De­ceased tram­per’s fam­ily praise res­cue team’s ef­forts

Central Otago Mirror - - WANAKA NEWS - By ASH­LEIGH STE­WART

The fam­ily of an Amer­i­can tourist found dead in a river near Wanaka say they have ‘‘fallen in love’’ with New Zealand.

Al­li­son Willen, who was known as Ally, dis­ap­peared af­ter be­com­ing sep­a­rated from her two flat­mates while tramp­ing on the Gille­spie Pass, be­tween Young and Wilkin val­leys, about 3pm on April 25.

Po­lice said one of the Wanaka land search and res­cue river res­cue teams found the 20-yearold’s body about lunchtime on Satur­day, high up in the Young Val­ley near Makarora.

Her body was dis­cov­ered close to where her back­pack and rain­coat were found ear­lier in the week.

Willen’s un­cle, Jeff Henry, and fa­ther Todd ar­rived in Queen­stown from the United States last week.

Henry said the peo­ple of New Zealand had been ‘‘over­whelm­ingly awe­some’’ and the search teams look­ing for his niece had been ‘‘spec­tac­u­lar’’.

‘‘Our fam­ily has fallen in love with ev­ery­thing New Zealand stands for.’’

The fam­ily had ex­pe­ri­enced ‘‘pro­fes­sion­al­ism and love’’ from New Zealan­ders ‘‘all week’’, he said.

Ally Willen was orig­i­nally from Akron, Ohio, but had been living and study­ing in Dunedin.

Twenty spe­cial­ist teams, in­clud­ing the Coast­guard, were in­volved in the search for her.

‘‘We had waited for three days af­ter our ini­tial ef­fort for the wa­ter lev­els in the Young Val­ley to re­cede to an op­ti­mum search­ing level,’’ search co-or­di­na­tor Sergeant Aaron Ni­chol­son said.

Her fam­ily were ‘‘very re­lieved to have Ally back’’, he said.

Her mother, Michelle Willen, was re­al­is­tic about what had hap­pened to her daugh­ter in a phone in­ter­view with cleve­ on Fri­day.

‘‘I know that she’s gone and it’s just her body, but it’s a body that I loved for 20 years,’’ her mother said. ‘‘I want it back.’’

Michelle Willen called her daugh­ter an ‘‘old soul’’ who had spent month-long stints vol­un­teer­ing at or­phan­ages in Tan­za­nia, Gu­atemala and Malawi.

A third-year stu­dent at Eck­erd Col­lege in St Peters­burg, Florida, Ally Willen was study­ing for a se­mes­ter at the Uni­ver­sity of Otago, her mother said.

‘‘She would want us to be cel­e­brat­ing her life right now,’’ her mother said on Fri­day.

Willen’s so­cial me­dia post­ings and pho­tos of her trav­els had doc­u­mented her new­found love for New Zealand. On March 30 she posted a photo of a glacier at Fiord­land Na­tional Park and wrote: ‘‘Be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ob­sessed and fas­ci­nated with the glaciers here’’.

Per­haps most poignant was an­other post she shared on Fe­bru­ary 23, a quote from An­thony Bour­dain.

‘‘Travel isn’t al­ways pretty. It isn’t al­ways com­fort­able. Some­times it hurts, it even breaks your heart.

‘‘But that’s okay. The jour­ney changes you; it should change you.

‘‘It leaves marks on your mem­ory, on your con­scious­ness, on your heart, and on your body. You take some­thing with you. Hope­fully, you leave some­thing good be­hind.’’

Al­li­son Willen

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