Friday was one of those thin-aired, crystalline autumn days in Queenstown when everything seems to happen at a remove. High above, paragliders hung suspended like colourful seed spores. Helicopters threaded the sky. The orange and yellow trees stood perfectly photogenic.
Late morning, the lounge of the Colhoun family's lakefront holiday house was flooded with sunlight. The house has been a surrogate home for Itamar Tas and his boyhood friend Joe Kariv since the Colhouns, farmers from near Invercargill, offered it to them when they heard about the Israeli friends' mission.
Tas, a 26-year-old media studies student, was here to help with the search for his missing sister, 35-year-old Liat Okin, who was last seen alive leaving a hut on the Routeburn Track late on the morning of March 26, in jeans and sneakers.
Joining the search was crack Israeli search-and-rescue expert Hilik Magnus, hired by Okin's family to continue with a private search after he had finished with the official police search.
When that search was suspended on April 22, Magnus led the private search in what was at times inhospitable terrain surrounding the Routeburn Track. Magnus continued to work closely with police and Tas co-ordinated logistics and finances from his Queenstown base.
By last week, the search had cost more than $100,000, drawn from the Tas family's savings, loans, and donations from Israel and New Zealand.
Friday morning was critical. The previous afternoon, while Gabrielle Colhoun and her daughter Julia took Tas and Kariv on a day-trip to Wanaka to give them a break, the searchers got a break of a different kind. After 22 days of finding nothing but footprints that didn't belong to Okin, they spotted her backpack and shoes in dense vegetation, 500m off the track near Ocean Peak Corner - about a 6 1/2-hour walk from the Mackenzie Hut where she was last seen. It was the final section to be covered before facing a tough decision - to possibly call off the search and try again in spring or summer.
"The last area in the very last moment," says Magnus.
The pack lay open and half-unpacked on a boulder in a creek, the shoes nearby. "She organised herself to sleep there," says Magnus.
With little daylight left, the searchers decided to fly out, report their findings to police and return the next morning.
The next morning, in "mean" terrain 100m from the pack and shoes, searchers found a body. For search leader Magnus the job was done. He describes the terrain as "damn mean - huge boulders covered with rainforest and moss, very steep, water running all over, muddy, slippy".
A helicopter and crane was needed to retrieve the body. "It's not a walking mission, it's a crazy area, not somewhere you will walk."
Magnus theorises that Okin has made a common mistake and left the track to walk along a ridge, then descended into a dense, bush-clad valley to try to rejoin the track.
The night before, Tas didn't sleep much but he still managed to joke with his hosts on Friday morning about Kariv's long showers, while Gabrielle baked a batch of cheese scones. The banter felt necessary and loving rather than forced. Julia, a student teacher, squeezed Tas' shoulder several times.
Two days earlier, Tas had been struggling to face the prospect of leaving New Zealand empty-handed on Saturday. "I believed I would go back with closure, and to go back with the mystery unsolved was a very bad feeling," he told the Herald on Sunday on Wednesday night. He could only imagine what his sister and parents were going through back home.
He rocked in the couch as he spoke, his trim frame like a jack-in-the-box half-sprung. His thoughts were turning towards foul play, although the police had all but discounted it. At least if she'd been kidnapped, there was a chance she was still alive.
On Friday, he didn't want to speculate what the pack and shoes meant. Shortly before noon, he was pacing the Colhouns' deck with a cigarette, Lake Wakatipu splendidly, indifferently beautiful behind him.
In the next hour, he would hear the searchers had found a body in the vicinity of his sister's possessions. He knew it was Liat. The search was over.
LIAT OKIN was uneasy when she set off for the Routeburn on Tuesday March 25. The night before, she'd done a tarot card reading for her host, Queenstown woman Stephanye Bluwal, and for herself. "She asked what would happen on the trek, and the last card that came up said that she was going to get hurt," Bluwal recalls. "She got worried, started going through her stuff and repacking. She was going to stay up but she had an early night instead."
The two women had met earlier that day, when Bluwal noticed Okin shuffling tarot cards as she sat on a low wall in town. Bluwal, who also reads tarot, approached her to ask where she bought the cards. "Israel," Okin replied.
They got talking and discovered other things in common - Bluwal has Jewish heritage. Okin asked if she could doss at Bluwal's flat.
The Israeli struck Bluwal as a free spirit. "Very independent, very straightforward - most Israelis don't beat around the bush. If they have something to say they will tell you. She was very much like that. She said she was going to Dunedin and then Australia. She talked about her family, her ex-husband."
The women planned an early Passover dinner together after the trek. Okin arranged to leave luggage with Bluwal.
On the morning of the trek, she asked Bluwal's boyfriend, John Brannon to help her pack. She'd never been on an overnight trek before. Discovering she didn't have a raincoat, Brannon persuaded her to hire one, and drove her to a rental store, where she also hired a billy. "She wasn't very prepared," says Bluwal. "She knew she was going to get hurt."
Nevertheless, Bluwal didn't panic when she was late, assuming she'd changed her plans. She eventually notified police on April 2 and a search began on April 7 - 12 days after the last sighting of Okin.
TAS SAYS his sister came to New Zealand as part of a belated OE. Most Israelis travel immediately after military service, but Okin had gone to study in the United States, where she met her husband.
The marriage couldn't survive the strain of her pull to Israel and his to the States and ended amicably eight years ago. The couple had no children.
She was extremely close to her family, and lived in a flat attached to her parents' house in a village near the border with Gaza. Her mother Miriam is a nurse, her father Shalom a teacher. Her sister Shira, 32, is in social work.
Okin was also a social worker, but quit her job to go travelling. She chose Thailand, Australia and New Zealand because she thought they'd be safer than more typical Israeli destinations, such as South Africa and India - "ironic", says Tas.
Tas says his sister was open and engaging. "She used to share a lot of what she was going through."
In her last email to Shira, she explained she was going for a trek where there was no mobile reception, so would be out of touch for three days.
When Liat didn't call on the fourth day, Miriam started worrying. The family tried to contact other Israelis she'd met in New Zealand, using her group email address list. Eventually, they contacted New Zealand police and learned she was missing.
THE WEBSITE of Magnus International Search & Rescue Ltd conjures images of a cross between Indiana Jones and MacGyver. "The company provides travellers and their families with a comprehensive solution... tracing travellers with whom contact has been lost, rescuing them from anywhere in the world and under extreme conditions... the company also specialises in rescuing and rehabilitating victims of drug use and cults."
But in person, founder Hilik Magnus is more Moses than MacGyver. In his late-50s, he has a bushy white beard and humble, warm manner. For 15 years, he has led searches in some of the world's most-treacherous terrains, from the Himalayas to Tierra del Fuego.
He is emphatic in his praise for the police, DOC and local volunteers who formed part of his search team. "I have never seen a team working as well as the local team. We have a lot to learn from them, how well organised and managed they were."
Local support was outstanding, he says. The team, from six to 16-strong, at times included police search-and-rescue members, a dog handler and locals with knowledge of the Routeburn area, which straddles Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks.
Even though the area where the body was found had been covered in the police search, police efforts, led by Senior Sergeant John Fookes, should not be undervalued says Magnus. "It's a very cruel job: you are judged only by the results. People should understand that finding at the end, it is the outcome of a lot of invested days of search and you need a bit of luck. Because if we passed two metres, or half a metre away, we haven't got the view of this backpack and we would have missed it."
Tas is also grateful to the people and companies that have helped. "They made it much more bearable. They are the good side to the horrible experience we're going through."
His only criticism is that the DOC hut-monitoring system doesn't flag when a tramper fails to record their presence at the next hut on the track. "It will not bring my sister back, it's for other people. I really hope for the next time they start the search much earlier."
He's hoping to fly home with the body tomorrow, paperwork allowing. In Israel, the family will observe the Jewish tradition of shiva: seven days of formal mourning following the funeral, during which the family remains at home grieving together, cared for by friends and relatives.
"It's the worst thing that could happen to a family," he says. "Now I really want to take her back.
"If that's the reality we are happy we managed to discover it and not to keep on living with the unknowing and the mystery."