July 23, 2016 – Lorna Mohi-Roberts and four of her nephews and nieces went for a bush walk on Tuesday expecting to be about 90 minutes. Two days later they were found, thanks to a relative’s bush skills.
Cornelius Wallace was getting frustrated. His aunty Lorna Mohi-Roberts and four young cousins had been missing in the bush for two days with no supplies and he feared they wouldn’t survive another night.
But he felt searchers were looking in the wrong place. He’d snuck into a briefing and saw search and rescue teams poring over maps, focusing on areas he felt were too far from where the group was likely to be.
He knew that part of Te Urewera National Park well – it’s where he’d go pig hunting. He couldn’t understand why police and search and rescue hadn’t asked locals for advice.
Relatives had been told not to search on their own, but Wallace and an uncle made a snap decision as the afternoon wore on on Thursday: They’d launch their own mission.
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They snuck away from the search base at the end of Matahi Valley Rd near Waimana, at the northern end of the National Park, and entered the rugged bush.
It didn’t take them long to find Roberts and the children, 9-year-old twins and two others aged four and five – Wallace estimates they were about 30 minutes from the road. They were below a track in a steep ravine, between two waterfalls. It was about 90 minutes before dark.
Police confirmed on Saturday that the missing group was found by two family members, but denied searchers were looking in the wrong place.
Family found the missing group but a search team was there almost simultaneously because that was an area police were concentrating on,” a police spokesperson said.
Wallace said he’d been shouting “aunty” as loud as he could and when he heard her reply, “yeah”, it was the “best feeling I’ve ever had, awesome bro”.
He couldn’t get to her though, and a helicopter was sent in to winch the group out.
Wallace can’t explain how he knew where to go, but he didn’t think Mohi-Roberts would have gone far. “I just tried to get inside their head and think what they would have been thinking – I just knew.”
If he hadn’t followed his instincts, he believes it would have ended badly. “They wouldn’t be here”.
DOOMED FROM THE START
The ordeal began on Tuesday when a 14-year-old relative dropped the group at the start of the track at about 10.30am, then drove to the other end of the track, expecting to see them emerge about 90 minutes later. They didn’t.
The child was upset and didn’t know what to do. Her instinct was to stay put and wait for Mohi-Roberts to come out, so that’s what she did, sleeping the night in the van. Police were not notified until Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the group had encountered trouble: One of the children had fallen down a bank and been injured, and Mohi-Roberts also injured herself attempting a rescue.
She gathered the children together and stayed put. They had no food, so survived by eating fern shoots known as pikopiko and huddling together to keep warm, drinking lots of water to stay hydrated.
A relative, who asked not to be named, said Mohi-Roberts did a “mighty job”.
“She dug a hole in the side of a bank with her hands and put them all in there, she took off her coat to make a bed for them, she put them all in there to keep them safe.
“Another night they spent in a tree ‘cos the water was rising, so she lifted them up.
“She talked to them, she made them feel calm … she didn’t panic, they felt safe. Let’s just say she protected her cubs.”
Yesterday the 5-year-old boy was happily playing on an iPad, still excited about his helicopter ride. The others were still receiving treatment for their injuries and mild hypothermia, the relative said.
Inspector Kevin Taylor, Eastern Bay of Plenty commander, declined to comment on the fact a 14-year-old had dropped the party off.
He confirmed there was a delay in advising emergency services and said the incident served as a reminder to be prepared when heading into the bush, let someone know your intentions and take plenty of provisions even for a short trip.