Someone’s brothers, someone’s sons

Below is the text of an address delivered by former Sergeant-Major of the New Zealand Army, Bob Davies, at the Onward Bar in Taupo on ANZAC Day 2021.

“This morning I will to relate to you an action that upheld the finest traditions of one of the New Zealand Army’s premier fighting units, the 1st Battalion, the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, the only battalion that has added a Battle Honour to its colours since World War 2. Unlike most stories this Anzac Day though this is not one about combat in far-flung fields. It is a story that played out very close to here some thirty years ago. A story as epic as any that will be told this Anzac Day and unfortunately a story too few in New Zealand know much about. It is a story about two senior soldiers and another young man who demonstrated they are cut from the same cloth that the finest of this Regiment has seen. These soldiers were involved in an incident that claimed more lives than any other single action since WW2.

On the morning of Thursday 9 August 1990, 10 soldiers from B Company, 1 RNZIR, together with a Naval rating and two instructors from the Army Adventurous Training Centre, commenced a mountaineering course on Mount Ruapehu. 13 personnel departed Waiouru Camp that morning. Only seven returned.

The weather on the 9th of August was very good, with clear skies and light winds. The group spent the first day, a Thursday, climbing to the summit and conducted some practical training.On Friday, the group spent the day constructing two snow caves and a snow dome and then slept that night in those shelters. The next morning, Saturday, the weather deteriorated significantly, with very strong northerly winds and very low visibility. The group remained sheltering in their snow caves for a second night. On the following day (Sunday), the decision was made by the instructors to move back to the Dome Shelter. It was from then on that serious difficulties began to develop.

On leaving the shelter of their snow caves, the group was exposed to the full force of the storm that had now developed. Visibility was reduced to a few meters and the wind had significantly increased to an estimated strength of around 150kph; strong enough to lift members of the group off the ground. The decision was made to halt and attempts made to dig trenches and use the packs to provide some shelter from the wind. The group was now on the flat Col, approximately 200 meters from the Dome Shelter; probably the most exposed position on the mountain at that time.

After remaining in this location for two to three hours, a second, unsuccessful attempt was made to find the Dome Shelter. It was then that the first hypothermic cases became apparent. The group stopped whilst casualties were attended to and attempts were made to construct a snow shelter. This proved impossible due to the ferocity of the storm. The group then attempted to “dig in” in that location. At this point, two members of the group were hypothermic, one was suffering from frost bite and a number of others close to exhaustion. A decision was made to seek assistance and the senior instructor, Sgt Snowden, together with Pte Brendon Burchell, departed down the mountain. The time was now approximately 1630hrs.

Throughout that night, the storm continued with the same ferocious intensity. By this time, the soldiers were without any experienced leadership, as the lone instructor left on the mountain had become non-effective. Ptes David Stewart and Sonny Te Rure (now known as Sonny Tavake) constantly moved about the group, offering encouragement and attempting to alleviate the suffering by giving over some of their own clothing and equipment. They were assisted in their efforts by LCpl Culloty and Pte Berger.

In the words of LCpl Culloty “….word filtered back that an instructor had gone for help and for the remainder to break out their sleeping bags. By the time this reached Pte’s Stewart, Tavake, and myself, those that were able had done so, however 3 – 4 soldiers displaying signs of hypothermia, were incapable of this. We gathered them into a group and Ptes Stewart and Tavake went in search of packs to get the sleeping bags out. This was no easy task as visibility was near zero and many packs were buried in snow that became ice in a very short period or had blown away. Each time a sleeping bag was found, they came back to the group and took one away and put him in a sleeping bag as best they could.

They left finding sleeping bags for themselves until last. They came back to find the last person there (myself) had collapsed. Pte Stewart dragged me to a bag and managed to get my legs and lower torso into it. He then put a survival bag around my upper body. There was by then only one sleeping bag for Ptes Stewart and Tavake as no other packs could be found. They covered themselves as best they could.As the night progressed the direction of the wind changed constantly, resulting in large amounts of snow building up on my chest then freezing solid. As the weight increased, I began to have difficulties breathing and called for help. Pte Stewart leaned over and eventually was able to clear the snow and ice off my chest allowing me to breathe normally. He did this approximately six times during the night. Later, a soldier not far from me had his bag blown away and I got him to join me, and in doing so, my survival bag blew away, so we used the remainder of my sleeping bag to cover our heads and shoulders.

Later a soldier from the end of the group crawled over and said that the person he had been sharing a bag with had died. We told him to go back, remove the body from the bag, and get in, and he left to do so. He then came back and said that he could not find his sleeping bag (I assume it had already been covered with snow). He asked if he could join me and the soldier with me, and I told him no, as there was no room and that he should find somebody with a bag to themselves. He returned a short time later having found no shelter, and again asked for help. At this point, Pte Stewart told him to join him and Pte Tavake in their single sleeping bag. In doing this, their sleeping bag was blown away and the three of them were without any shelter whatsoever.

After this, we began to grow weaker and weaker. The soldier who had been with Ptes Stewart and Tavake crawled over beside my head and began talking incoherently and died. Some hours later the soldier who was sheltering with me became delirious and died also.After many hours, when I occasionally called out and received no reply, I assumed that all but myself had perished. Later the weather, though still extreme, lessened in intensity for a while and I made contact with others and we were subsequently rescued. As we were brought into the Dome Shelter, I was surprised and pleased to see Pte Tavake, and we were both shocked that only five of us had survived. It seemed impossible that Pte Stewart, given his physical and moral strength, leadership and selflessness, should have died.

I have no doubt in my mind that if he had chosen to take care of himself he would be here today. He chose instead to put others before himself and to risk time and again, his own survival to help those unable to help themselves. All this in an extreme environment where we novices were left to our own devices. I would not be here today but for his actions. That is the man he was.

Around 0530hrs on Monday Sgt Snowden and Pte Burchell having walked some 13 hours through the night, made physical contact with an Alpine Lift staff member who contacted the Duty DOC Ranger. The search and recovery then commenced. The first recovery team reached the Dome Shelter at approximately 1300hrs, and on finding nobody there, descended to the Col where they located the group. They found only 5 survivors who were then moved to the Dome Shelter.

In due course a Court of Inquiry was established to investigate the loss of life. Among other findings, the Court noted the “outstanding courage and bravery” shown by a number of the group, namely Ptes Stewart, Tavake and Burchell. In the case of Pte Burchell, the Citation noted that “..Private Burchell not only had to cope with the most extreme conditions but, because of his lack of experience, he had no knowledge of how to overcome them. His courage and determination and perseverance to continue in the face of extraordinary adversity not only brought great credit on himself, but certainly assisted in the rescue of the survivors…” The Court recommended they be formally recognised with an appropriate bravery award. In the case of Stewart that was to be with the award of the George Cross. Under the imperial honours system then extant, the level one award, and now the New Zealand Cross. Some nine years later Ptes Stewart, Tavake and Burchell were finally awarded the New Zealand Bravery Medal, a level 4 award, the lowest that recognises bravery. Of significance, the Citation noted that, despite the dreadful conditions, “…Privates Stewart and Tavake maintained a continual vigil over their companions throughout most of the night, providing what assistance they could.” The Citation further noted that “.. Private Stewart would have been fully aware that his actions in continually moving out of shelter and the warmth of his sleeping bag to assist those with hypothermia, meant he had an increased chance of also becoming a casualty. He was also aware that he was becoming increasingly exhausted by continually battling the elements.” It added that “Privates Stewart and Tavake displayed selfless care of the casualties and their sense of responsibility to their companions testify to their bravery”.

It is also worthy of note that both Stewart and Tavake had spent most of their soldiering in the tropical conditions of SEA from which they had only relatively recently returned. Moreover, these soldiers battled the life-threatening conditions for almost two days without concern for their own safety. In doing so Stewart died and Tavake still suffers from the effects of severe frost bite.

The following are so far the only two recipients of the New Zealand Cross:

On 24 April 1992 Jacinda Margaret Amey was one of five members of a Meteorological Service team, stationed on the remote sub-Antarctic Campbell Island, who were snorkelling when one of them, Mr Mike Fraser, was attacked by a shark, believed to be a white pointer. The other swimmers, apart from Ms Amey, swam to shore. Ms Amey waited until the shark moved away from Mr Fraser and then went to his aid and towed him to shore. Mr Fraser had lost his right forearm and his left forearm was severely lacerated and appeared to be broken. He was having trouble breathing and required urgent medical treatment. Having got him to shore, Ms Amey then joined the rest of the team in doing what they could for Mr Fraser until he could be flown to New Zealand. Ms Amey displayed great courage and bravery with complete disregard for her own safety in going to Mr Fraser’s assistance.

And the second recipient:

On 9 June 1995, Reginal John Dixon, aged 47, and his wife were passengers on Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 when the aircraft crashed in the Tararua Ranges near Palmerston North. Mr Dixon escaped from the wreckage with fractures. However, despite his injuries, he returned to the aircraft to help other passengers trapped in the wreckage. As a result of this selfless action, he was critically burned when a flash fire broke out on the left wing of the aircraft near a hole in the fuselage from which he was helping passengers escape. He was hospitalised and underwent surgery and skin grafts. Mr Dixon remained in a coma, and although he made some initial improvement, his condition worsened and he died two weeks later, the fourth victim of the crash. The situation in which Mr Dixon found himself was extremely dangerous and he displayed great bravery in returning to the aircraft, although injured, to help other passengers which subsequently resulted in the loss of his own life. His bravery undoubtedly ensured that the loss of life was not greater.I ask you were David Stewart’s actions over almost two days not equally as heroic as these two New Zealand Cross recipients? If so why then was he not appropriately recognised with a level one award.

There was another climber on the mountain that day, a Japanese George Iwama, who remained there for 5 days during the same blizzard. He related: ‘There was a white-out and terrible freezing conditions 20 or 35 minutes after I left the snow cave… ‘I couldn’t locate where I was walking and I decided to dig another snow cave.’ He of course survived.

I ask you: was it that the award of the New Zealand Cross would have brought undue attention to the very real shortcomings of the New Zealand Army and its Army Adventurous Training Centre?

I’ll let you decide.

The latest Listener has an excellent 5 page article on this tragedy by Karl Du Fresne.

More to follow…

A day in the Desert

DSCF0024-001Zone 1 of the Waiouru Military Training Area is one place that I never thought I would find myself again…

Zone 1 is one of about three dozen zones that the New Zealand Army’s main training area is divided into; it extends from State Highway 1 to the eastern slopes of Mt Ruapehu and provides an open country manoeuvre and live firing area for Army units. It has been used for live firing since the early 20th Century, in the days before unexploded munitions were tracked and recorded and thus remains an area closed to the public – unless escorted by Army staff.


Hazards…if you don’t know, don’t touch it…these are each the size of a can of baked beans…do you know what they are..?


…possibly safe…but what lies beneath…


…shiny…don’t touch…

One of its claims to fame is that it starred as Mordor in many scenes from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, mainly Return of the King, including the physical Black Gates at the entrance to Mordor and the final battles that concluded the saga. Mt Ngauruhoe lies physically in about the same relation to Zone 1 as Mt Doom did in relation to the Gates.

Today I was fortunate to have been invited to attend a seminar to discuss the volcanic dunes in the Rangipo Desert, with a series of research-based presentations followed by a field trip into Zone 1 to view the dune environment directly. Our group was admirably hosted by the Army – very good to renew my acquaintance with Major Pat Hibbs who I’ve known since my days as a very young soldier in 2/1 RNZIR –  firstly at the National Army Museum, and then our escort as we forayed into the desert.

The four presentations at the Museum set the scene for our diverse group and provided a valuable opportunity to either clarify or raise any questions before we set out:

Graeme La Cock – a synthesis of information on the volcanic dunes of the Rangipo Dunefield

Harry Keys – disturbance role of lahars and eruptions, Japanese research interest generally and revegetation issues, including the disturbed area near SH1 and the bund.

Mark Smale – The age, vegetation and formation of the volcanic dunes

Angelina Smith – The impact of vehicles on the Rangipo Desert, and suggestions to mitigate these impacts.

What did I learn…

Lots…first to remember a pen and paper next time to write it all down…I’ve deliberately left out all the scientific terms because my memory just wasn’t up to remembering it all but I may rewrite this if the morning’s presentations are shared and OK’d for release.

Many agencies cooperate and share research on the dune fields. These include the Department of Conservation, NZ Army, Landcare Research, The University of Waikato and Massey University. In addition, overseas researchers also conduct and share studies on the volcanic dune fields.

Volcanic dune fields are very rare, existing only in Iceland, Peru, the coast of California, Indonesia and New Zealand. Although there are other inland dune fields in New Zealand, the only volcanic dune field is at Rangipo.

The Rangipo Desert isn’t really a desert: it has too much rain…the annual rainfall in Waiouru is around 1200mm, and on Mt Ruapehu around 2400mm, actually quite wet by New Zealand standards and certainly well above that for any definition of desert to stand.


If not technically a desert – even though it may appear like one to the untrained eye i.e. lots of sand – it most definitely does qualify as a dune field, basically an area of shifting sands forming terrain features.

It is not considered that the military use of the area over the last 100 years has affected it one way or another. Although Zone 1 has been and still is used as an impact area for artillery, bombs and rockets, and is a manoeuvre area for armoured vehicles ranging from 17 tonnes (NZLAV) to 50 tons (Centurion) it does not appear any different visually from the adjacent section of the dune field that lies within Tongariro National Park. The theory is that the whole area i.e. the surface, is so unstable anyway that the impacts of shells and vehicles is actually negligible compared to the effects of wind and rain, snow and ice.

Because the dunes are constantly changing it is very difficult to measure their age. This is complicated in Zone 1 because the very real risk of buried unexploded munitions prevents digging and core-sampling. One of the recent studies found that the best way to tell the age of a dune is by measuring the age of the vegetation on it…


Some of the more mature trees in the dune field although only 3-4 metres high, and 3-400 years old

The event that has had the most impact on the Rangipo area was the Taupo eruption some time between 182 and 250AD. It is not really known what this area was like before this eruption but it was certainly scoured clear of vegetation as a result. Since that event, man-made fire has probably been the biggest impactor on the state of the dune field, with periodic large lahars, on average about every 500 years or so, having the next most impact.

The dunefield is slowly expanding north and no one is quite sure why …

The dune field is a rugged challenging one for plant life and there is a clear succession that starts with growths like this…


…around which the sand drifts and builds up. simple grasses like bristle tussock may then develop followed slowly, often over years or decades by more complex vegetation.


It is a harsh unforgiving process…as dunes the surface is constantly shifting: the risk to developing vegetation is that it may be simply buried under the shifting sands, or have the sand around it uncut, exposing its roots…


…either way not good for ongoing survival…

Even though there are substantial beech forests only a few kilometres away, the beech forest will probably not regenerate in the dune field because a fungus necessary to its growth is not in the soil there and is very difficult – read, close to impossible – to establish artificially.

The desired future for the Rangipo dune field is for it to regenerate naturally i.e. to its pre-settlement state. Replanting is not considered necessary, more a tool of last resort and it is considered of greater benefit to focus conservation efforts on the control of invasive weeds and pest animals like deer, rabbits, hares and possums.

The Army conducts its own pest control programmes across the Training Area, all 63,000 hectares of it, targeting pests like possums, rabbits and hares, and invasive weeds like the various forms of weed pines. Because the Area has an 85% usage rate – there were only three days this month in which we were able to get into Zone 1 for this study trip – and due to the number of hazards on and under the ground, much of this work is done by helicopter. As a part of this programme, the Army is also investigating source vectors for invasive weeds and sharing the results of this work.


Smoko and networking


The road home…

In another life, I trudged all over the dunes ‘by day and by night, regardless of season, weather or terrain’…environmentally then, my main concern was the fine grit that, when wet, would stick to everything…one particle being all it took to convert rifle into not much more than a blunt instrument…none of us back then had any notion of the rarity, vulnerability or real harshness of this unique environment…I’m glad of this one last wander in my old stamping grounds…