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Zane Mirfin’s Wildside Column

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, When the Kahurangi Lion Roared, The Nelson Mail

Outdoors people can have thousand of safe and enjoyable experiences in New Zealand, but things can sometimes turn pear-shaped without warning.

“As I reached the main river I witnessed a huge wall of water, carrying whole trees, as the river exploded in front of my eyes”

Our kids are only allowed to watch one weeknight TV programme and this winter they chose Man vs Wild.  This is where a British ex-military guy, armed only with a knife, challenges himself to survive in hostile environments all over the world.  I had the greatest time snuggling up with four children in the spare room watching the programme with them.  Explaining things to the kids along the way, it was great to see them thinking and asking about survival and coping in the outdoors. After the programme we would
often talk about some of my own adventures in the outdoors and I’d regale them with tales of land crabs in equatorial Kiribati, fishing with bears in British Columbia, living on moose meat with Lapp reindeer herders north of the Arctic Circle, even catching trout in Colorado lakes at altitudes higher than Mt Cook.

My heart as an outdoorsman belongs firmly in New Zealand, and here I’ve had thousands of happy, safe and enjoyable outdoor experiences and episodes. But ones that really stand outare where things haven’t gone as planned and an outdoor trip has become an outdoor survival epic.

Most of my truly gruelling adventures have involved water, particularly extreme rainfall and flooded rivers.  On one hunting trip into the remote Whataroa River in South Westland, we were marooned on a piece of high ground between an absolutely angry main river and two raging side creeks.  Confined to a sodden pup tent for four days in abysmal deluge conditions, it was quite an experience.

With improved knowledge and modern equipment, the outdoors should be a much safer place. Regrettably, this isn’t always so and people still regularly make bad decisions and take fatal risks.

Perhaps my greatest outdoor challenge so far was in Kahurangi National Park, on the banks of the famed Roaring Lion River. It had rained overnight, but the river was low and clear as I crossed at daylight in search of some easy venison before the chopper was due to pick us up at lunchtime.

We had just completed an arduous fishing adventure further up the river on foot and I was feeling bullet-proof. Under-dressed in shorts, poly-pro singlet, PVC raincoat and aknife belt, I commenced stalking around grassy river-flat areas hoping for a deer to show itself, when it happened.

Water appeared from nowhere in a gushing waterfall high on the hillside above the Beautiful River (a Roaring Lion tributary), and in one motion I turned and ran toward the main river instinctively knowing what was going to happen next.

As I ran up the dry riverbed, water rushed to meet me.  Dirty water, mixed with sticks and vegetation, rose alarmingly up my legs.  As I reached the main river I witnessed a huge wall of water, carrying whole trees, as the river exploded in front of my eyes. A shot from my rifle alerted my sleeping companions to my plight as the full might of the storm hit.  I couldn’t find shelter as the rain fair pelted down, turning the forest floor into a swamp. Sitting helplessly under a tree, I started to get cold, and being wet, I started shivering. Without shelter I was probably going to die.

There would be no help from my companions across the flooded river, the helicopter was never going to arrive in such conditions, and the only person who could solve my predicament was me.  I decided to make shelter and came up with an idea of using the numerous tree ferns available. Making an A-frame structure, I dragged two rotten logs together to go underneath to get me up off the swampy ground. I spent an hour or so cutting fern fronds with my hunting knife, dressing the shelter, and staying warm in the process.  At last I was ready to crawl inside, pulling ferns across the small entrance way. Above me the storm raged as I lay warm and snug in my dark bunker.

When the storm abated, I emerged from shelter, and went to check out the Roaring Lion which while raging had become less angry.  Fred managedto throw a can of corn beef and a silver-foil space blanket across the narrowest point in a plastic bag.  It didn’t quite make it but I was able to scoop the rapidly sinking bag up with a long stick while hanging out over the river on a small tree, to the cheers of my companions.

Darkness came suddenly, and I retreated 400 metres back into the forest, but I couldn’t find my shelter anywhere.  Blundering around, I realised I was facing my second predicament of the day and while at least it wasn’t raining anymore, the wind was rising while the temperature dropped.  Wrapping my foil safety blanket around me,I cursed as the old folded foil broke into a hundred useless rectangles.  I spent the night so cold I thought my  chattering teeth were going to crack every tooth in my jaws, and ended up running round and round a tree in an attempt to stay warm and avoid nodding off into oblivion.

Just when I thought I couldn’t last much longer, a pinprick of light through the forest canopy showed daylight was on the way.  Soon the dawnchorus was in full swing as I checked the Lion in the half light. While still big it was clear enough to see the bottom. Bouncing downstream through the chest-and-neck deep crossing with my rifle held over my head, I emerged 50m downstream on the other side, to big hugs from my concerned companions who had hardly slept all night worrying about the idiot on the other side.

Interestingly, Aimee (in the days before marriage) had called home that night while on holiday in France after a bad dream sensing that her beau was in big trouble.

As the chopper pulled us to safety later in the morning, I reflected on the close shave. Since that time, I’ve been more careful outdoors and will always remember the time when I saw the Lion roar.

Zane Mirfin

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