Tramper Dion Reynolds found alive in Kahurangi National Park recounts 'surreal' experience

One of the trampers lost for weeks in the Kahurangi National Park has spoken out about the "surreal" ordeal, describing how they came to be injured and what kept them alive.

Dion Reynolds and Jessica O'Connor were found alive on Wednesday after nearly three weeks missing in the national park located in the northwest of the South Island. After an extensive search, the pair were located near the Fraser Stream by a helicopter.

After being checked over at Nelson Hospital, they were discharged on Wednesday evening. 

Speaking to RNZ on Thursday, Reynolds said he had had a "sleepless" night trying to process what had happened to him and his friend. 

Reynolds said the pair arrived at Anatori on May 7 and ventured into the bush a day later.

"We went up the river for two days. We made our first campsite, and pretty much the first time that went wrong in my head is we ended up burning our socks. I burnt three out of the four socks that I had after the river crossing and I was like, 'Oh, okay.'"

They continued on the next day, but came to an impassable canyon. 

"There was no way we could get around this and we looked at our map. What we thought was the waterfall that we had got to, wasn't what we got to really. We decided to go up the hill. We were going to go up the hill and cut across to the track and carry on down towards the lake," he said. 

"The next day, once we had camped up on that hill, the fog had come in and it really disorientated us. We thought we were going to keep on heading east up the hill and in the same direction that we were, but obviously it wasn't." 

After wandering through a forest, Reynolds told RNZ he stepped into a puddle of mud. 

"We kept on walking and I realised we had done a full loop. I stopped and told Jess, 'We need to stop now because that is my footprint. We have just done a half-an-hour circle. We're quite lost right now,'" he said.

They made camp and found a puddle to get some water out of, but the fog kept on coming. Eventually, they woke to a sunny day and headed off to find more water.

It was on the seventh day, as the pair were walking down a gully with only two days' food left, that Reynolds became injured. 

"It turned from a small rocky stream into some pretty serious waterfalls and on our way down I twisted and sprained my ankle. At the point at the bottom of the hill, my ankle was throbbing. It wasn't even the bottom of the hill. We got to a waterfall that was like 15-20 metres high. We just looked at each other was like 'we can't go down that. We need to stop, go back up the hill and just stop for a bit, stop for a couple of days,'" he told RNZ.

Again they made camp, but when O'Connor went to find water, she fell on her back and they decided to wait out their injuries.

"We were very lost at this point," Reynolds said.

"The saving grace was the fact that a two-minute walk across the gully was a fresh, mossy stream that was nice and clean for us to drink and that's what kept us alive."

Throughout it all, he said they were thinking of their parents and who would be looking for them.

"It was a real surreal experience, trying to keep positive and keep hope up."

They began building a fire and Reynolds said about a week ago they saw the first helicopter fly over. 

"We were like 'oh my god. There's actually people out there looking for us right now,'" he told RNZ.

A Westpac Helicopter also came close to finding them. 

"We saw a Westpac Rescue Helicopter fly up the gully, straight at us, no more than 50 metres in front of my face. It just didn't spot us because it was real poor lighting. After that, that really bolstered our hopes a whole lot that there is actually people out there looking for us."

Finally, on Wednesday, after hearing a chopper and making a smoky fire, they were spotted, winched up and taken to safety. He estimates they were without supplies for about 13 days and chocolate bars he was given during the helicopter ride to the hospital were the best "I have ever had in my life". 

Reynolds told RNZ he saw family at the hospital and had pizza afterwards. On Thursday, he is having blood tests, plans to buy new clothes and "continue processing".

Search efforts praised

Following finding the pair, Nelson Bays area commander Paul Borrell said he was "very proud" of the search efforts. 

"This is a fantastic outcome and one that we were all hoping for, although we were becoming increasingly concerned as the days progressed.

"I am so very, very proud of our Search and Rescue team made up largely of volunteers and supported by police."

A Royal New Zealand Airforce helicopter had been used to scan the dense bush for heat or light but hadn't found anything. Dogs, drones and land teams were also utilised to help find the missing trampers. 

Despite efforts to find the pair being hampered by poor weather, Borrell said there was always hope the pair would be found.

"People can survive for weeks on end in the bush if they have got the food supply and a water supply," he told The AM Show.

"As the days go on, you do sort of, different scenarios come to play, but it is more what information you find and what leads you find, and there is a lot of planning going on behind the scenes.

"We don't give up. We keep searching."

Borrell said Reynolds and O'Connor did the right thing staying put when injured.

"If you are injured, you stay put, make yourself as comfortable as you can. They did the right thing lighting a fire to raise awareness, to make yourself visible to searchers.

"If in doubt, take a locator beacon with you and stay put."

Mike Daisley, the chief executive of the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council said the environment was "extreme", "really dense" and with not many tracks. 

"The fact they managed to survive is testament to a couple of decisions they made.  They were prepared and had enough equipment with them. They stayed put once they realised they couldn't get themselves out," he told Newshub.

"That level of preparedness is required when you're going into those sort of extreme environments.  They did have proper equipment it would seem and were well prepared."

He also praised the search and rescue team. 

"[It's a] real testament to the search and rescue team, they never gave up and they never gave up hope.  They did know the pair were pretty competent, well experienced and had taken some decent equipment.

"So knew they were looking for some people that could potentially survive those sorts of scenarios barring something dramatic happening."

He recommended trampers going into extreme environments should take beacons and extra supplies, and said the pair did the right thing by alerting family to where they were going and when they were expected back.