Couple escape dramatic crash as van plunges down bank off SH38 near Minginui

It happened so fast Rosie didn’t have time to be afraid. One moment, she and partner James were gingerly navigating a corner on the dirt highway leading to the beautiful and remote Lake Waikeremoana in
Te Urewera. The next, they were plummeting backwards down a steep 200m-300m bank. She tells Maryana Garcia of the dramatic crash – and what she wants done to prevent another.

A pair of holidaymakers who survived their van plummeting backwards up to 300m down a steep Bay of Plenty bank say they are “just happy to get out alive”.

They clambered and leapt from the van partway into its descent when it was briefly caught by a tree, before watching it smash into the ground below.

Now Rosie, 30, and James, 33, want a barrier or warning sign erected on the State Highway 38 corner where they came to grief on the way to Lake Waikeremoana on Saturday.

The pair had been looking forward to a relaxing weekend of camping at the remote Te Urewera lake, famously home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

“We’d just come through [Minginui], about a 20-minute drive from Murupara,” said Rosie, who did not want her last name used.

“We’d only just gone onto the dirt road and had gone around three corners.

“We were taking it really slowly because it was a dirt road and there was no barrier.”

The couple had hired a modified campervan for the trip. The seats in the back had been replaced with a bed and the handling “wasn’t great.”

James was driving and Rosie was in the front passenger seat. The road was very dry and dusty.

What happened next was so quick Rosie said she didn’t have time to feel afraid.

“We came around the corner and the back end of the van came out over the edge.

“James tried to correct but we went over the edge.”

Their van plummeted down the steep bank until it hit a tree.

“The tree blocked my door, so I couldn’t get out,” Rosie said.

“I can’t even say I was scared because it happened so fast. When my door didn’t open I panicked.”

Her main thought was: “We need to get out!”

“James opened his door and started climbing out but when he took his foot off the brake the car started moving.

“He was half out of the car, getting dragged with it. I was in the driver’s seat.

“James freed himself and I jumped out.”

Rosie and James could only watch from the bank as their van plunged into the bush below and smashed – she estimated 200 to 300 metres below the road.

The couple managed to climb back up the bank only to discover their mobile phones weren’t receiving any signal.

Luckily, Rosie said, a deer hunter soon picked them up and drove them to the police station in Murupara.

Later that day a policeman accompanied Rosie and James to the crash site.

“A few cars had seen the marks on the road and had stopped to see who had gone over,” Rosie said.

Together Rosie, James and the policeman were able to retrieve some of the couple’s belongings from the van.

“It was completely smashed in. If we’d gotten out of there a second later we wouldn’t have made it.”

Rosie believes the section of highway needs safety improvements so other motorists don’t meet a similar or worse fate.

“We think that at the very least there should be a warning sign about the corners,” Rosie said.

“But a barrier is what that place needs, 100 per cent.”

Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency Central North Island regional manager system design Sarah Downs said about 70km of the 150km length of State Highway 38 between Frasertown and Murupara, past Lake Waikaremoana, is unsealed.

“There is wide agreement that it is desirable to improve the road surface, make safety improvements, reduce dust and improve wayfinding along this road,” Downs said.

“We are working to identify the best solution to improve accessibility and safety for the rural communities balanced with the commitment to protect the landscape and environment.”

Downs said a $7.99 million trial was approved in December of tall oil pitch – a bitumen alternative – for sections of SH38 and the installation of safety improvements, which could include barriers.

A police spokesperson said police were notified at 11.30am on March 5 of a single-vehicle collision near the intersection of SH38 and Te Whaiti Rd.

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