An experienced Australian hunter was "one sneeze away from death" after falling 40m into a gully in the Kaweka Ranges, breaking his neck and spending 14 hours in the freezing cold before being rescued.

Joe Prusac, 40, of Melbourne, has credited his Kiwi hunting mates Mark Sorensen and Scott Day for keeping him alive, as he battled severe hypothermia, before being helicoptered to Rotorua Hospital the following morning.

But it was not until he had an MRI scan two weeks later that Prusac learned from a specialist he was a "sneeze away from death" due to his neck and spinal injuries.

The dramatic ordeal began on September 6, when the trio began a four-day hunting trip in the middle of the Kaweka Forest Park, near Hawke's Bay.

Advertisement

The weather was awful, but the trio were hoping to catch the tail end of a storm with dry weather forecast for their last few days.

After being choppered into Ngaawapurua Hut, they split up for a quick "reconnaissance hunt" with a few hours of daylight remaining.

They planned to be back at the hut by dark, and to update their positions on their handheld radios every hour - a decision that would save Prusac's life.

Sorensen and Day went in one direction, while Prusac made his way up to a ridge behind the hut. About half an hour before dark Prusac slipped, and plunged off the edge of the ridge, falling some 20m.

"It felt like minutes," Prusac said. "I thought, 'This is it'."

It wasn't, but once he hit the ground he rolled another 20m down a steep mossy bank, before coming to a rest, 5m from the raging Ngaruroro River.

"I couldn't believe the fall didn't kill me, but then I rolled over backwards and about the third roll I felt the pop."

The "pop" was his neck. A specialist would later tell him he should have died, or at least become quadriplegic.

Australian hunter Joe Prusac with Kiwi hunting mate Scott Day, flying into Ngaawapurua Hut in the Kaweka Forest Park. Photo / Joe Prusac
Australian hunter Joe Prusac with Kiwi hunting mate Scott Day, flying into Ngaawapurua Hut in the Kaweka Forest Park. Photo / Joe Prusac

Instead, he only felt a "stiff neck", and suffered a sprained ankle and a deep cut in his hand.

He couldn't walk due to his ankle, but luckily had his GPS radio and called in his mates.

Prusac was only about 750m from the hut, but it was extremely rugged terrain, and by that stage it was dark.

Sorensen and Day grabbed the personal locator beacon, first aid kit, food, water and extra clothes, threw on their jackets and headlamps, and reached him about 7.30pm.

"We'll never forget the sight," Sorensen said, recalling their mate laying crumpled and still on the ground.

Their biggest concern was Prusac's injured neck, but they also noticed he was in the first stages of hypothermia. It hadn't stopped raining, and there was snow up on the ridge with the temperature plummeting.

They activated two personal locator beacons, but given the severe weather, knew the rescue helicopter would have little chance of reaching them, and they'd be spending the night there.

It was too damp for a fire, so about 10pm Sorensen went back to the hut to get more dry clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and a fly for shelter.

"When I left, I feared he might be dead by the time I returned," Sorensen said.

About 2am he made it back. Prusac was alive, but his condition had deteriorated, with regular groans of pain giving way to silence.

"The uncontrollable shivering had stopped and his skin had lost all colour," Sorensen said

"He was in the next stage of hypothermia."

Prusac said he'd remained positive up until just before Sorensen returned.

"I was in a bad way. They'd wrapped me in a foil blanket, given me painkillers, and I couldn't feel the pain anymore - that was the scary part. I lost all feeling.

"I kept drifting off, and was just trying to stay awake.

"I started to think I might not make the night, started to think about my family in Australia, my wife Marie and my parents, and what it would do to all of them if I didn't make it.

"When Mark got back it was a huge relief."

His mates fed him lollies to keep his energy up, and tried to keep him awake by cracking jokes and staying positive.

They got him into dry clothes, into a sleeping bag and propped him on to a mat under a fly to keep him as dry as possible.

East Kaweka Helicopters (pictured) flew hunters Joe Prusac, Scott Day and Mark Sorensen, into Ngaawapurua DoC Hut on September 13, 2018, in the Kaweka Forest Park. Photo / Mark Sorensen
East Kaweka Helicopters (pictured) flew hunters Joe Prusac, Scott Day and Mark Sorensen, into Ngaawapurua DoC Hut on September 13, 2018, in the Kaweka Forest Park. Photo / Mark Sorensen

But by then Sorensen and Day were cold too from the persistent rain. To stay warm through the night they did squats, and even the odd spoon.

About 7.30am, with it still raining and Prusac fading, they were starting to feel desperate, until they heard the sound of a chopper thumping down the valley.

"That sound, of the chopper coming up the valley, I'll never forget it," Sorensen said.

Five minutes later Prusac was being winched to safety and heading straight to Rotorua Hospital.

"It was such a massive relief, I can't explain the feeling," Prusac said.

"It was like being tortured for 14 hours, then knowing you were in safe hands."

Scans at Rotorua Hospital showed Prusac had two broken vertebrae in his neck.

Sorensen and Day were picked up by their own chopper the following day, and caught up with their mate at Rotorua Hospital.

"They said I'd be fine, and would just have to wear a neck brace for six weeks," Prusac said.

But two weeks later Prusac saw a neck specialist back in Melbourne who, after looking at X-rays and an MRI scan, said he was shocked Prusac was alive, let alone walking.

"He said, 'When I see these scans the people are either dead or quadriplegic'," Prusac said.

"That is when it hit me hard. [The specialist] said the fact I was walking around, and had no tingling, was a miracle. He said I was 'one sneeze away from death or being quadriplegic'."

Mark Sorensen's Stony Creek down jacket that saved the life of his mate Joe Prusac, who was suffering severe hypothermia. Paramedics had to cut it off Prusac. Photo / Mark Sorensen
Mark Sorensen's Stony Creek down jacket that saved the life of his mate Joe Prusac, who was suffering severe hypothermia. Paramedics had to cut it off Prusac. Photo / Mark Sorensen

Not only were the two vertebrae fractured but one was dislocated and was putting pressure on the spinal cord. Prusac went straight into emergency surgery and saw his fractured vertebrae fused and wired together, with another five days in hospital.

Two weeks later Prusac was recovering well, with another month in a neck brace before starting rehabilitation.

Prusac, who has been hunting "since I could walk", said the accident happened "so fast".

"I've been on thousands of hunting trips, been in much gnarlier country than that. It was just super unlucky."

Prusac said without his mates he didn't think he'd be alive.

"From the moment I called in on the radio, they were staying positive, and doing everything they could. There was no hesitation, even though they were cold, and wet, putting their own lives on the line. They saved my life."

Search and Rescue coordinator Wayne Steed said the hunters did everything right given the "atrocious" conditions.

"Normally we would have helicoptered in that night from Napier but the weather was atrocious."

A personal locator beacon used in the rescue of Australian hunter Joe Prusac in the Kaweka Forest Park. Photo / Mark Sorensen
A personal locator beacon used in the rescue of Australian hunter Joe Prusac in the Kaweka Forest Park. Photo / Mark Sorensen

The following morning with the weather not letting up, they decided to try and fly in from the Taupō side with the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter, with a ground crew as back-up.

"If the chopper couldn't get in it would have been at least a day before we could have reached him. These guys did really well, they had all the right gear and kept him alive."

Steed said the Kaweka ranges were "rugged", and only for experienced hunters and trampers.

"Anybody heading in there should have the right gear, and a personal locator beacon. It would have been a different story if they didn't have that safety equipment."

Sorensen, who has been hunting for over 25 years, said the ordeal highlighted the importance of being prepared for the worst, and having the right gear.

"The week before we went in I bought some top quality clothes, super warm and waterproof - they probably saved his life."

Sorensen also stressed the importance of carrying radios and a personal locator beacon.

"They are pricey, but they are lifesavers."

It hadn't put them off hunting, and they were already thinking about a "redemption hunt".

"We have to get back in and tick it off, but we might try it in summer next time," Sorensen said.