The Ohura Incident

“I thought I was seeing things, thought you were a UFO. But you were moving too slowly, although you seem to be getting along alright.”

It is mid-December 2020. It's been a hell of a year. So much so that the Covid-19 lockdown was welcome. It was no holiday, more of an opportunity to focus on work. Something I did obsessively until Labour weekend. 

Returning from a 3-day bikepacking trip, I had the eureka moment. It wasn't making me happy. Smiles per hour. A phrase. An outlook, that appeared out of the darkness.

Inspiration came in the form of the Geyserland Gravel Grinds mega grind, as it was then known. It had appeared on my radar in 2017. The event resonated with me. So much so that it became a bucket list ride. 

It seemed so ridiculous to me, with my lack of experience and fitness. It seemed impossible, albeit necessary. With inspiration came the need to slowly build up to multi-day rides. Both physically and mentally. There was also the challenge of when was the right time to take a week or more off from a new business?

After months of planning, upgraded gear and a significant degree of training, my time came. The Plan. Close early for Christmas and make the most of the child-free days afforded to me by my shared parenting arrangement. Or not. 

Unfortunately, schools had other ideas. The last day of school turned into a teacher-only day. Leaving after dropping the boys at school as planned was not an option. 6-days just became 5. Free the mind, and the body will follow. 

I decided that with a few strategic night sections, a shortened timeframe is still feasible. A haze of excitement and determination had overshadowed my life mantra. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Although, I didn’t yet realise it.

Friday morning, Ill-conceived plans are falling into place. Making the most of a day off with the boys, I elect to do a shake-down of my loaded rig. Mounting our respective steeds, we head for a coffee, a casual 20kms before lunch, to ensure everything is in order. Anyone with children will understand how this pendulum could sway from pleasant family bonding to the feeling of never wanting to ride my bike again. For those without children, I’m not about to ruin the dream.

The day might not have been stress-free. Upon being relieved of my parental duties, I leave Whanganui under an overcast sky. Eating pizza as I drive, I take a casual “see how I feel” approach about knocking off some kilometres that night. Inspired by the clearingcloud, I think how spectacular it would be to ride under a starry night sky.

The closest point on the loop has become my start/finish. Ohura, a 3-hour drive, had left me ample time in my thoughts. One of the tough neighbourhoods to explore alone. Life had gotten on top of me. It was time to phone a friend for reassurance. I could no longer hide it, nor could I do it alone.

Thinking 55kms combined with minimal elevation gain was about 3 hours ride, I left Ohura at 8:30 pm, SOLO. Who else loves the last-minute google to confirm what they want to know? Never mind the accuracy or lack of it.

Turning off the main road, I say goodnight to Ohura. A magical sunset, looking down the Stratford-Okahukura line as the top of the range glowing from a now set sun. 
About 15kms in (about 9:45 pm), I see a tractor driving through a paddock. 
It continues over a ford. I think wow. He is out late, totally lost on me that my nocturnal habits are slightly irregular too. 

About 15 minutes later, a ute passes me, travelling in the same direction. Five more minutes pass. The Ute appears again. Driven by the farmer from the tractor. 

He pulls over and stops for a chat. The night is Pitch black, at 10 pm and in the middle of nowhere. “I thought I was seeing things. Though you were a UFO, but you were moving too slowly, although you seem to be getting along alright”. A nice guy. We chat for about 10 minutes before continuing into the night.

Another fifteen minutes pass before the darkness of the still night is disrupted by headlights. As an act of courtesy, I partially cover my light as they approach and pass by. The car stops about 100m past me and yells something at me. Inaudible over the sound of my tyres on gravel. 

At this point, it would be fair to say my mental health was questionable at the beginning of the ride. This was in no way helped when you hear wheels spinning on a gravel road from a car that has just yelled at you. In the middle of nowhere. At night. Alone. It happened 3-times. Like they were trying an aggressive u-turn. I had no desire to hang about to find out. Firmly set on getting to camp as quickly as I could. 

Nature presented three options. Fight, Flight or freeze. Bearing in mind, still at least 30kms away from my destination my instinct was somewhat misguided. I start pedalling as if my life depended upon it. And I was worried it might. I remember seeing my heart rate at 175 BPM on my Garmin at the time. The car never came back, but it was somewhere around that point that I left my mind on the side of the road.

Believing my paranoia, I switched off my rear light. I am hopeful the reflective strip on my seat bag and ankle would keep me from being run down by accident and unnoticed by the homicidal. Further confirming my mental fragility, I proceeded to cover my headlight in the event of any light in the distance. Busily I scour the drain for a place to hide in the instance of a vehicle in my vicinity. Exhausted, I recall the comfort of the drain when I encountered my first car. Lights off, I hid like a fugitive. Weighing up my options, could I use my tent as a bivvy to stop my down sleeping bag from getting wet? 

Why does everything have to happen at the worst possible time? Adding further stress to the situation, a previously untested packing solution for my tent poles was not what I had hoped it would be. With every bump in the ungraded gravel road, my handlebar roll was working itself loose. Combine this with compression of my suspension fork, and my handlebar roll began buzzing the tyre. I decided to lock out my suspension fork for the first time. Quite a weird experience on a full-suspension bike, I might add. Enjoying the free kilometres of the only big gravel descent of the night, it hit me, literally. There is nothing that snaps you back to reality on a good descent like the sensation of being hit in the leg with projectiles. Frantically grabbing handfuls of brake, I come to a stop. Rummaging around in the dark, I find it was a drink bottle, spare tube and strap from my fork. My homemade anything cage strikes again.

Finally, getting to the sealed road. Tired from my earlier prolonged max efforts, I find myself unable to ride the smallest of hills, merely getting off and power walking up them in the darkness.I eventually arrived in PioPio at 11:50 to pitch my tent and turn it in. Never have I been so happy to be in PioPio (or alive).

At this point, I will mention that this is not my first unsettling experience, solo, at night, in the greater Ohura area. Picture this, my first overnighter after an 18-month health battle that had left me unable to sit on a bike. I had headed in search of the Kiwi Rd tunnel. Fast asleep in my bivvy tent, I wake to a car coming in VERY hot to perform a flying lap of the Moki forest rest area. My first this is how I’m going to die, moment.

Anyway, the following morning I get up, eat, and pack. On the road by my standard 8 am deadline. Feeling toasted, I ease into the climb out of PioPio towards Kawhia, recounting the events of the night prior to my phone a friend. 

Low tech. Low budget. I was navigating off cue sheets, although I have my Garmin inReach for safety and iHike app for backup navigation. Doing the maths in my head, I read, “continue Moiroa Rd.” Followed by 1200m, right, Waipuna Rd. Finding myself at an intersection that didn’t correspond, I checked the map on RidewithGPS, the app used to create my route. I noted that while the road to my right wasn’t Moiroa Rd, the road to my left was Ngapaena Rd. A road I did not go down according to the map. The map showed that I continued right at the junction.Continuing, watching the junctions, the miles dissolved. 

I had fallen into a groove for the day. That was until I appeared at the next intersection, where none of the road names matched anything on my cue sheets. Then it hit me. I recognised the Te Kuiti Aerodrome from driving that road all too often. 

I had arrived at the intersection of highway 3. Composing myself, I begin considering my options.Thinking I must be 5, maybe 10kms off route. I double back and pick up the right road, carefully looking at the junctions as I ride. At 1:30 pm, I make it back to said junction. A not insignificant 40km detour. An estimated 700m+ of unnecessary elevation gain.

I take Ngapaena road as I feel it should only be about 1 km to Waipuna Rd. I was correct. Now, effectively 15.5kms from where I started with another 70kms to go. The first 30km are all uphill. 

Mentally. Physically. And emotionally broken. At this point, I had to be responsible. Now half a day behind and have a deadline to meet. Not comfortable with more late nights in the saddle after the previous evening. With no reasonable option, I make the call to turn back. 

Arriving back in PioPio, I set up my tent 10m from where it was the night before. Eating tuna and rice from a packet was a far cry from the gin and pizza I planned for my birthday dinner in Raglan. Making for a better story. 

Heading back to Ohura the next day and got to enjoy a scenic gravel road in the daylight. A road that I had seen photos of but missed all its beauty the evening before. Absorbing natures sights and smells, there was one thing that stood out to me more than anything else, Tree ferns. In recognition of the journey that started Smiles Per Hour, a tree fern adorns our logo.

As I had joked with my friend and customers who knew of my plans before I left: "I’m starting in Ohura. Because all good stories start and finish in Ohura." This one did. A few months later, on a training ride, I was mentally filing all of my life problems, reflecting upon the challenges of those around me. I felt a duty to stand up and be counted. I messaged a friend and said "I'm riding the Kopiko this year to start the conversations around mental health".Unfortunately, after 8-months of training, I had to make the call to cancel my Kopiko effort. Covid had led to remote communities asking visitors not to come, resulting in a course change. I had planned to follow the West-East route to East Cape and onto Gisborne before making my way home on a bus, completing the best part of a route I had first plotted 20 years ago but not yet ridden, a bucket list ride. With Covid firmly in our communities, it felt irresponsible. To sit on a bus for the better part of a day stewing in the viral juices of strangers and risking bringing it back to my family and the greater community. 

The call was made to cancel the Kopiko, ultimately resulting in the Smiles per hour journey.

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