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West Coast police search and rescue co-ordinator constable Jim Marsh said the 34-year-old German man -- injured and stuck on top of the steep and slippery Reids Fall chute above a 100m precipice -- was "really, really lucky" someone had heard his cries and took the time to see where they were coming from.
The man was clinging to a piece of rigging at the top of the flume to stop himself from sliding over the edge. He could barely be seen from the lookout at Candys Bend, let alone the State highway 73 directly beneath the chute.
"Two people were up on the lookout and could hear some faint calls for help and took ages to work out where it was (coming from)," Mr Marsh said.
In the end it was the man's creamy coloured sunhat that drew attention.
The alarm went up just after 10.30am, unfolding in a rescue effort that ended five hours later when the man was airlifted to safety by the NZCC West Coast Rescue Helicopter. The rescue came about 20 hours after the man got lost after taking a hike through the gorge and then becoming disorientated.
The rescue involved Greymouth, Kumara and Arthur's Pass firefighters, along with the South Westland alpine cliff rescue team and lines rescue team members from Christchurch.
Shortly after 2pm lines rescue and alpine cliff rescue team members were lowered from above to reach the man. They secured him and lowered him down the flume to give better position for the helicopter to winch him off just before 3pm. The man was then flown to Christchurch Hospital, where he was being prepared late this morning for surgery for leg and arm injuries.
Rescue helicopter pilot Stu Gorrie described the rescue as "precarious".
Mr Marsh said the man had parked in a layby near Candys Bend on Sunday afternoon.
"He's wandered off the track to take some photographs and got disorientated ... he got disorientated in the bush during the afternoon, so couldn't find his way out."
In a panicked state towards dusk he fell about 50m in Reid Creek, "bouncing" down the side of the falls area and suffering numerous fractures, including to his arms and legs. The fall was not a straight one and the injured man was unable to climb back up.
Thinking he might get down to the road the badly injured man crawled a couple of hundred metres down the Reid Falls to emerge on the steeply pitched concrete flume.
The flume carries the waterfall across the top of the highway.
"He basically crawled into there and realised he was going to die if he went down there. He managed to find an old piece of rigging or rope in there and held on," Mr Marsh said.
That piece of rigging effectively saved the man from slipping.
Rescuers found the man conscious, despite his traumatic injuries, when they reached him about 2pm.
Mr Marsh said the man really owed his rescue to two unidentified travellers who reported his predicament.
"He would never have been seen. They've got a big part to play in it. If they hadn't bothered ... we would have been none the wiser. Another night on that flume and he would have been dead or washed down. Another night, he would have been gone. He's a pretty lucky guy."
Mr Marsh said police had heard nothing to suggest the man had walked past any warning signs, despite another media report to that effect.
- Brendon McMahon