Imagine the scene. A hot summers afternoon. An idyllic stretch of coastline. A beautiful, empty road unfolds in front of us affording vast views of the country disappearing into the heat haze of distance. Windows down. Shorts and jandals. Warm air through our fingers. Perfect summer travelling.
There’s a helicopter on the road in front of us. Brash in yellow and red.
Flashing lights from haphazardly parked emergency vehicles.
Something’s gone badly wrong.
In a moment, we are pulled from our lazy summer idyll, into the stark realisation that someone’s life is hanging in the balance.
Every summer this scenario plays out across New Zealand’s roading network. Paradise becomes someone’s hell. Utopia crosses that paper thin line into Dystopia. In a moment. Just a second of lapsed concentration. Maybe one too many beers at the beach, or the BBQ. It’s summer right? What could go wrong.
These photos were taken on one such afternoon. My family and I had just enjoyed a picnic out at the Cape Palliser lighthouse. It’s one of those points of extremity on NZ’s coastline that seem to have an almost spiritual quality. You know you’re at the end of something. Or the beginning. We were really enjoying exploring this new (for us) piece of coast and soaking up the late afternoon sun. Moments like these are special and remind you of the relaxed paradise we live in.
But our return along the coast was now blocked by the scene in front of us. The local fire brigade weren’t letting anyone past. We had no choice but to sit and wait. We were in a holiday mood. The scenery was still breathtaking. The light increasingly gorgeous as the sun edged lower toward the horizon, casting gold across everything.
Yet 100 yards in front of us, frantic emergency medical procedures were being carried out on the tarmac behind a blue tarpaulin. A white ute. A ditch. No windscreen. A body flung far. No seatbelt? As medics called for ever more chilling sounding pieces of equipment – which were hastily produced from the back of the chopper – it became clear things were touch and go for this man.
After about an hour of this, the injured man was gurneyed into the back of the chopper and he was airlifted to Wellington A&E. I had overheard enough to know his condition was still critical. The 20 minutes it would take the chopper to skim across the ocean back to Wellington would be decisive for his outcome.
Of course, without a helicopter, he would be facing a drive in the back of an ambulance of more than an hour over difficult roads. In fact, without a helicopter he would almost certainly not have lasted long enough to need an ambulance ride at all.
I dont know how things turned out for this man and his family. I dont know if he even survived. If he did, I’m certain Lifeflight was the difference for him on that hot summer evening.
I was a professional photographer that happened to be there to witness their work. I knew it could have easily been me on that stretcher. I got in touch with Lifeflight a few days later and donated my photos to the organisation in the hope that they might in some way help further their work. They were extremely grateful as, understandably, they dont get many photographs of real situations – they are all too busy.
I’m posting these photos not out of a hawkish or morbid interest. In fact, I was very careful to keep a respectful distance. This was an accident with someone’s life at stake. For real. Not a photographic set up. Not scripted. No models. Real people. Real tragedy.
Which is my point. This could be me. It could be you. So this holiday season as many of us take off for the summer, wherever your travels take you, remember this and drive safely. Be a few minutes late, rather than never arriving. Hopefully none of us will need Lifeflight’s services.
Drive safe these holidays.