Missing tramper walks out of bush safely after major search effort

By Kristin Edge, Mike Barrington -
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The officer in charge of the Northland police search and rescue unit, Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe, left, discusses search tactics with other police looking for a missing man. Photo / Mike Barrington
The officer in charge of the Northland police search and rescue unit, Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe, left, discusses search tactics with other police looking for a missing man. Photo / Mike Barrington

About 30 police and Far North search and rescue volunteers and helicopter support scoured a Northland bush track for a missing tramper who walked out two days later severely dehydrated but uninjured.

The man, in his 50s from England, had been walking part of the Te Araroa Trail that passes through the Mangamuka Forest, just south of Kaitaia, when he became lost and did not have enough water for the tramp.

The incident has raised concerns with rescuers who have been called to the bush area three times in the past two years and say that section of the trail is poorly signposted.

Geoff Snelson had got lost after beginning tramping the Te Araroa Trail from Takahue Rd to Mangamuka on Friday. He called his wife on Saturday morning to say he was lost but only raised the alarm with police about 7am on Sunday.

Police set up a search headquarters alongside State Highway 1 where the road reaches the peak of its climb through the Mangamuka Scenic Reserve.

Officer in charge of the Northland police search and rescue unit, Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe, said that while Mr Snelson was reasonably well equipped with a tent, adequate clothing and food, he had little water and his cellphone battery was at 20 per cent power when police spoke to him.

"We were trying to locate him through a fix on the signal from his cellphone, but the battery went flat and we lost contact with him," Mr Metcalfe said.

Seven search teams of police and Far North search and rescue volunteers began searching the whole trail about 10am on Sunday.

A helicopter with police spotters on board joined the hunt about 1pm on Sunday, with police stopping traffic so the aircraft could land on State Highway 1 alongside the search headquarters.

"We located two overseas tourists who had spoken to Mr Snelson on Friday and they gave us information about his intentions," Mr Metcalfe said.

The tourists had also found a woollen headband on the track on Saturday which police identified as the missing man's. But although the team of 30 searchers covered the trail from Takahue Rd to Mangamuka, Mr Snelson had not been found by 10pm on Sunday.

However, Mr Snelson walked out of the forest about 7am yesterday to a farmhouse near SH1 and phoned police. He was taken to Kaitaia Hospital and checked by St John for dehydration.

The Te Araroa Trail, which runs the length of the country, is a popular walk. The section where the search was concentrated is a tramp through very rugged country and a person could get lost only 10m off the track, Mr Metcalfe said. He said the trail was not well signposted and probably more difficult than foreign trampers expected.

"We've had a number of searches for lost people on this track in the past. Ideally, people who report they are lost should remain where they are until found, but this man could have been walking all day."

Mr Metcalfe reiterated the safety message he continually promoted: "Be prepared, take enough water and food, have a GPS and if possible a locator beacon."

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