New Zealand blizzard: 36 day trippers trapped

One of the 36 day trippers trapped in remote Central Otago says the group's diesel supplies are running low, as blizzard-like conditions continue to hamper rescue efforts.

The group, who were on a four-wheel-drive trip yesterday when they ran into trouble on the Waikaia Bush Rd above Piano Flat, near Roxburgh, woke up to the news that their rescue was still some time away.

Gemma Dodds, who spent the night in a 4WD with her two young children - Matthew, 10, and Narzyna, 8 - told the Herald this morning: "We've got a few blankets but it will be good to get out of here."

The convoy of about 15 vehicles was near the end of its trail when it was hit by a sudden snowstorm.

Ms Dodds said the snow came in thick and fast and that even the group's strongest vehicles could not push through.

The group was now spread out over 100m and a number of the vehicles are buried in snow.

Ms Dodds said the conditions were not too bad in the 4WD at first, but then their vehicle lost battery power and it was very cold.

They managed to get connected to another truck and they were able to keep warm, but supplies were beginning to run low.

Police have made contact with the group, who are in a remote area on Waikaia Bush Rd, near Piano Flat, in Otago, near the boundary with Southland.

The group is understood to be near a location known as "Potters", on Waikaia Bush Rd. A person familiar with the area says it is possible for the road to be closed by snow drifts several metres deep.

A search and rescue team is on alert, ready to be deployed when there is a gap in the weather - but as yet is still unable to get any closer to the group.

"A land-based effort is being co-ordinated after extremely poor weather has negated the ability to utilise helicopter options in the recovery," said Senior Sergeant Craig Dinnissen of the Southern District Police yesterday.

Otago Rescue Helicopter Trust chief pilot Graeme Gale said an air rescue was the only possible option at present.

He said snow banks of up to 2m prevented a land-based rescue.

Cloud had, however, made it difficult for the helicopter crew to get in early this morning.

Updates on this story here

"They aren't far off the main road, but they are up at 4500 feet, that's the issue," he said. "The cloud is based down to 3000 feet.

"They are just in the wrong place."

However, Mr Gale said once the cloud cleared the rescue should be fairly straightforward.

As he spoke to the Herald he said crew members were looking at making another attempt "any time now".

He said one chopper that could carry up to nine people at a time would be used to get the people out.

Mr Gale said despite the number of people it would be a fairly straightforward rescue, as no one was injured and they were located not far off the main road.

Overnight rescue efforts were suspended at 1.30am with rescuers just 2km shy of the stranded vehicles and this morning severe weather continued to prevent rescue via land or air.

"They are not in any immediate danger, they are looking forward to returning home," a police statement said today.

The incident unfolded yesterday, late afternoon, when a group of 13 4WD vehicles carrying the people were caught out by a sudden change in the weather and became snowbound.

The group is understood to be safe and well, and although not planning for an overnight stay, were reasonably well equipped with extra clothing, food and water.

Police spokesman Nic Barkley told the Otago Daily Times that staff did not know if the group was affiliated to any organisation and did not know the ratio of adults to children in the group.

"They have warm clothes, food and shelter - in term of their vehicles - but still with young children there, it does give us some concern, in terms of their welfare."

The snowy weather is expected to ease by late morning.

MetService duty forecaster Jasmine Kennedy said snow was forecast to continue to fall in the Old Man Range until late morning when it would ease off.

"There will still be snow showers but it should ease off late morning so it won't be as bad as it is right now," she said.

Cameraman Damon Forde said the weather was atrocious this morning. "There's snow drifts and blowing snow and high winds."

Former Piano Flat resident Selwyn Shanks, of Karitane, said he expected the group to be stuck in snow on a "really rough 4WD track".

People on fundraising expeditions often travelled across the "paper road" and vehicles regularly became "bogged out", he said. "There are massive swamps up on the top ... it's pretty rough country."

Mr Shanks said the road was usually closed over winter.

Vehicles stuck on the Crown Range. Photo from Damon Forde / Live24NZ
Vehicles stuck on the Crown Range. Photo from Damon Forde / Live24NZ

The incident follows a Fairfax report on April 28 about concerns for the state of Waikaia Bush Rd, where a number of vehicles have had to be towed out after becoming stuck.

It was understood at least six vehicles were towed out last month.

Southland District Council roading engineer Bruce Miller told Fairfax the road would be closed at Queen's Birthday Weekend for the winter.

Meanwhile, in the Crown Range, motorists also got into trouble and had to be rescued as snow closed the pass.

It was the first time the range was closed this year, as winter set in bringing the first batch of heavy snow for the year.

The pass was closed at about 4.30pm after about 12 vehicles "slid off" the alpine road and another 20 were stranded.

While five vehicles remained on the range overnight, every motorist was rescued.

The range reopened this morning, though a warning has been issued for all motorists to use chains as more snow is expected today.



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