waikaia Bush Rd to reach the vehicles.

They were then slowly driven out in convoy, behind the bulldozer.

A group of 38 southern 4WD enthusiasts were rescued from the range near Roxburgh a fortnight ago today.

What was planned as a day trip took a different turn when rough weather hit.

They were trapped for about 20 hours in a snowstorm and eventually rescued using two snowcat snowmobiles.

The group's first attempt to retrieve their vehicles with a bulldozer a week ago was stalled when the Central Otago District Council said the group did not have consent to "do work'' on the council road.

Since then, the council has worked with the group.

It agreed to allow the salvage operation, provided the group followed a safety plan.

Spokesman for the vehicle owners Curtis Martelli, of Invercargill, said the weather was perfect yesterday and the salvage went according to plan.

"How's everyone feeling now? Just relief, absolute relief. I'm glad it's over and everyone can move on and glad that it worked out safely,'' he said last night.

The 4WD enthusiasts, a group of friends from Winton, Gore and Invercargill, were grateful for the expertise and local knowledge of Harliwich Holdings, which provided the bulldozer and driver.

"There were a few people sceptical about us reaching our goal ... hands down, it was due to Harliwich. We can't thank them enough; they went above and beyond the call of duty.''

Mr Martelli said the group understood the initial stance taken by the council.

"Everyone's got their job to do, so we understand where they were coming from and we worked through a long planning process with them to get consent.''

Three days had been set aside for the operation.

The convoy of vehicles makes its way off the Old Man Range yesterday following a specially bulldozed path. Photo / Joy Bennett, supplied via Otago Daily Times
The convoy of vehicles makes its way off the Old Man Range yesterday following a specially bulldozed path. Photo / Joy Bennett, supplied via Otago Daily Times

It took all of Saturday and some of yesterday morning for the bulldozer to cut a path, using GPS to follow the road.

The vehicle owners dug the "noses'' of their vehicles out of the snow and the bulldozer pulled them free.

It took three or four hours to drive the vehicles down off the range, behind the bulldozer.

The safety plan said all activity had to stop by 5pm each day but the council extended the time yesterday as the vehicles were on their way down and there was sufficient lighting.

Mr Martelli said the drivers yesterday were all among the people rescued a fortnight ago.

"The vehicles are these guys' pride and joy and a lot of time and effort has gone into them. Some of the guys only have one vehicle and this is it.

"Some guys have their work tools in their vehicles, so it was pretty stressful for them waiting to retrieve them,'' he said.

The cost of the group's rescue came out of the police budget but the group will pay the costs of retrieving their vehicles.

Asked about the cost, Mr Martelli said he had no idea yet and declined to give an estimate.

The group received some criticism for venturing into the high country when rough weather was forecast.

"Did we check the weather forecast before going up there? Of course we did - it's the same as if you're going out fishing, you always check the weather,'' Mr Martelli said.

"It was meant to be a day trip and we had unforeseen circumstances - a vehicle breakdown - and lost a lot of time up there dealing with that and then the weather just closed in so quickly.

"Survival instinct kicked in then. You can either scatter or stick together and we chose to stick together. We had extra food and extra fuel with us; you always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.''

The group were aged from mid-20s to early 40s and were experienced four-wheel-drivers, he said.

Among their number were mechanics, engineers and diesel mechanics.

The group also wanted to thank their rescuers from a fortnight ago: "They did a really good job and we were so pleased to see them.''

- Otago Daily Times

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