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The last picture of Michael Johnson

  • 05 Sep 2008

Te Araroa tramper Eric Martinot met and photographed the English tramper Michael Johnson in the Dart River Valley, March 12. Backgrounded by the top of the Dart Valley, it's the last known snap of the 38-year old physiotherapist.

Michael Johnson went missing 5 days later, though police were not informed of a missed March 22 rendezvous at Wanaka until early April.

Search teams then went into the Matukituki River Valley, east branch, but failed to find any sign. On April 25, after extensive ground and air searches, a helicopter team spotted the English tramper's body between Lois Peak and Mt Twilight. He apparently slipped and fell in alpine terrain while by-passing the steep Waterfall Pass in the upper Wilkin River valley, south branch, probably on March 17.

The tramper had covered his injured legs, so survived the impact, but did not have an emergency personal locator beacon.

From Dart Valley, Michael tramped Cascade Saddle and on March 15, picked up a food parcel at Mount Aspiring Station. He then set off on what was planned to be a 5-6 day tramp up the east branch of the Matukituki River, over Rabbit and Waterfall Passes, past Top Forks Hut, then down the Wilkin River, up Siberia Stream, over Gillespie Pass, and down the Young River to Makarora township.

The Top Forks Hut intentions book had no entry from Michael Johnson, and after the alarm was raised, police concentrated their search in the

Rabbit Pass area. The first sweeps failed to locate the body because snow probably covered it at that stage.

Michael Johnson was not risk averse. In a long and gradual walking tour planned to traverse the South Island from south to north, he'd walked on

Stewart Island, the Hump Ridge track, and told stories to fellow trampers of crossing a three-wire bridge on the Dusky Track when the foot wire was a metre underwater.

Prior to meeting Eric Martinot, an American who was himself doing a traverse the length of New Zealand, he'd come up the Routeburn, then followed a poled route over Sugarloaf Pass to the Dart River. He emerged on the far side of the river from the Dart Valley Track. Rather than

diverting south some 14 kilometres to cross the Dart River on a road bridge, and gain the track, he'd followed up the river on the true right. He told Martinot he'd tried to cross it a couple of times and retreated, before making a successful crossing opposite Chinaman's Bluff.

He met up with Eric at Daley's Flat Hut. Michael spoke of having taken a course in river crossings when he first arrived in New Zealand - including techniques for swimming a river with a pack on. From Makarora he planned to go through to Mt Cook, then over Fitzgerald Pass, and down

the Copland Track to the West Coast. He'd then planned to head north up the coast to Okarito, swimming at least one coastal river before

heading back into the alps to link with the Waiau Pass-Nelson Lakes route to St Arnaud - the only part of his planned route which coincided

with the proposed Te Araroa route - then the Wangapeka track, the Heaphy, and finally through the Wakamarama Range to Cape Farewell. His one rule, he told Martinot, was not to cross ice.

Michael Johnson was undertaking a much tougher tramp than the route Te Araroa is proposing. He was in touch with this organisation on 23 September 2003, seeking advice. He was an experienced trekker and talking of his "pyrennean speeds" of 18 to 20 miles a day.

He wrote of the Southern Alps: "I'd like to get in among them, but not to the extent of using crampons and ropes. My only experience is with an

ice axe. My rather rough guesstimate for the walk would be four months, roughly following the proposed Te Araroa route ... " He also wanted to

walk from south to north - "I normally like to walk into the sun for the extra backlight colours over long distances ..."

He was told by return email that Te Araroa's route, in general, kept clear of the mountains, which were dangerous without alpine experience.

Michael Johnson then decided not to follow Te Araroa's proposed route except for its Lewis Pass - St Arnaud section.

Page last updated: Jul 28, 2020, 5:08 PM