Wednesday, 11 February 2009 9:47 AM

Aircrew Winches Belgian Hiker Safely From the Jungle

Missing Belgian tourist Dries Stevens has been found alive in dense jungle at Ohe, south west of Mbetikama, some 13 days after he embarked on a seven-day cross-country trek.

A police search and rescue crew winched Mr Stevens from the jungle floor [yesterday afternoon] and he was flown to the Aspen Medical Centre at the RAMSI base GBR, Honiara around 1pm.

Doctors at the Aspen Medical Centre at GBR treated Mr. Stevens for minor lacerations and bruises, dehydration and mild hypothermia. He is now resting before a thorough debrief with RSIPF and PPF officers.

The 26-year-old Belgian man had been bushwalking from the Poha River west of Honiara to Tangarare in south west Guadacanal. He had just started his seven-day hike when torrential rains caused widespread flooding on Guadalcanal.

Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, RAMSI Participating Police Force members, RAMSI military's Combined Task Force and local villagers joined forces to search for the man after he became overdue from his trek and the alarm was raised with local authorities.

An aerial search of the area early [yesterday] morning confirmed a sighting of the European man and his tent near Ohe River by two bushmen who had been walking from Mbambanakira on Sunday.

However, safety considerations in the bad weather forced the pilot to return to base about 7am [yesterday].

Before leaving the area rescuers from the RAMSI Participating Police Force, a senior member from the RSIPF and the two bushmen pinpointed his location. PPF personnel returned to the campsite as soon as the weather cleared around lunchtime. They found Mr. Stevens again and flew him to the RAMSI base at GBR early [yesterday] afternoon.

Acting Commissioner Peter Marshall requested the PPF to initiate an aerial search last Thursday after increasing concern about Mr. Stevens' safety in the difficult conditions. He enlisted the support of the Participating Police Force helicopter.

The thick jungle canopy made visibility from the air very difficult and a ground search was commenced by Combined Task Force soldiers by the end of last week.

"We are very pleased Mr. Stevens has now been located, safe and sound," Acting Commissioner Marshall said yesterday. "The RSIPF is very grateful for the strong support received from the PPF and CTF, using PPF resources and invaluable community networks, to bring this search to a happy ending.

"We are particularly appreciative of the information supplied to us by the men from Mbambanakira," he adds.

"Those involved with the rescue [yesterday] morning were also extremely impressed with the flying skills of the helicopter pilot and his crew. The conditions, involving poor light, rain and steep terrain made their job very difficult. They were determined to ensure the recovery was achieved."

"During this ordeal, PPF Advisors to the RSIPF have maintained constant communication with Mr. Stevens' family via the United Kingdom High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands and the Belgian Embassy in Canberra," he said.

"I am certain it is a great relief to his family and friends, that he is now safe."

Acting Commissioner Marshall said he remained very mindful that many other families in the Solomon Islands are still awaiting word on their loved ones who went missing in last week's floods.

"Officers of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force are continuing to work tirelessly to investigate reports of people missing as a consequence of the floods. The confirmed police figures so far are 10 dead and 11 people missing.

"Unfortunately some of our efforts do not lead to happy endings like this one, but that is the reality of every natural disaster our community encounters.

"[Yesterday] is a good day for Mr. Stevens and his family. We pray for more good news to share with families of those Solomon Islanders who are still missing."

Mr. Stevens is now recovering from his adventure in the bush, however soldiers from Tonga and Australia who led search and rescue efforts with local guides remain out in the field.

CTF Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Russ Lowes said his soldiers would gradually be extracted and brought back to base as resources allowed.

"It is a bit wet out there again but this won't worry our guys - they will enjoy being outdoors together. We are just glad [Mr. Stevens] has been found alive and well."


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