Tragedy on Lake Tekapo as kayaking tourists die in icy water

TWO young tourists died yesterday after a sudden wind gust caused waves to swamp their kayaks and tipped them into the icy water of Lake Tekapo in South Canterbury.

The men, from overseas, were part of an 11-member group aged in their early 20s who were travelling around New Zealand in campervans and had arranged to meet at the lake for the day.

The other nine were rescued by locals and emergency service staff and treated for hypothermia. Three were taken by ambulance to Timaru Hospital, two in a serious condition. Last night, their condition had improved to stable.

Police area commander Inspector Dave Gaskin said when the group first went out on the lake, the weather was calm. But they were hit by winds gusting up to 40 km/h.

"The boats were swamped and they were tipped into the water. The air temperature when it happened was about 3 degrees and the water wasn't much warmer than that and they were in the water for about an hour," he said.

"I think all of them are very lucky to be alive. To spend that amount of time in water that cold is pretty difficult."

The group, all wearing life-jackets, were kayaking around the lake unguided and had gone too far from shore.

Mr Gaskin said emergency services were alerted about 4.30pm. A local man who had hired out the kayaks made the call after seeing the change in weather. "He tried to go out in the boat, but the waves were too high."

Mr Gaskin wouldn't say if the two deaths were due to hypothermia.

He said some of the group were able to scramble ashore on nearby Motuariki Island and start a fire to keep warm. Others made it ashore to the banks of Lake McGregor.

Local volunteers and emergency service workers picked up the nine kayakers and retrieved the two bodies.

Mr Gaskin said the survivors would stay the night in Timaru. "They are obviously extremely distressed."

He said it was not unheard of for the weather to change so quickly. "Lake Tekapo is very dangerous."

Godley Hotel duty manager Rey Mendoza said he was alerted to the tragedy by a flurry of sirens. Five ambulances were on the lakeshore and a helicopter was coming and going.

A local resident said the wind was very strong in the afternoon and the lake had been extremely rough.

One News named the company the kayakers were on the lake with as AquaNorts.

On its website, AquaNorts says it does not operate on "severe windy and rainy days". It says: "If the status is closed due to wind please understand that it is for safety reasons as the wind is a lot stronger on the lake and the waves the wind create can be deceiving when viewing from the beach. Please understand our decision. Thank you."

When contacted by the Herald, an AquaNorts representative tearfully declined to comment.

Tourist reviews for the firm are positive. On the website Tripadvisor, a visitor from Melbourne said: "Even if you have gone kayaking before, this is not to be missed. The clear blue water and the amazing atmosphere make it a must-do option."

In December, another visitor said AquaNorts offered "the best way to see" the lake. "The instructor is a top bloke and is more than happy to talk you through each watercraft on offer and give honest recommendations."

The Lake Tekapo area, about 245km southwest of Christchurch, is famous for recreation activities such as tramping, mountain biking, fishing, hunting, boating and skiing.

- NZ Herald