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Hypothermic man rescued from Ureweras after weeks in the bush

A man found trouserless but boot clad, huddling in the foetal position with severe hypothermia, is believed to have been in the bush for weeks.

The Greenlea Rescue Helicopter rushed on Friday to a personal locator beacon that had been activated in the Urewera Range.

Despite blue skies in Taupo, the ranges were covered with misty cloud, reduced visibility and areas of notable turbulence, a statement from the Philips Search and Rescue Trust, which operates the helicopter, said.

A man was spotted in a clearing near a hut, about 150 metres from the beacon's initial GPS co-ordinate and, from above, it just looked like a man with a rolled ankle. But he was so hypthothermic and confused he couldn't reach the hut.

The man was trapped due to high river levels, which were described by the trust as "raging torrents of brown water, and impassable rapids".

He'd run out of food four days earlier and was trying to make his way back to safety.

However, he had to skirt a river at one point and was swept downstream.

When he made it to the bank, he was on the wrong side of the river to where the hut was.

Another attempt to cross saw him swept away again, but he made it to the other bank just upstream from the hut.

"At this point – but still reluctantly, as he didn't want to put everyone out, but in the knowledge that he is a good tax paying citizen – he activated his beacon," the trust said.

"Once the helicopter landed the man was re-dressed in dry clothing and placed in a thermal 'electric' sleeping bag before being flown out to hospital with a very low body temperature."

He could have been out in the bush for three weeks, Tāupo Police Senior Constable Barry Shepherd said. 

Shepherd, who is also part of the volunteer rescue crew, said it's hard to predict what rescuers will find after a beacon goes off.

"When you see a man there huddled up with wet clothes, undies and boots on, you think this is a bit serious.

"He was on the edge of survival, that's for sure."

The man was huddled next to his back pack in soaking clothes, undies and rubber lace-up gumboots, with no socks, Shepherd said.

Some trampers, who take to the bush for weeks, don't bother with trousers or socks, as they're too hard to dry when they get wet, Shepherd said. 

The man told the crew he had been swept into the river three times. 

"For some reason he had ended up in the river and river was pumping. 

"It was wall to wall water. There was no spare riverbank. It would have been because of the rain earlier in the week." 

The tramper was found two days walk from civilisation and on the brink of severe hypothermia, with no food, Shepherd said. 

"If he did not have a beacon, he would have died. Without a doubt." 

Once the crew got to the tramper, he shook their hands, pleased but confused. 

Despite lying 20 metres away from a hutt, he hadn't gone inside – possibly not understanding where he was. 

"He clearly did not have the presence of mind to get in the hut. The beacon was absolutely vital to his survival." 

Once safely in the helicopter, the man thanked the crew repeatedly and serenaded them with a song, despite being resigned to die by the river 30 minutes earlier. 

"Interestingly enough, upon emerging from the murk and into the blue skies toward Taupo on our return flight, we were alerted to the wonderful views of Mt Cook and the Southern Alps," the trust said of the man, who was perhaps confusing the central plateau for the South Island.

"Whatever he was looking at, in a way he was right ... Surely one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen."

The trust said Friday afternoon was a busy one.

The Greenlea helicopter was call out again immediately after the Ureweras rescue. 

"At the same time that we were doing our jobs, three helicopters were attending a car crash near Taihape and the Tauranga helicopter was also flying, as was the Hamilton heli, while the Gisborne helicopter was grounded due [to] weather."

The trust operates rescue helicopters throughout the Central North Island.

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