Stranded trampers airlifted from national park

A group of trampers were this morning airlifted out of the Kahurangi National Park near Nelson after they were cut off by a landslip last night.

The party of three met up with another solo tramper and activated a personal locator beacon late yesterday afternoon when a large slip prevented them from leaving the Wangapeka track.

Bad weather prevented the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter from making it into the area last night.

About 7am this morning the helicopter was able to fly into the area and the group was spotted in bush where they had camped for the night above the slip.

The group was winched to safety and flown out of the bush.

Meanwhile, the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter is back searching the same area after another personal locator beacon was activated this morning.

Also at the top of the South Island, eight vehicles stranded by slips brought down by severe rain in the remote Buller Gorge were freed after being trapped for more than four hours.

An urgent rescue operation was launched about 6.30pm yesterday when the cars were cut off by two slips on State Highway 6, north of Westport.

Heavy machinery was used to clear the roads before the travellers could drive out about 11pm last night, New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) spokesman Ewart Barnsley said.

SH6, between Inangahua and Westport remains closed today, with contractors working to clear it by this afternoon.

Severe weather caused widespread flooding and travel chaos on the West Coast over the last two days, with more than half a metre of rain in some areas.

The West Coast road via Lewis Pass through Murchison had closed, forcing travellers to make a seven hour detour around Blenheim and Kaikoura to get to the east coast of the island.

It was due to reopen late this morning, Mr Ewart said.

Half of the West Coast was cut off when 40m of the 180m-long single-lane bridge over the Wanganui River, near Harihari, was washed away yesterday.

Structural engineers are assessing the bridge's damage today, paying particular attention to what damage the floodwaters may have done to the piers that support it.

They are also looking at installing a Bailey Bridge for temporary access to restore the main arterial route, but a decision won't be made until later today.

"Our contractors are already on site lifting large boulders into the flood waters to try to divert the Wanganui River back onto its original course - that will hopefully help us assess the significant damage caused when the river changed course earlier, and allow the subsequent work to proceed more quickly," said NZTA's senior asset manager for the West Coast, Mark Pinner.

"We are working with the police and local authorities on the coast to get the highway re-opened as quickly as we can."

The NZTA says there are no other alternative routes in that region between the West Coast and Wanaka and Queenstown, and drivers are being diverted east of the Southern Alps.

That journey will have to be made via SH7 and Hamner Springs because flood waters at Kellys Creek and Yorkeys Creeks have closed SH73 - the Arthurs Pass link between the West Coast and Canterbury - overnight.

Mr Pinner says the flooding on SH73 will be reassessed in the morning before the highway is re-opened.

"The closures will add many hours to a journey and we ask that people allow plenty of time for their journeys and drive with patience and care to reach their destinations safely," says Mr Pinner.

SH69 Inangahua to Reefton meanwhile has been closed due to flooding, while SH65, 9km south of O'Sullivans Bridge, has been reduced to one lane because of a washout.

- Kurt Bayer of APNZ

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