The New Zealand Herald
Plan to axe chopper shocks
Tourism operators say proposal doesn’t recognise region’s concentration of activity
The tourism industry in the Taupo region is shocked at a proposal to axe the Taupobased Greenlea Rescue Heli- copter.
The emergency service the helicopter provides is under threat as part of a review of services across the North Island.
Destination Great Lake Taupo said it was shocked to hear of the decision, which it said didn’t recognise the region’s intensity of both visitors and outdoor recreation activities.
General manager Damian Coutts said the Central Plateau was the outdoor playground of the North Island with some of the country’s most iconic backcountry areas.
“This naturally leads to more outdoor recreation and, therefore, a greater concentration of incidents in remote locations where a helicopter rescue service is vital in being able to evacuate people, often at short notice and in poor weather.”
Coutts said he had been inundated with calls and emails from concerned tourism operators asking what could be done to save the service.
Jared Thomas, owner of Tongariro Expeditions, which is the largest transport operator for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, said about 130,000 people hiked the route every year.
“Helicopter rescue operations are commonplace. Incidents often occur later in the day with failing light, and often in rapidly deteriorating weather conditions.
“The time the helicopter takes to arrive at the track is critical. If this service isn’t available out of Taupo, it’s crazy to think a helicopter from Hamilton or Palmerston North will get there on time.”
Thomas said the service was already busy, so it was hard to see how a service further away would be able to deal with the workload.
The park is the farthest away from any of the other rescue helicopters that are tagged to take over servicing the area.
In the past 12 months, the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter did 256 missions, and figures are increasing 16 per cent
The time the helicopter takes to arrive at the track is critical. Jared Thomas, owner of Tongariro Expeditions
year on year. This made it one of the busiest services in the North Island, and New Zealand Mountain Safety Council data showed that more people were involved in search and rescue operations in the central North Island than in any other location in New Zealand.
Tongariro River Rafting owner Garth Oakden said a helicopter from somewhere like Palmerston North, Hamilton or Tauranga would then be unavailable in its own region 256 times and, if Rotorua call-outs were also considered, that would increase to 416 times.
Oakden said the number of callouts could mean another region would need an extra helicopter — which would negate any cost savings from ceasing the Taupo service.
“It won’t save money because they’ll probably need to get a second helicopter somewhere else anyway. The proposal may keep rescue helicopters based at large hospitals in the centre of a DHB region, but that ... is another reason we need one here.
“We don’t have a big hospital, so most of the time major accidents are flown to a large hospital in another region.”
The Greenlea Rescue Helicopter is the only helicopter in the Taupo region with night vision capability. The next one is 40 minutes away. Oakden said another critical factor was that local pilots knew where to look for lost people in the mountains.
“They have the experience to know that a lost climber is likely to have headed down a particular gully, and can get in and out of there quickly in the dark, in 100km/h winds and in freezing conditions.
“With the Central Plateau being the biggest search and rescue area in the North Island it just doesn’t make sense to cease the service. It’s a very difficult decision to understand.”
The Government’s review of rescue helicopter and air ambulance services aims to split the North Island into an Auckland/Northland region and the rest of the North Island.
Within the latter, Hamilton, Tauranga, Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington, Palmerston North and New Plymouth would have helicopter bases. Rotorua and Taupo would miss out.