Near tragedy in water park three vehicle crash

by Kim Bowden - Jan 31, 2023

A busy stretch of state highway near Cromwell has been the scene of a second serious crash in as many weeks.

One person was taken to hospital and another to a medical centre after a van collided with a truck on the weekend at Lowburn.

Police were at the scene of what was initially a two-vehicle crash a few hundred metres away from the Kiwi Water Park just before 1pm on Saturday.

A van driven by a seasonal fruit picker was hit by a truck as it pulled out onto the highway from the Lowburn freedom camping reserve, heading towards Cromwell.

A third vehicle, a ute, parked up beside the lake was also hit as the van careered out of control over the public reserve, crossing the popular Lake Dunstan cycle trail.

The driver of the ute, Derek Jelgersma, a builder from Dunedin, had just been at the Kiwi Water Park and was at his ute having lunch with his three boys when the accident happened.

He says the van came at them at speed, and he managed to grab his boys and get out of its path before it hit his work ute.

He says a tourist pulled out of the established carpark, where Waka Kotahi in December installed a turning-bay to ease traffic safety concerns, in front of a truck travelling towards Cromwell.

"It was lucky, that guy's truck, it's fully written off. The airbags went off and everything. I'm surprised they're not really hurt."

But, what happened next, was even more unexpected.

Mr Jelgersma says the van had been smashed up in a way that the accelerator was forced under the brake - every time the rattled driver tried to press down on the brake, the van lurched forward at speed.

"The fire guys told us 'holy shit, we haven't seen this before'," Mr Jelgersma says.

"We were just parked under there trees having lunch...there was the first accident up on the road, which we didn't hear, and it pushed him towards us."

He says he looked up and saw the van coming, and managed to grab one son from the backseat and drag him out of the way.

"I threw him to the side and we both sort of got clipped by the open door as he hit us.

"It could have been ten times worse, he could have swerved and missed the truck and he could have taken us all out.

A spokesperson for St John says an ambulance was called to the scene, and one passenger was taken to hospital with moderate injuries, while another was taken to the Cromwell Medical Centre with minor injuries.

Mr Jelgersma says there were three fire engines dealing with the aftermath, also.

The site of Saturday's first smash, where road cones now litter the state highway and Waka Kotahi spent approximately $350,000 on a right-turning lane in December.

It's the latest in a serious of incidents on the stretch of road this summer - the most recent, a head-on collision two weeks ago, where a visiting driver became confused looking to enter the Kiwi Water Park, ending up on the wrong side of the road, with traffic coming towards them.

But Mr Jelgersma's adament any blame for Saturday's crash can not be placed on the water park operator.

"I'd just like to say 'do not blame the water park people'. It was not their fault. I need to go on the record for that...I said that to the cops too. Yes, we were at the water park, but so were hundreds of other people too, and hundreds of others at the boat harbour and hundreds of other people at the camping ground."

Police say they cannot comment on safety in general at the busy spot - that's a discussion to have with the roading authority, Waka Koatahi, they say.

Waka Kotahi has been approached for comment, but no response had been received by the time of publication.

Two weeks ago, Peter Standring of Waka Kotahi told Crux directional signage could be improved in the area, and the authority was discussing its concerns with the water park operator.

In December, Waka Kotahi spent approximately $350,000 on a turning bay into the increasingly popular public reserve at Lowburn, used by campers, boaties, and cyclists in additional to water park users.

“Overall, the right turn bay has been observed by Waka Kotahi staff over the Christmas period and seems to be mainly operating well."

Today, when visiting the site, Crux discovered road cones on the state highway at the turning bay - many of them, knocked over.

LINZ land and property manager Kate Whittle has previously told Crux that between October 2021 and April 2022 approximately 78,400 vehicles passed through its four free-to-use camping areas around Lake Dunstan - the one at Lowburn, among them - its busiest season on record.

Main image: The clean-up from Saturday's state highway smash at Lowburn, near the Kiwi Water Park.



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