The mother of a four-year-old boy who went missing in Tolaga Bay overnight broke down in tears during their emotional reunion on Wednesday.
The child, named Axel, was found in rough terrain on Wednesday morning after disappearing from his family home on Tuesday afternoon.
Local news source Uawa Live confirmed the child had been found safe and well, sharing a photo of the four-year-old being returned to his mother.
"Axel reunited with mum, over 100 search and rescue volunteers cheered as the crew that found him made [their] way up the driveway," Uawa Live said.
Uawa Live later shared a video of the heartwarming reunion, the footage capturing the moment Axel was reunited with his mother after his distressing 21-hour disappearance.
It's understood the four-year-old wandered away from his rural Mangatuna home in the small East Coast town of Tolaga Bay, located about 45km northeast of Gisborne, at around 1pm on Tuesday. The child had been playing with the neighbour's dog, with the pet returning to its home alone hours later.
At 3pm, the family reported Axel's disappearance to the police, sparking an intensive search operation by emergency services and hundreds of volunteers. The community rallied behind the family, with many leaving their lights on and placing teddy bears on their doorsteps overnight.
Speaking to Newshub on Wednesday morning, Ange Walsh, a friend of the family, said Axel had ventured some 19km from the family home, describing the ordeal as Axel's "big adventure".
Walsh had been on the phone with Axel's mother when the four-year-old was returned by a search-and-rescue crew.
"She said, 'he's just arrived, I've got to go', and I was like, 'no, just hang on the phone' - and all I could hear was this really happy little boy, talking about his big adventure," Walsh said emotionally.
"Obviously mum and dad are absolutely in tears, happy - relieved."
Another family friend, Shinae Twist, told Newshub the child had been found in the bush with a few scratches, but otherwise appeared to be unharmed.
"He's okay, he has a few scratches - but he was so happy to see his mum," Twist said.
"I spoke to her on the phone about five minutes ago - she's great. It was probably the worst 24 hours of her life, but she's much better now her baby is home."
Twist expressed her gratitude for the outpouring of support from the community.
"The volunteers have poured out in masses to find Axel and reunite him with his family - it just shows what a great country we have."
There are currently differing reports as to how far Axel managed to venture. Both family friends, Walsh and Twist, say the boy was located in the bush 19km from his family home in Mangatuna. However, local news source Uawa Live said the child was found 4km away.
A police spokesperson told Newshub they were unable to confirm exactly where Axel was found.
"We're not in a position to provide any further details at this stage," the spokesperson said.
In an update shared to Facebook, Uawa Live said Axel was "happy to be home" but also "hungry", and ate a ham sandwich shortly after his return.
Speaking to 1 News, the man who reportedly found Axel - identified as Peter - said the boy was "very disorientated and calling out to his mum" when he was discovered in the bush shortly before 11am.
Peter said he had heard the child calling out for his mother amid the thick vegetation.
"He had tears to his eyes - [it] brought tears to my eyes. All he wanted was his mum and he was a pretty strong young fella," Peter said.
"Good thing about it is he's all safe."
'The worst 24 hours of her life'
Speaking to Newshub earlier on Wednesday, Walsh confirmed the boy had been playing with the neighbour's dog shortly before his disappearance at around 1pm.
"He was playing with the neighbour's dog, as he does everyday. The neighbour heard laughing and everything was hunky-dory. He went missing with the dog, and the dog came back alone. [His] parents and the neighbour started looking in immediate areas he might have wandered off to," she explained.
Efforts to find the boy were briefly suspended overnight, but according to Uawa Live, a number of volunteers continued to look for the child into the early hours. Emergency services resumed the search operation at first light on Wednesday, roughly 16 hours after Axel was reported missing. Drones and a rescue helicopter were also deployed.
Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz told Newshub the community was standing in solidarity with Axel's family.
"The Gisborne community is rallying behind Tolaga Bay to support them in this search," Stoltz said earlier on Wednesday.
"The community has been out in force trying to find Axel and we pray for his safe return today."
Walsh said Axel's mother, who also has a five-month-old baby, was "traumatised".
"It was a rough night. I was just trying to keep her calm… she's absolutely traumatised. I can only imagine her heartache right now. She's currently out there looking," she told Newshub.
Twist echoed that statement, telling Newshub the mother was "devastated" by her son's disappearance.
"She's beside herself with worry," she said. "Her baby is out there somewhere - it was cold last night, it was freezing."
Describing Axel, Walsh said the boy is "that little bit special".
"He's shy, he's cheeky, he has the most infectious little smile. He's well-loved. He doesn't go from his mum, he's a mummy's boy... he's the sweetest little boy."