Family remains 'hopeful' father has taken children camping

This is where Thomas Phillips' vehicle was found on Kiritehere beach. Photo: Belinda Feek
This is where Thomas Phillips' vehicle was found on Kiritehere beach. Photo: Belinda Feek
The family of missing man Thomas Phillips and his three children remains "hopeful" they have just gone "camping", as the search for the missing family continues.

Tom, 34, and his three children Jayda Jin, 8, Maverick Callum-Phillips, 6, and Ember Phillips, 5, were last seen on Saturday afternoon.

Uncle Paul Phillips told the Herald, on behalf of the family, there was no gathering, party or occasion and said there was "no noticeable change" in Tom's behaviour.

"We are hopeful that Tom has taken the children camping and that they are safe somewhere," he said.

However, there was no knowledge that a camping trip had been planned.

A keen whitebaiter, an experienced outdoorsman and devoted dad, Tom was in good spirits when he stopped by to visit his Marokopa-based family on Saturday.

The father of three, who home-schooled his children, lives in Otorohanga but would often drive the 70-minute, bush-clad, winding, narrow road out to the coast.

Phillips dubbed his nephew a "coaster", when asked where he was from.

Tom was a man who could easily survive in the outdoors; he could hunt food for himself and provide a decent shelter.

Phillips said there was nothing unusual about Tom on Saturday when he turned up with his three kids.

It remains unclear when the family arrived at Kiritehere beach, which is about 5km over the hill from Marokopa, on Sunday.

Police and search crews have based themselves at Marakopa, pictured, just a 5km drive from Kiritehere Beach. Photo: Belinda Feek
Police and search crews have based themselves at Marakopa, pictured, just a 5km drive from Kiritehere Beach. Photo: Belinda Feek
There's not a lot at Kiritehere; two long-drop toilets greet visitors after rounding the last bend on the dirt road.

It's then over the one-lane bridge to park up and get down to the beach.

The beach is separated by a river mouth; one side of it stretches for about 400m while head the other way, negotiate the rough, rocky outcrop, and you would end up back in Marokopa.

It was a walk which LandSAR teams made on Wednesday, as they again covered the vast and unforgiving coastal terrain.

Search and rescue teams didn't have as much luck with the weather today, with the fixed wing plane grounded. Instead, the search was on foot, in heavy rain and strong winds, while Fire and Emergency NZ crew operated drones.

Phillips said the family was "anxious" and "fearful" for their safety, especially as Tom's grey Toyota Hilux was found parked on the beach, with waves crashing against it.

"Our biggest fear is that it's possible that a rogue wave came in and swept them out to sea. Because Tom was an extremely resilient person we're hopeful that Tom has taken the children camping.

"That's something that he was more than capable of, yes, he was a very resilient man, a capable hunter and he knew how to look after himself and knew his way round the bush.

"It's looking more and more likely that it's not the answer we want."

Thomas Phillips' ute was discovered on Kiritehere beach on Sunday. Photo: NZ Police
Thomas Phillips' ute was discovered on Kiritehere beach on Sunday. Photo: NZ Police
Tom was a qualified fencer but since breaking up from his partner he had been a full-time dad the past three or four years.

"We've got no knowledge or idea that Tom would go into hiding. Tom's mum and dad are very positive.

"He had just come out to the beach. We don't know where he stayed. He may have gone bush in the afternoon."

Tom was the type of the guy who "called a spade a spade".

"If he didn't like something he'd let you know.

"Out here you go hunting and duck hunting and that sort of thing. He was a pig hunter and a fencer - he was immaculate in his work."

As for how he felt upon hearing his nephew had gone missing, Phillips said he was "knocked on my head for a few hours, 24 hours" on Monday afternoon.

The Phillips family said Tom loved to whitebait with his family and they would often spend time with their cousins and grandparents at the family farm.

They were advised on Monday morning that Tom's vehicle had been found on Kiritehere beach and had been moved away from the incoming tide late on Sunday afternoon.

The family said they were "understandably very anxious and fearful" for the safety of Tom and his children.

"It is possible that they were all swept off the beach as the sea was particularly wild over the weekend."

He thanked all the volunteers, including those who were searching as well as those providing food for those involved.

The children's mother was also believed to have been at the scene on Tuesday.

As for what had been found, Phillips said there was nothing significant found in the vehicle or home apart from some clothes.

A friend of Tom's said car seats were found in the car, while the car keys were found under the driver's seat mat - the usual spot he would leave them if he wasn't going to be long.

The friend said if he was going to leave the vehicle for a long time he would taken them with him.

In a statement this afternoon, the children's mother said she was "holding out every hope that my children Jayda, Maverick and Ember are safe".

"This is an incredibly difficult time for both myself and our wider family.

"We are just asking that anyone who might have any information, no matter how small or insignificant they think it might be, to contact police and tell them."

She thanked everyone who had reached out and offered support.

"We also want to pass our gratitude and thanks on to the people who are out searching. It is so greatly appreciated."

Those in the local community helping keep volunteers fed include Kiritehere woman Nora Haupokia and her whanau who had been making food and lunches for emergency staff and volunteers.

Led by Haupokia in the double garage shed in the middle of their large property adjacent to the beach, they were busy buttering bread, applying slices of ham and spooning egg onto sandwiches and rolls.

They've also had hot soup on the go and Haupokia said they're doing it because Phillips' vehicle was found just a few hundred metres from their whare.

Everyone knows everyone in the small settlements, and it's only natural to help each other out.

"We just say 'help yourself, the food's there, coffee, come in, hot drinks. Some of them come down after crawling around in the scrub.

"All we're doing this morning is sandwiches and hot soup."

Haupokia said conditions were rough on Saturday and Sunday.

"This place is always a rough place in winter."

Police expect the weather to be a lot more settled on Thursday and aim to get the search back on track.

Waikato West area commander Will Loughrin said the current weather conditions had not made it possible for either the Eagle helicopter or the Coastguard NZ fixed-wing plane to begin searching today, but search teams were back scouring the coastline.

Loughrin said police were committed to finding Thomas and his children and bringing them home and would continue to work with and support their extended family.

Due to unfavourable weather conditions, an air search could not be conducted.

A team from the Raglan Surf Life Saving Club using inflatable rescue boats and a jetski, began a shoreline search this afternoon.

A rahui has been placed on the areas between Tirua Point and Motunau Rocks in the Marokopa and Kiritehere areas - where the family is last thought to have been.


Must admit that I feel for the mother and hope everything does turn out OK.

As an afterthought, has the military been contacted to see whether one of the new Helicopters could do some search and rescue training ?? They probably have very good equipment on board that would be of assistance in the search.

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter