The Taupo district is one of the busiest places in New Zealand for search and rescue operations, thanks to its lake, mountains, back country and visitor numbers. Laurilee McMichael takes a look at how people can keep themselves safe in the district's outdoors.

A group of students stumbling along Mt Tongariro in a blizzard, with no idea where they were.

A German tourist who collapsed and died from natural causes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Two sets of hikers who slipped on ice. A jetskier floating on Lake Taupo. A search for an elderly man with Alzheimer's.

Those were just some of 2016's 109 search and rescue operations in the Taupo area, and with the start of the roar and the colder weather, the callouts are expected to soon become more frequent.

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What's frustrating however, is that a lot of time, energy, volunteer hours and misery in the outdoors could be avoided if people took basic precautions, says Taupo Police Senior Constable Barry Shepherd.

And with Easter this weekend, plus the beginning of the hunting roar and then duck-shooting season starting in May, he's expecting an increase in the number of people in the outdoors needing rescuing. Falling temperatures also contribute to the number of people getting into difficulty in the outdoors.

An analysis of rescues in 2016 shows there were common themes to most of them. Mr Shepherd says although anyone can become injured while in the outdoors, many situations can and should be avoidable.

The number of search and rescue operations, especially land-based ones, has remained relatively constant over the 27 years he's been involved in search and rescue.

Local search and rescue operations are logged as occurring in the Taupo police area, which stretches from Lake Arapuni in the north to the summit of the Desert Rd, and from Pureora Forest in the west to Pohokura Rd off the Napier-Taupo highway in the east.

However the majority take place in either the Tongariro National Park or the Kaimanawa Ranges. Of the operations in the Tongariro National Park, the biggest proportion by far are those that are on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing Search and Rescue (SAR) Operations July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2016.

Lowest number of callouts: year ended June 30, 2011: 9 SAR callouts, 12 people involved including seven tourists
Highest number of callouts: year ended June 30, 2016: 40 SAR callouts (one fatal due to a medical event), 55 people involved including 39 tourists.

Mr Shepherd says when you consider that numbers of people walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing have ballooned from 80,000 to 120,000 per annum over the last three years, the number of those requiring help or rescue is a tiny percentage -- about 0.04 per cent.

"The numbers [rescued] are minuscule compared to the number of people using it. Out of 120,000 we probably assist 40 a year."

Senior Constable Barry Shepherd of Taupo Police has seen hundreds of search and rescue operations over the 27 years he's been involved in search and rescue.
Senior Constable Barry Shepherd of Taupo Police has seen hundreds of search and rescue operations over the 27 years he's been involved in search and rescue.

But because the mountains can be so unforgiving, mistakes can be deadly. Only last month police received a call for help from a couple in their 70s who had been walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with their middle-aged son. The woman fell over early in the day and lost her confidence.

But instead of turning around, the trio kept going. Although they started at 9am, they did not finish until after midnight.

Their accommodation provider, who had been keeping a lookout for them, raised the alarm and a search and rescue team went in to find them.

They were lucky that the weather was not cold or wet, but the outcome could have been very different, and as autumn progresses those situations become more and more dangerous, Mr Shepherd says.

One common mistake he sees is groups getting separated, with people not knowing where the others are. The other is being fixated on completing, even when it's obvious that things aren't going well.

"It's a 19km alpine walk over a mountain. It's not a walk in the town park. If you're not to the summit of Red Crater by a reasonable time you need to turn back."

When it comes to injuries on the crossing, Kiwis and tourists tend to get injured in about equal numbers. But tourists have more near misses because they tend to take longer than they anticipate and are less likely to plan ahead. Mr Shepherd says some visitors have no idea where they're going, haven't taken the trouble to at least learn the names of the beginning and end points and may have no idea where they've even left their car.

"In general it would be tourists that are just blissfully unaware of how far and how long it takes. There's a lot of near misses."

Two boys whose dingy capsized on Lake Taupo in 2014 were rescued after they were able to call for help on a mobile phone. PICTURE: GREENLEA RESCUE HELICOPTER
Two boys whose dingy capsized on Lake Taupo in 2014 were rescued after they were able to call for help on a mobile phone. PICTURE: GREENLEA RESCUE HELICOPTER

Bhrent Guy of the Conservation Department at Whakapapa says tourists often have different ideas about what taking the right gear means. A raincoat, to a Kiwi, generally means a waterproof jacket.

To an overseas visitor, that might mean a see-through plastic poncho. Sturdy footwear, to a Kiwi, means tramping boots. A tourist might interpret it as a pair of sneakers. The best way to avoid confusion is to check with a local before heading out.

Wherever you are in the outdoors, Mr Shepherd says a simple way to avoid a search team having to be sent out to find someone who's overdue or missing is for them to take a personal locator beacon (PLB), even if it's just a day trip. It's extra important if you're alone.

A February rescue of two kayakers on the Tauranga-Taupo River after one was badly injured could have been made a lot quicker and less stressful if the men -- one of whom owned a PLB but hadn't taken it along -- had been able to activate a PLB.

"If everyone who went into the back country took a map, compass, PLB and GPS it would actually make life easier ... if you take all the tools then when you're having a bad day, you can use them.

"If you're going solo, carry your PLB in your pocket or somewhere on your person because if you become separated from your pack, you may not be able to get to it to set it off."

Top tips if you're heading out on the water

1. Wear a lifejacket
2. Take two forms of communication
3. Watch the weather
4. Tell someone where you're going and when you'll be back

He says some people in difficulty who carry PLBs are reluctant to use them, knowing that a search will be activated, but says it is better to set them off earlier -- preferably in daylight -- than wait too long. Then they can be rescued before the situation escalates.

"The advice is that you should activate your beacon sooner rather than later if you're in the poo, especially if it's still daylight."

If it's after dark and you've activated your beacon or are awaiting rescue and there's a chopper coming, use something bright to make yourself more visible, Mr Shepherd says. At night, a cellphone light, head lamp, torch, or a fire all help pinpoint your location when a helicopter is searching in the dark.

Maritime NZ operates the New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre and last year it set up a MEOSAR station between Rotorua and Taupo. The station, which is a joint project between Maritime NZ and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, is capable of picking up a PLB signal within just a few minutes.

Maritime NZ spokesman Mark Dittmer says a PLB proved its worth in January when a group of people was swept down a river in the South Island. One person managed to get up the bank and set off a beacon. The signal was picked up by MEOSAR and a rescue helicopter was dispatched to them inside an hour.

Beacons have come down in price and people who spend a lot of time in the outdoors are increasingly buying their own, but they can also be rented for a low cost, Mr Dittmer said. In Taupo, they can be rented from Hunting & Fishing.

In 2016 there was a wide range of search and rescues in the Taupō district. They included:

■ January: the rescue of a jetskier on Lake Taupō. The rescue of two lost cyclists in Pureora Forest Park who activated a personal locator beacon.
■ July: The search for an elderly man with Alzheimer's lost near Taupō.
■ August: Two sets of hikers who slipped on ice on Mt Tongariro and became stranded and unable to move.
■ October: a group of Hamilton students plucked from the side of Mt Tongariro in freezing conditions after they became separated from the rest of their group and took a wrong turn in heavy fog and snow.
■ October: a French tourist who became lost on a track in the Waihaha area.
■ December: a lost hunter in the Kaimanawa Ranges.


People should activate their beacon if needed, and in most cases, people were making sensible decisions about when to do so. Find a clear area to set it off, stay in one place, and arranging a signal such as bright clothing if possible, he said.

On the water, Lake Taupo Harbourmaster Philip King says the number of rescues on the lake has fallen over recent years, despite growing numbers of people out in boats. It's something he puts down to a huge amount of work by a lot of people and agencies such as Coastguard, Maritime NZ, Water Safety NZ, Surf Lifesaving New Zealand and regional harbourmasters to raise awareness of water safety.

"If you take a snapshot of boating from a decade ago to now, the awareness around lifejacket wearing, two forms of communication and watching the weather has improved ... there's a whole lot more responsibility being taken,' Mr King said. Safety equipment is also more readily available and likely to be used.

If people did get into difficulty, more lake users meant more likelihood of somebody nearby able to help.

"We're also really blessed to have Coastguard units at both ends of the lake with volunteers who go out day and night in all conditions."


Thinking of walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? Key advice:
■ If you're in a group, don't split up. Start together, stick together, finish together.
■ Train properly - walking around town is insufficient training for a mountain crossing.
■ Seek local advice - visit the local DOC office at Whakapapa and the i-Site visitor centres at Turangi or Taupō for the latest updates.
■ Check the forecast.
■ Dress for a mountain tramp and take the right gear - check doc.govt.nz or with a transport operator for what's suitable.
■ Be sure of your transport arrangements - what time you are being picked up, what happens if you turn back
■ If you are a novice, go with a professional guide or somebody who knows what they're doing.
■ Don't bite off more than you can chew - be prepared to turn back if you're struggling or the weather deteriorates.
■ Stay on the track.
■ Enjoy your day - don't do anything that's going to spoil it by taking unnecessary risks.
■ If you are going up Mt Ngauruhoe, wear a helmet. People have been injured, sometimes badly, by falls or by others dislodging rocks above them.
SOURCE: NZ POLICE & DOC
Search and Rescue ops Taupo area

The Taupō police area covers from Tirau south to the summit of the Desert Rd and from Pureora east to the Napier Taupō Road, however the majority of search and rescue operations in the area take place in the Tongariro National Park and the Kaimanawa Ranges. About one-quarter of its operations are on the water, usually Lake Taupō.
The number of SAR operations has remained relatively stable from 1 July 2004 to June 30, 2016, with most years sitting at approximately 90 SAR operations. The lowest number of operations was 72 in the year ending June 30, 2015 and the highest, 109, was in the year ended June 30, 2016.