Department evacuates trampers

All 120 independent trampers stranded since Monday on the storm-damaged Milford and Routeburn tracks were evacuated by helicopter, bus or boat to Te Anau yesterday afternoon, with no injuries reported.

A convoy of traffic was also permitted to leave Milford Sound at 4pm yesterday, allowing dozens of tourists who had motored to the tiny but world-famous resort to leave.

The road has been closed by two large slips since early Monday and the New Zealand Transport Authority aims to open it by Friday, conditions permitting.

Only one road, State Highway 84, leads into Milford Sound.

It is used by 1 million people a year.

Road-maintenance workers opened the road briefly on Monday afternoon so vehicles could leave.

After the second vehicle convoy departed yesterday, the road was closed again because of forecast heavy rain and the need for further road maintenance.

NZTA Southland area manager Peter Robinson said if the road could be reopened on Friday, it would only be one lane in some places and drivers would have to use extreme care when travelling on it.

Another 100mm-200mm of rain was expected to fall last night, and what effect that would have on the slips was unknown.

Mr Robinson said one of the major slips had been cleared, but work was continuing on the other at Lake Fergus.

Some culverts were still blocked and some pavement had been damaged.

Numerous trees had also fallen across the road, but most of them had been cleared from at least one lane, he said.

"In some places, the speed limit will be down to 30kmh. It will take an extra half-hour to travel from Te Anau to Milford. Drivers need to be prepared for that." 

Real Journeys marketing and advertising manager Robyn Jebson believed her company's clients had been well looked-after while stuck at Milford Sound.

The company had been very busy yesterday diverting tourists to Doubtful Sound instead.

Milford Sound Lodge senior receptionist Rowan Mason said 12 to 15 guests had left in the convoy yesterday.

Mr Mason said the village was now quiet and mainly occupied by residents.

Monday's storm also brought down trees, damaged huts and bridges and flooded parts of the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler tracks.

Department of Conservation visitor asset manager Ross Kerr, of Te Anau, said the evacuation of independent trampers to Te Anau was necessary because the conditions were dangerous on Monday and if trampers had continued to Milford Sound, they would not have been able to leave.

Mr Kerr said trampers had just "waded through" the tracks after bad weather in the past, but the road closure created additional problems, especially if anyone was injured in an accident.

It was safer to keep everyone in a known location, he said.

"There are still some very active slips. One has about 7000 cumecs of material . . . Anyone coming off the track could have been stranded at Milford Sound.

"And people would start running out of food in the huts. They would only have planned for a three- or four-day trip," Mr Kerr said.

Doc contracted Milford Helicopters to evacuate 40 trampers from Dumpling hut to Knobbs Flat, in the Egglinton Valley, yesterday.

A further 20 trampers at Howden hut at the Te Anau end of the Routeburn Track were also flown to Knobbs Flat.

Those trampers were then picked up by a coach and taken to Te Anau yesterday afternoon.

The remainder of the independent trampers were at either Mintaro hut or Clinton hut, at the Te Anau end of the Milford Track.

They walked back to Glade Wharf at the head of Lake Te Anau yesterday, where they were picked up by boat and taken to Te Anau Downs, and then taken by bus to Te Anau, arriving in the early evening.

Doc would cover the cost of evacuating the trampers, which Mr Kerr expected would be "a few thousand" dollars.

He could not recall when Doc had organised such a large evacuation.

Doc had not finished checking the Milford and Routeburn tracks yesterday but had checked and reopened the Kepler Track.

Mr Kerr hoped the Milford Track could reopen today, if the Milford Rd was also open.

A heavy-rain warning was in place last night and snow was expected down to 1000m.

Snow should continue today down to 700m, which is below the Homer Tunnel at 945m.

Showers and rain are forecast to continue on Friday and Saturday.

Aspiring Air marketing officer Tracey Morrow, of Wanaka, said scenic flights to Milford Sound had been suspended since Friday because of the poor weather.


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