Zak and Fizz on the case

In the right place at the right time, Tauranga Boys' College student Zak Jacobs. Photos: Bruce Barnard.

It could easily have turned out bad, could have been a nasty outcome.

But the right sort of people, notably Tauranga Boys’ College student Zak Jacobs and his fox terrier ‘Fizz’, were in the right place at the right time. There was some wise thinking, smart choices and quick actions.

It all came together. A lost person was found, and the wife and mother went home safely to her anxious family.

Zak will always remember that cry for help as the bitter cold and dark descended deep in the bush at the top of Whakamaramara Road 12 days ago.

“When I heard that voice it just made an unreal experience real” says Zak. “It was so cool.”

That ‘voice’ belonged to a 42-year-old mum in shorts and runner’s singlet – good for running, not so good for survival – and lost while on an hour long jog on the Leyland O’Brien Tramline Track on the western Bay of Plenty side of the Kaimai Ranges.

“She was a petite lady so she was going to get pretty cold pretty quickly,” says Zak. And in the gloom it was cold enough to see your breath. He appreciated the seriousness of the situation.

But it’s how Zak found the missing woman that sets this story apart.

“It was well short of lost person protocols,” according to Zak’s hunting mentor Mark Kirkham. “But not bad for a schoolboy.” Especially his tracking skills and his bushcraft.

With no-one else present to take control, Zak took control, demonstrated resolve and initiative beyond his years, and now has the respect and regard of a local family.

“I was taking Fizz for a walk in the bush on Sunday afternoon,” says the nuggety 17-year-old deer-hunting, tramping, white-water kayaker, scholar. The bush at the top of Whakamarama Road is his playground.

He came across a man and two children. “They were visibly upset, the kids had been crying.”

The man’s wife had gone for a run in the bush and the plan was for the rest of the family to walk in after her. She was intending to double back after an hour and catch up with them. She never showed.

That was the cue for an impetuous 17-year-old. “I told the husband I was a local and I could assist.”

Zak helped the man make a call to the police, gave them an exact location. “Knowing they were on the way I went home, dropped the dog off, grabbed my overnight bush gear, alerted Mark my hunting mate and returned to the husband and kids.”

It was 3.55pm – time was against them, so Zak and Mark decided to “go in”.      

“About an hour into the bush there’s a river crossing. If she had followed the orange DOC markers she would have crossed the river and stayed on track.”

But probably because she was running she missed the crossing and followed the hunters’ grey tree tapes, headed down the river, down the game trails where the deer go, deeper into the bush.

“She had mountain runners on so we were able to track her prints for 200 metres but then – nothing, a dead end.” They called and whistled but no response.

Remember they are in dense bush – the light is fading fast and the winter chill is cruel and looking for a victim. And the bush dark is an hour and a half earlier than real dark.

Zak was on all fours with a torch. “Then I got another print, the back of her heel, the size of an iPhone. And the ridge of the tread on the sole. We followed the direction of that print until it ran out in thick scrub. You could only see ten metres.”

The searchers would split up but remain within sight. They would whistle and call. But nothing. A Sunday afternoon romp with Fizz looked like turning into an overnight survival ordeal.

The pair found one last footprint beside a log. It pointed down a ridge to a creek. They followed the creek, but then thinking Search and Rescue would be on the job they cut back up the ridge for home.

“We came on a clearing where some trees had fallen and gave another whistle.”

“Help me,” came back the cry. “We yelled back ‘we are coming, we are coming’.” She was about 70 metres away and building a bivouac for what was likely to be a long cold night lost in the bush.

She didn’t know whether her husband would raise the alarm until nightfall. “So she made a bivvy – she did all the right things.

“She was in good condition. She was warm because she had been active. She had also saved her food. But I had jerseys and food in case she was missing both of those things.”

“She was certainly glad to see us. It happened so fast I think she just shook our hands.”

Zak and Mark Kirkham led the woman out of the bush – past the river crossing to show her where she went wrong. “For next time,” says Zak. And when they arrived at the carpark the husband was there waiting.

“She gave him a big hug. And he was pretty pleased to see her.”

Last week Zak, Mark, the jogger, and her husband met up again. And Fizz of course. The run that went all wrong was relived, a rescue that went all right was relived and everyone was grateful.

But in hindsight a reflective Zak agrees it’s not to be encouraged for anyone who is not bush smart and not familiar with the territory to do what they did.

“Yes there are search protocols and I understand how some people might feel. But it was getting late, it was getting cold and dark and we had to get to her.”

“But for all anyone knew we could have been just a couple of townies who could easily have become liabilities as well.”

Next year Zak Jacobs of Tauranga Boys’ College is off to medical school at Otago University. The bushman-hunter will be swapping his 7mm-08 Remington for a stethoscope.