Ten years on, pedals still powering for rescue helicopter

The original Westpac chopper riders leave Balclutha in 2011(from left) Chris Hargest, Phil Taylor, Allan Dunn, Andrew Moreton and Gary McLister.

More than a decade ago, five men set off on a bike ride to raise money for the Lakes District Rescue Helicopter Trust. On the 10th anniversary ride held last week, Southland Express editor Karen Pasco spent the day watching 90 riders go to extraordinary lengths to raise another $100,000 for the cause.

IN 2011, in an attempt to find a way, other than cheeseroll making, to raise funds for the Lakes District Helicopter Trust, a few Westpac bank staff members and two others set off from Balclutha to Invercargill on two wheels to hopefully up the ante from their normal fundraising efforts.

Originally, Westpac head office wasn’t too keen on supporting the idea that was the brainchild of Balclutha manager and keen cyclist Chris Hargest. It seemed far fetched, maybe even undoable, but once former Westpac employee Andrew Moreton heard about it, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

The first aid and repair kit was a roll of duct tape, there was one support vehicle driven by Murray Heath, two bikes were borrowed and the longest of the very few training rides done in preparation, was well short of the 150km distance they set out to complete that day.

There were five on the ride, Moreton, Hargest, Gary McLister, Allan Dunn and Phil Taylor, one of the organisers of this year’s event and the only man to have cycled all 10 Westpac Chopper rides.

Taylor said the ride went straight down State Hwy 1, with a stop in Gore for lunch.

Dozens of pupils from Balclutha Primary School rode and walked alongside them to see them off.

All was going well, until they came to Edendale.

“We were coming down the Edendale hill, I was getting a bit had it, and I crashed into Allan Dunn and I come off and got a bit of a bloody knee.

“Murray pulled out the old tape and taped it up.

“It was a bit tricky to ride with the old tape on the knee.”

Despite the incident, the five riders raised an impressive $6000.

It was then Moreton took the idea of the bike ride and thought it could be done bigger and better.

His suggestion of starting the ride at Queenstown, cycling the main road to Invercargill, was agreed upon and the start and finish points have remained the same since.

The second year, 20 riders did the 180km trek, building up to 60 riders before it was planned that up to 100 runners could take part in this year’s 10th ride celebrations including former All Black Sir John Kirwan and three of the Black Spokes crew, international cycling representatives Aaron Gate, Campbell Stewart and Dylan McCullogh, and paralympian blind rider Hannah Pascoe with last-minute, fill-in pilot Brook Armishaw.

The total raised in the past 10 years, not including this year’s total, is $600,000.

Taylor said including schools had been one significant aspect of the ride, since they began.

Several schools have been drop-in points and, in the past three years, the Otago Rescue Helicopter has landed at Riversdale School.

For Taylor, involving the children was one of the important parts of the day.

The children who make the signs, cheer them along, give them encouragement to carry on and raise money for the cause all mean a lot to him.

‘‘I’ll never forget that one sign ‘We Appppppreciate’ spelt with about six p’s — they’re so precious.

‘‘It’s really precious to me.’’

It was at one school on Friday, when just a handful of cyclists visited Lumsden School, which proved to be a particularly important stop.

In the hub-bub of the excitement, when the children were getting their questions answered by riders, a small hand went up.

A teacher told the riders a pupil wanted to say something to them.

In a small, controlled voice a girl relayed her gratitude at what the riders were doing.

‘‘I had to use the helicopter once, so thank you for raising the money.’’

Needless to say that one sentence provided motivation enough for those riders to get through the rest of their day.

It isn’t just those they meet along the way who have needed the assistance of a rescue

One of those very riders from the first cycle, Gary McLister, has used their services.

It was while out on his motorcycle, riding on a river bed four years ago, McLister was  injured.

His wife Fiona, a support driver for the past eight years, said she was only just able to talk about his accident now.

They don’t really know what happened to cause the accident but he was observed flying through the air by people who then rushed to check on him.

After he was attended to by first responders, he was whisked through to Dunedin in the rescue chopper.

‘‘He’s told me in his head he was saying ‘oh my goodness I’ve paid for my own ride’.’’

Fiona said sitting at the hospital it soon became clear how often the helicopter service was called out.

‘‘I heard that chopper land five to six times every day,’’ she said.

While Gary is still recovering from his accident, Fiona knows the importance of the helicopter on the day of his accident.

‘‘If it wasn’t for that chopper it could have been a very different outcome for Gary.’’

Cyclist Scott Milne started cycling after his accident in George Sound, Fiordland, in 2005.

He spent the night in the bush after he fell down a cliff while hunting and was collected by a chopper the following day.

He had multiple chest injuries, punctured lungs and was in an induced coma for three weeks after the accident.

He took up cycling after the accident as he couldn’t run any more and joined the yearly ride when he discovered it existed.

On Friday, he completed his fifth ride.

‘‘I’m just trying to pay back — to give a little bit back.’’

The ride can be an emotional experience.

Sir John’s father-in-law died in Italy 10 days before Friday’s ride and he told fellow riders on Friday night at a get-together he hadn’t cried since he had heard the news.

‘‘I was riding along thinking about nonno Mario and I was thinking about Italy when my son (Luca) rode up next to me and I just cried, I just cried because that is life — we had a moment together.’’

For Taylor, who believes they will reach the $100,000 target set for this year’s ride, it isn’t just about 90 people sitting on a bike for a ride on one day.

It’s about the banter, the camaraderie and the common goal of a few people raising money for a great cause.

‘‘It’s really hard for me to share and to explain to people — it’s just so much more than a bike ride.’’

That was obvious when cyclists hit Invercargill — people were out clapping in the streets and the cars stopped at the Queens Dr and Herbert St roundabout, all honking on their horns in support.

Sir John probably put it best on Friday night when he talked about the selfless act people had done that day, despite living in a selfish world.

‘‘I think the most important thing for me is that we’re all here for a common cause and that is helping others and for more that is really, really special — that makes me lucky to be alive.’’