WELLINGTON - A British hiker said Wednesday he had survived in the New Zealand wilderness for more than five days without food before attracting rescuers with a makeshift sign pleading "help".
James Esbester, 30, went missing last Thursday in the South Island's rugged Kahurangi National Park after becoming disorientated while climbing a hill on a trek he intended to last only half a day.
Esbester said he feared he would perish before a rescue helicopter spotted him in fading light late Tuesday about 10 kilometres (six miles) from where he originally became lost.
"I don't think I've ever felt relief quite like that - it was a tad overwhelming," he told reporters.
Esbester said his food ran out within a few hours and after two days he had to remove his contact lenses because they had become so uncomfortable, meaning he could only see about 50 centimetres (20 inches) ahead.
He cut his arm in a fall and decided to stay put after reaching a clearing, trying to make himself as conspicuous as possible by fashioning a sign out of sticks saying "help" and waiting for rescuers to arrive.
"There was plenty of fallen wood around, so I got some lighter pieces to stand out against the dark rock and made myself a little shelter," he said The Briton, who was on his first trip to New Zealand, said he felt weak from lack of food and wrote short letters to close friends and family in case he did not make it.
"I suppose I was hungry but not in the sense I had any gnawing pains, I was just getting more and more tired each day," he said. A group hiking in the area alerted authorities after finding some of Esbester's belongings on Saturday, sparking a search operation involving more than 50 police and volunteers. He was suffering mild dehydration when a helicopter carrying out its final sweep for the day found him on Tuesday. Esbester said the crew winched him to safety and fed him cups of sugary tea before taking him to hospital, where he was discharged after a few hours' observation.
"I don't think I've ever had a cup of tea taste so good," he said.