Cyclone Gabrielle: Dargaville’s plight recalled by Northland surf lifeguards

The death toll from Cyclone Gabrielle has reached nine people as emergency teams continue to search for missing people.
Video / Mark Mitchell / George Heard / Mike Scott

Volunteer surf lifeguards have spoken of the rescues carried out during Cyclone Gabrielle, including waking a sleeping man who was shocked to learn his Dargaville home was underwater.

Fifteen Northland lifeguards were rostered on shifts – in teams of seven at a time – around the clock since Sunday to respond to emergencies in challenging cyclone conditions.

Among them was Whangārei Heads search and rescue squad member Evan Oxborrow, who was stationed in Dargaville on Monday.

While the day proved mostly uneventful, guards were tasked with clearing fallen trees and checking flooded properties.


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The longtime volunteer said floodwaters had caused one home to become an island but no one was inside when lifeguards checked.

”All the paddocks looked like they were lakes and we were thinking it’s going to be on.”

Whangārei Heads surf lifesaving search and rescue team members Evan Oxborrow (left) and squad co-ordinator Dontae Kake. Photo / Karina Cooper
Whangārei Heads surf lifesaving search and rescue team members Evan Oxborrow (left) and squad co-ordinator Dontae Kake. Photo / Karina Cooper

When lifeguards arrived in Dargaville, Oxborrow said the town was still “okay” despite the heavy rain and severe wind.

”The river hadn’t broken yet but it was so close.”


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As they drove through the town, Oxborrow noticed a small wharf was almost underwater.

Whangārei Heads search and rescue co-ordinator Dontae Kake said lifeguards had been told to return to Dargaville before high tide at 7am on Tuesday after heading home to Whangārei late on Monday night.

But at 4am on Tuesday, his phone started ringing.

”They wanted us there ASAP as it was turning to custard,” Kake said.

So with two inflatable rescue boats (IRBs) in tow, the guards rushed to Kaipara.

”We got to Dargaville probably at 5am, pulled into the main straight, and it was completely underwater.”

Kake said they “ploughed” through the water to get to town, where firefighters were waiting for them.

Once kitted out, the lifeguards leapt into action.

”We were straight into clearing the main straight into town, house by house,” Kake said.

The six lifeguards split into two groups, each with an IRB, and walked door-to-door in waist-deep water.


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Kake said they had “pretty much” cleared every house and when they arrived at one home, a man was asleep inside.

”He had no idea his house was underwater.”

After waking the man, the lifeguards loaded him into an IRB along with a change of clothes and transported him out to the road, where they had waved down a passing Unimog to take him to shelter.

”He was quite shocked,” Kake said. “He was very unprepared. He was in his PJs and everything, fast asleep.”

From there, the team waited at the Dargaville Fire Station until they were next called to action within the hour.

The team rushed to help a person reportedly distressed and perched on top of a vehicle amid floodwaters west of Dargaville.


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”We didn’t actually make it,” Kake said.

The guards were hampered by swiftly moving floodwaters too deep and dangerous to drive through.

”But the [firefighters] carried on through in their rural fire truck and made it to the other side.

“By the time they got to the vehicle, the person was gone. We don’t actually know what happened there,” Kake said.

Kake said the teams’ efforts were outstanding.

”Everyone came together – the different agencies. We worked seamlessly alongside Fenz [Fire and Emergency NZ] and co-ordinating with the army as well to use their transport.


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”Everyone was great.”

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