The spectacular 'sinking' of a four-wheel-drive Landrover during a doomed crossing of the Lake Ferry spit risked the lives of occupants and rescuers, says a Wairarapa offroad veteran.
Tom Barnes, past president of the Offroad Wairarapa 4X4 Club, branded the failed attempt as "foolhardy" and said it was potentially lethal for the vehicle occupants and rescuers who came to their aid when the afternoon drama unfolded on the western end of the spit at Lake Ferry on Waitangi Day.
"Nobody usually tries to cross the spit like that - they're either out-of-towners or they think they're bulletproof."
Mr Barnes, who has been a four-wheel-drive enthusiast for more than a decade, was aware of other reckless drivers who had attempted the same crossing when the lake mouth was closed.
He said Wairarapa offroad enthusiasts widely accepted the risks and rare native wildlife put the spit, especially near the mouth, out of bounds.
"It's just foolhardy. You risk your own life and anybody who tries to rescue you. It's not really the place to cross. It's just foolish," Mr Barnes said.
"You have to think about the wildlife on the spit as well - people forget about that. There are Caspian terns down there and how many of them did they crush on the way over the spit?"
Steve Owers said he had been at the Lake Ferry Hotel when friends alerted him to a group of rescuers aboard quad bikes trying to free the vehicle.
"They took off on quad bikes to the western end of the spit. I missed them driving across at first but a mate said they got hit by a wave break, which looks like it spun the Landrover 90 degrees," Mr Owers said.
"Then they tried to tug it out with two quads, which also got stuck. So they got the bikes out, cleaned the car out and took off, I don't think they came back at all. Apparently two hours later, it was gone into the lake."
Joe Hansen, Wairarapa Department of Conservation ranger, said a crowd had gathered when rescuers attempted to free the vehicle, which he was told had been utterly overwhelmed by sand before being fully submerged.
"The whole spit is a wildlife sanctuary so we're not happy with [the Landrover] being there. We do allow vehicles to drive the spit but try to keep them on one track. We can't have them going all over the show, especially at nesting time for the Caspian terns.
"Most people are good about it and follow the same track but they drove over near where the mouth was closed, which was a bit of a foolish thing to do when the sand is soft."
Lake Ferry bach owner Steve Brooks had watched 4m swells "come up behind" quad-riding rescuers as they fought to free the bogged vehicle before their own became mired as well. The loss of the Landrover seemed inescapable, he said.
"I don't know what they were thinking. From the moment they decided to cross at the mouth they were doomed."
Nigel Corry, Greater Wellington Regional Council environment management general manager, said any of several agencies could become involved.
"There are several agencies that work together to resolve situations such as this. Often the police, Department of Conservation, as well as regional and district councils will work together to find a solution," he said.
People can report contamination of land, water, air and the coastal marine area to the GWRC 24-hour confidential hotline at 0800 496 734.