US backpacker couple survive nine days in NZ bush

Two 21-year-old American students have walked out of the New Zealand wilderness after being trapped for nine days by a snowstorm.

Two 21-year-old American students have walked out of the New Zealand wilderness after being trapped for nine days by a snowstorm.

Police said the pair survived by rationing their meagre supplies of trail mix and warming themselves in hot springs.

Alec Brown and Erica Klintworth are both students from University of Wisconsin Stevens Point who are studying abroad.

They had planned to hike and camp for a few days at hot springs on New Zealand’s South Island.

But authorities said heavy rain and a snowstorm prevented them from being able to cross a river and return.

They met up with members of a search team yesterday after making their way back out of the wilderness – famished but otherwise in good shape.

``Unfortunately it rained and rained, day after day, and snowed,'' Mr Brown wrote in an email to The Associated Press today.

He said the nights were difficult because rain and sleet pounded down on the tarpaulin covering their sleeping hammock and the river roared – reminding them all the time of their predicament.

When they realised they were going to be stuck they started rationing: “a biscuit and jelly one day”, Mr Brown wrote, “and even less another”.

Mr Brown’s mother Lisa, of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, said she panicked when she first found out her son was missing.

“It’s too much for a mom,” she told the AP. “Especially when they’re that far away. I just felt so helpless.”

She had faith that her son, an environmental science major, knew the outdoors well enough to survive, she said, adding that Miss Klintworth, who is studying graphic design, is a strong woman.

The couple’s ordeal began on June 1 when friend Katie Jenkins, another UW student, dropped them off at a national park on the South Island’s West Coast so they could hike in and camp for a few days.

“They were just going to the hot springs, to chill out and study for finals,” Miss Jenkins said, adding that she continued with her own travels and did not realise the couple were missing until eight days had passed, which is when she raised the alarm.

The couple did not take much food – some carrots, rice, peanut butter and trail mix, according to Police Sergeant Sean Judd, who co-ordinated rescue attempts. He said that after three days a steady rain started.

“Then on Wednesday the snowstorm hit and it got progressively worse,” he said.

Mr Brown said soaking in the hot pools “helped keep us warm and slow energy loss”.

It was not until yesterday, Mr Brown said, that the river finally seemed safe enough to cross again.

He and Miss Klintworth prepared for their hike out by cooking up a “good meal” of rice, marshmallows, peanut butter and chocolate, he said.

“We then left and crossed the icy waters only up to our waist.

“We were climbing the mountains under the dense tree cover when we first heard the helicopter we assumed was looking for us. The ’copter never saw us and we walked out just fine and met up with the search and rescue by the road.”

It was when they attended a debriefing, he added, that “we found out what a big deal all this was”.

Sgt Judd said the pair made some good choices, particularly by not trying to cross the flooded river, but could have entered the wilderness better prepared.

Mr Brown said he relied on his past experience of hiking and camping and felt confident in the couple’s ability to survive.

“I believe when you go into the bush you take your life into your own hands and need to be prepared to handle whatever conditions occur,” he said. “We could have been more prepared, but in the end we were prepared enough to walk ourselves out.”

The incident comes one month after three Boston University students studying abroad were killed in New Zealand when their minivan overturned.

The students were driving to a hike at the time of the crash. A fourth student who was critically injured in the crash has since regained consciousness.

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