It’s a town where people often feel the rest of the country has given up on them, in the middle of a region where every place feels isolated. So how did Ohura become an unlikely centre of Medieval Combat sports in New Zealand? Alex Braae spent three days there finding out.
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You can’t see much wearing a medieval helmet. The visor slips down, and there are just a few small holes cut into the front. There’s no peripheral vision at all. Either way, it wouldn’t matter. I only had eyes for the burly guy bearing down on me with a double handed broadsword.
“I’ll start with a light hit, and then go progressively harder,” said Justin Stockbridge cheerfully. Ohura’s blacksmith had pointed out all the dents in the helmet beforehand, showing the full-blooded strokes that other fighters had got him with. He lined my head up, and brought the blade down right on the top of my skull, with a clang that I felt through my whole body.
My next words came out in a rushed jumble. “Whoa whoa hold up stop whoa,” or something like that, as my knees gave a wobble. Fortunately, my noble assailant showed mercy, and my brief career as a knight came to an end. “In fairness,” he said with just a hint of a chuckle, “had you not have been wearing the helmet, that hit would have been hard enough to knock you out.” It was very generous of him to say, given he had only struck me once. Welcome to Ohura.
Or perhaps, as the first person I spoke to after rolling into town put it, welcome to the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t said as a self-deprecating insult – more just a statement of fact. To get to Ohura, the easiest approach takes about 45 minutes from Taumarunui. That road is narrow and winds around tight corners and steep inclines into the hill country, with precarious rock faces always seeming to threaten a slip. Sometimes there are sheep grazing on the side of the road, and sometimes a small pack of them will run out into the road, herding themselves at top speed in front of the car. Seeing any other drivers is rare.
It is here that one of New Zealand’s most unusual sporting communities has decided to make their stand. For four years in a row, a medieval market day has been held in Ohura, with the centrepiece being a series of knock-down, drag-out battles with swords, shields, axes, maces and heavy steel armour. It’s getting bigger every year, and this year for the first time a permanent arena (or list, to use the correct terminology) has been built. It’s placed on the side of a rugby field that hasn’t seen footy in years, in a town long ago condemned to die that refuses to go down without a fight.
The first thing to understand about these people is that they’re not LARPing – otherwise known as Live Action Role Play. That’s when participants dress up as characters and run around acting out a storyline. It’s a fun day out gambolling in the fields.
By contrast, Full Contact Medieval Combat is more like the Mixed-Martial Arts of the UFC. Fighters go into the list with their adrenaline pumping, swinging as hard as they can to bring their opponents down. In some variants of the rules, being put in the dirt is the end of it. In others – known as ‘ground and pound’ – even being flattened won’t stop the punishment. Sometimes they fight in teams, and sometimes they’re on their own.
To get fixated on the armour as an elaborate costume would be to miss the point. It’s the adrenaline of actual fighting that gets them going. One fighter called Benoit got an injury after taking a nasty shot to the back of the hip. He went down hard, and his heavy helmet started strangling him, before a highly experienced fighter called Dayna Berghan-Whyman rushed over to get it off. Benoit was brought under the tent and offered some pain relief. “No, if I take it I’ll just keep fighting,” was his response. He ended up back out there within the hour anyway.
Justin Stockbridge says there’s something of a ‘geeks vs jocks’ split within the Medieval Combat community. He got into it as a Warhammer-crazy teenager, and quickly found it to be a positive outlet for pent-up energy and aggression. “I got to be angry. I got to hit people, and it was okay. And that sounds like a silly thing, but a place where you’re allowed to be aggressive was for me a big thing. And then put finesse and skill into it over the years too.”
Making the armour came about in part because his interest coincided with the Lord of the Rings films being made, and Weta Workshops dominating the armour-production capacity of the country. Reenactment, and understanding history is also important to Justin and Sophie Stockbridge – herself a world champion fighter with a history degree, who runs the business side of their workshop All Fired Up Armouries. They make armour partly because they want gear that works in combat situations, but they also make it so they can understand why it works. The way it’s created is also analogous to how it would have been done in the Medieval era, but with slightly more modern tools. Justin gives the example of sandpaper – once upon a time those jobs would have been done with oil and sheep’s wool with sand grit attached.
To build up a full set of armour not only takes thousands of dollars, it also takes a lot of time. Justin believes that he’s the only full-time professional armourer in the country, and has managed to get his waiting list of orders down from two years to more like six months. Running both an armoury business and an annual tournament takes a lot of work – wouldn’t it be easier to do that somewhere a bit closer to… well, everything else?
Not necessarily, that would take the sort of money that could only likely come from major sponsorship. The cost of living in Ohura is a strange blend – the houses are exceptionally cheap, but the rates and travel costs to get anywhere are high. Sophie noted that a jousting event in Wellington got about $100,000 from the Council to go ahead. Ohura’s medieval market got $500 from the Council to help build the fence around the list, and they were grateful for it.
“The community here are really keen to support anything that anyone wants to do. So we could be doing, you know, international tractor day or something and people would still jump on the bandwagon,” said Sophie Stockbridge. It was a mostly true statement, with about twenty stalls being set up at the Medieval market day (which was apparently more than the recent A&P show) and a crowd of several hundred making the trip down to the rugby club. The local school made some great progress on their fundraising goals with a sausage sizzle. There were Morris Dancers, artisans, musicians, an archery competition, and a castle for kids to play in. And it brought together a few major strands of Ohura’s permanent population, with the farmers mingling with the artisans and hippies.
But not everyone is in favour of the festival, and the move to the rugby club in part reflected that. In the three previous years, the market had been held on the main street of town, and even with the sparse amount of traffic in the area, some locals still blasted straight through it in their cars. The first year it was held, one particularly grumpy bugger threw eggs, which sounded like a very medieval way of showing dissent.
For some, Ohura is where they came to retire or hide, and they want it to stay quiet. Lyn Neeson, the indefatigable champion of the area on the Ruapehu District Council, described some of them as “jellies” – it wasn’t entirely clear whether she meant they were set in their ways, or jealous. For her part, she didn’t agree with that view at all, saying she was completely on board with people trying to bring some fresh energy to the town. She clearly found the idea of the medieval market growing year after year really exciting.
Ohura is far enough away from everything else that people really have to do a lot for themselves. It showed in some of the newer arrivals in the area, who took the best of what the town already had to offer, and worked hard to improve it. One couple in their early twenties, Inez and Chandler, had lived all over the world, and when a death in Inez’s family brought them to Ohura, they realised it was where they wanted to stay. “We want to be self-sufficient, and keep looking after the land,” said Inez. They’ve got goats to milk, veges to grow, bread to bake, and can trade for eggs with their neighbours, getting close to living off the grid. They had a stall in the market, and like to keep their money local.
Another example of this was Pedro, one of the town’s musicians who in a former life worked as a truck driver and a prison officer. Despite a motorbike accident leaving his left arm largely unusable, he was still able to play the cello by holding it sideways like a bass guitar, throwing his arm onto the neck and holding it in place with his thumb. Even seeing him play a quick walking bassline was an awe-inspiring display of self-sufficiency.
He’s a big part of why the rugby club is still standing at all. It was scheduled to be pulled down, before he and a committee of people stepped in to save it. Now they try and keep the space going “in any way we can”, and Pedro himself set up a solar-powered electricity and sound system, and some new showers with actual hot water in the changing rooms. Why? It’s an incredible gig space, he says, and besides – it’s a rugby club in provincial New Zealand. Some parts of history are worth preserving.
From some viewpoints, the whole town of Ohura is a piece of history – and less generous observers would say it should be consigned there forever. Pedro suspected that some of those views were even held by elements in the Ruapehu District Council, and while he thought they had been a bit better recently, “the Council have been trying really hard to shut this whole town down, and it’s just refusing to die. The more we can use the hall, the better the chance we have of keeping it, though I still think the Council would like to see it go.”
Part of the problem for Ohura is that it used to be a lot bigger. One woman told me that when she and her husband were first married (a while ago now) people in Ohura only needed to go into town to see a dentist or a lawyer. Town was Taumarunui, and everything else you might want was on their doorstep. There were three garages, several grocery stores, rural supply shops and plenty of other businesses. The school’s roll was well into the hundreds, and the town’s population was in the thousands.
That era was clear from the museum, which had a remarkable collection of artefacts from the town’s glory days, such as posters of the latest Sydney Poitier film showing at the local cinema. I was shown through by Stuart Mackenzie, a major local landowner whose family has been in the area for generations. He was adamant that the museum needed an overhaul, because a lot of the stuff stored there isn’t unique to the area – Edmonds baking tins and pieces of machinery that could have been used anywhere, for example. But all of that stuff perhaps tells a different story – that once upon a time Ohura was little different to any other rural town in the country.
But over the decades, Ohura was hit with a series of economic hammer blows. The coal mines started to close down around the 70s. The prison, which had replaced the mines as the major employer, shut the gates in 2005. A bad flood in 1998 was seen by many as the moment when the rest of the country decided to give up on Ohura. There was also an impact from the town being put on the Ministry for Social Development’s blacklist for people on the jobseekers benefit – even those small amounts of money being taken out of the community had an effect, along with the loss of kids at the school with families leaving town.
When the prison closed, houses started going up for sale – but only if they were removed from the place forever. Nobody was quite sure when the general store closed down, but it was years ago.
But now, there is a sense of immense potential in the place, particularly if tourism can take off. On the same weekend as the festival, the local Mexican food truck (yes, really, and it’s good) run by a relatively recent arrival called Michelle was flat out serving cyclists doing the various tours that come through the area. Stuart Mackenzie has plans to turn one of the abandoned buildings on main street into a brand new cafe. Both are really keen on a proper cycleway being put into the area, as it could revitalise the place in a way that the Rail Trail has for Central Otago. Right now, the tourist carts that rattle along the old railway line between Taumarunui to Stratford don’t stop in Ohura. Just a few things going right, or a few new businesses being set up, could profoundly reshape the future of the town.
Of course, the town is not so isolated that it can avoid the pandemic restrictions that have been placed over the country. When I was there, Covid-19 was a big topic of conversation for locals, but often so they could have a laugh about panic buying going on in Auckland. Now, Michelle who runs the food truck says life in the town has come to a “screeching halt,” and that people have asked her if there’s any way to keep it open. She plans to ask for an exemption because the nearest supermarket is so far away, and there aren’t really any other food options in the town. For Sophie Stockbridge, the lockdown gives her and Justin a chance to get on with their many back-orders and get the house ready for winter – for them the town was pretty quiet before, so it can’t get much quieter now.
Even before the pandemic hit, for those longer term residents, there were fair reasons to take big plans about the revitalisation of the town with a grain of salt. An older guy in the Cossie Club told me about why new arrivals are sometimes viewed with suspicion, while we downed Waikato Draughts and watched the cricket. He had lived in the area long enough to have worked in the mines, so had seen the process before. “The problem with Aucklanders (no offence, he clarified – none taken) is that they turn up and try and change everything, and then when they don’t get their way we never see them again.”
One point that came up a lot in conversations with Ohura locals was annoyance at being misrepresented in the past. Mentioning the name Tony Carter generated an interesting – and largely negative – response. Carter is an award-winning portrait photographer, who took an incredible series of images of the people of Ohura, before taking the pictures on tour around the world. For some, it was like they had lost control of how that world would see them, in a way that would be permanent and defining.
When that exhibition toured, there were articles which described Ohura as a ghost town, with little water or internet. While that perception wasn’t necessarily Carter’s fault, it was still bollocks. The phone reception is excellent, and the town pays high rates in order to keep the water mains going strong. Down the road in Matiere, everyone is on tank supply, and many were hard up during the summer’s big drought. While the empty main street shops give the impression of death and decay, that is just a superficial facade. There’s still plenty of life here.
For proof of that, look at the school. The roll is just six, but those kids are absolutely thriving. They get a lot of focused attention, use digital learning, and have locals with skills in art and music coming in to do some guest teaching. Parent and board of trustee member Rose says farming skills are also taught, with the school owning a bit of land to run sheep on. One year, the kids learnt how to turn milk into butter. “It was actually quite nice,” she said with laughter and pride when asked if it was tasty.
The sole teacher and principal Anna Fourie says there’s no danger of the school closing, because the community around it give proactive support to keep it open. There aren’t many families in the village itself, because of the economic factors that forced many to move away. But if families start to return, the school will be ready to welcome them with open arms.
The last bout of the day at the Medieval Market tournament was a format called Pro Fight. It’s one on one, with three long rounds for fighters to get through. Being put down in this format is brutal, because the opponent is allowed to keep striking.
The two fighters had contrasting profiles. Matt Tyson was relatively new to the sport, but he was huge and powerful and fearless, a man-mountain of muscle. His opponent Stefan Bensley had been around a lot longer, and despite giving up some of the size was wily and tenacious.
After a cagey first round, Tyson’s plan was clear. He’d use what he had and try and simply smash Bensley to the ground. Time and again he came at him directly, great waves of force that required all of Bensley’s resourcefulness and skill to hold off. Across three brutal rounds, Bensley did enough to not only keep his feet, but come away with the win.
It was the perfect way for the tournament to finish, in a town that has been knocked hard, but hasn’t yet been knocked out.