A world-renowned kayaker was revived by his paddling-mate after being knocked out plunging down a 25 metre waterfall near Taupo.
He was later found waving burning sticks next to a fire on the riverbed where he had begun to vomit blood.
The 25-year-old Okere Falls man and his kayaking companion had been dropped off at 3.30pm on Monday at the end of Kiko Road in the Kaimanawa Forest Park.
They planned to kayak a section of the river, including a paddle over the 25m-high Tauranga-Taupo Falls.
Both men are very experienced kayakers, Senior Constable Barry Shepherd of Taupo police Search and Rescue said, having paddled dozens of waterfalls around the world.
“As the first kayaker paddled over the falls, he landed badly, getting knocked out and submerged in the water,” Shepherd said.
At the bottom of the falls the man’s friend was frantically looking for him.
He immediately pulled him from the water and began CPR on the man on the riverbed, and was able to revive him. “And save his life,” Shepherd said.
Without any means to call for help, the kayakers continued paddling downstream.
“On the way down, they missed an exit point but couldn’t turn back.
“With the onset of darkness, the two stopped and lit a fire for warmth.”
Leaving his struggling friend behind, the uninjured kayaker went in search of help.
He scrambled up a bank of about 100 metres from the river and walked about 5km down a forestry road until he found cell phone reception.
Just before midnight he was able to call police and St John ambulance, Shepherd said.
“Wet, cold, disorientated, injured and coughing blood, the injured kayaker had to wait on his own with no knowledge of when a rescue might come.”
A search and rescue operation was initiated just after midnight involving police, St John Ambulance and LandSAR Turangi volunteers.
Greenlea Rescue Helicopter pilot Nat Every said the helicopter got the callout at 12.30am.
As they flew overhead, Every was able to spot the uninjured man using night vision goggles.
Searching further, the crew found the second man in a narrow steep-sided part of the river.
“(He) was very, very agitated and very keen to see us. He was waving some burning sticks to try to get our attention,” Every said.
After letting the injured man know he had been seen, the helicopter then guided vehicles through the forest for about 5-10km to get as close to him as possible.
“We talked them up to the ridgeline above where this guy was,” Every said.
A LandSAR member had then made his way down the steep banks to the river in the dark, “which was some pretty serious bush bashing.”
He found the injured kayaker and they started to walk back up out of the ravine. It was thought the walk would take about two hours.
“We’re pretty reluctant to hoist at night… One of our criteria is whether it’s a life or death situation,” Every said.
But then the kayaker started vomiting blood and it was realised some of his ribs may have been broken during the CPR.
“Then it came out this guy had been unconscious under water, had been pulled out by his mate, had CPR done on him.”
It was decided to get him to safety as fast as possible.
The vehicles were about 100 metres up from the river, with the ravine narrowing sharply near the bottom.
With some of its lights going, the helicopter hovered above the river for five to 10 minutes with about 20 metres of cable out.
The injured man was placed in the harness then winched into the machine.
“It was a pretty narrow wedge at the bottom of the valley – 20-30 feet of clearance between the helicopter and the river bank. That was as low as we could safely get,” Every said.
“Hovering is hard enough during the day. Hoisting is inherently dangerous work on a helicopter… It puts you in a position where you are hanging someone under the aircraft and are in proximity to the ground.”
The injured man was flown straight to Taupo Hospital, a flight of about 10 minutes, arriving around 4am. He will be transported to Rotorua Hospital on Tuesday.
Shepherd says a personal locator beacon (PLB) could have saved the two several hours of distress.
“A PLB should be taken with you in any remote areas for use in emergencies like this.
“Cellphone reception isn’t needed if you get in trouble and the two wouldn’t have needed to split up.
“Luckily these two were so fortunate on this occasion, and they had the right knowledge and just enough emergency gear on them to make it out alive.”