Trampers found alive after 18 days in the bush near Nelson 'overjoyed' upon seeing rescuers

Kaitlin Ruddock
Source: 1News

The two trampers found alive yesterday afternoon after 18 days in the bush near Nelson were "overjoyed", embracing their rescuers in a group hug after they were found.

Dion Reynolds and Jessica O'Connor, both 23, were expected to spend up to six days in Kahurangi National Park when they set off in the bush on May 9.

They were later transported to Nelson Hospital with minor injuries, but have since been discharged.

Helicopter pilot Matt Gibb, whose group was the first to find the pair, told 1 NEWS the terrain was "tight" and "steep" as they conducted an aerial search.

"You're struggling to see the valley floor and where you can, it's dark and inhospitable-looking, really," Mr Gibb said.

However, they were "always holding hope" the pair would be found alive. 

Mr Gibb said the pair were found after rescuers in the helicopter spotted what they believed to be either smoke or fog near the end of one of the valleys.

"We worked out it was smoke and just hovered over there and it was fortunate enough there [was] a small clearing, a very small clearing ... where you could see the floor ... so we just hovered there long enough.

"I imagine them scrambling up to this clearing to see us and that's what happened. Jess appeared first and waved out to us, so pretty happy to see that.

"Dion joined Jess ... they were hugging and happy to see us. It was pretty clear, even from 100 feet, they were looking through the forest. They were happy to see us."

Navigator Hamish Pirie told 1 NEWS finding the pair alive was "really satisfying".

"It's very satisfying to think you've actually made a difference to someone and got an outcome that has resulted in a positive thing for a family and for the people as well on the ground," Mr Pirie said.

He and Mr Gibb were a part of a team of four, including two Mt Cook ACR crewmen.

"It just goes to show how being prepared, having the right gear and having the basic decision-making and basic survival skills can make all the difference."

Mr Pirie, who also runs online outdoors store Gearshop, is now looking to donate a personal locator beacon (PLB) to Ms O'Connor for her future adventures.

"Obviously a PLB makes all the difference. It's a useful piece of kit - it's an essential piece of kit - and if you're going to go into the bush in New Zealand, having a beacon is, in my opinion now, an essential piece of gear to have."

He added that they "did everything right" to ensure their survival.

"They stayed put, they had a fire going, but there's always something to be learnt. You know, having good intentions, making sure you tell someone where you're going, when you're expecting to be back and what your planned route is and your alternate route if that route doesn't pan out."

The New Zealand Air Force (NZAF) went to retrieve the pair 45 minutes after they were spotted.

NZAF paramedic Jason Denharder said today that they were "quite overjoyed", embracing him in a group hug soon afterwards.

"I got down to the ground and once the helicopter moved away, I said, 'I've been looking for you guys,' and they were quite overjoyed and that's when they came in and gave me a cuddle," Mr Denharder said.

"I mean, after a while, they realised the gravity of the situation and that's when the emotions started coming out for Jessica."

He said they "were walking around, happy", but were hungry after more than two weeks in the bush.

"I said, 'You guys alright?' 'Yeah, we're fine. Just hungry."

Mr Denharder said while they tried to give Mr Reynolds and Ms O'Connor "quite bland meals" to settle their stomachs, they did receive some chocolate after their journey - a "bit of delight after 18 days."

"The smiles were just ear to ear, especially eating the chocolate bars, yeah."