He Tangata: David Akers of OGO

Elisabeth Easther talks to the pioneer of the OGO.

I grew up on a small farm in Kawerau, between Rotorua and Whakatane, and because my dad was an engineer, when we made the odd trip to the South Island, we’d visit all the hydroelectric power stations. I think there were at least a dozen and my brother and I would sit in the back of the car with our sister in between us and fight. Years later, my brother and I were driving around England when we saw a nuclear power station. Even though there was no visitor centre we found it fascinating, while my kids sat in the back, terribly bored, wondering when they could go home. I think my parents were determined we wouldn’t take up anything as expensive as skiing, so when we went to Ruapehu they gave us socks for gloves and instead of goggles we had pieces of red cellophane duct-taped to our faces. After two days being cold and miserable, none of us wanted to go again.

When I did my OE, I found myself living in a flat in London with a bunch of Kiwis, working in a pub where Kiwis drank and I thought, I have to get out of here, so I travelled to Edinburgh. I did all sorts of things up there from working in a bookshop to washing dishes at a restaurant. The chef there was a chronic alcoholic and because he was banned from having alcohol at work, I’d have to sneak out and get him whisky. One time he tied tea towels together like a windsurf harness and attached himself to the stove so he could drink and cook without falling over.

I got into cycling in Scotland, riding off into the hills and Scottish landscapes, but trying to eat well wasn’t easy. Stopping at a fish and chip shop in Dundee, my friend, who was was quite health-conscious, said he could feel the fat seeping into his pores from the atmosphere alone. In an attempt to order the healthiest thing, he chose pizza and the man at the counter asked if he wanted it battered or just deep fried.

I’ve always tried to avoid crowds when I travel and in order to escape the crowds of India I went trekking in Nepal. It was freezing up in the snow so I bought a raincoat that appeared to have been made from plastic bags all strung together. It was terribly thin and I was all by myself, wandering about in the cold fog, worrying that I might die of exposure. Then I heard hooves and out of the mist emerged a yak with giant horns and eventually I found the track by following the yak’s prints in the snow. I think that yak saved my life.

When I was young I didn’t know what I wanted to be and business was something I fell into. When my bother and his friends invented the Zorb ball, we set up the first site in Rotorua in 1997 and I ran the site by myself. I’d park on the side of the road, with a truck and trailer and a big inflatable ball. People would turn up and I’d grab some water from a nearby stream and throw a bucket of it in with them then push them down the hill. I remember phoning OSH at one stage to tell them we were pushing people down hills in big inflatable balls and did they have any concerns. All they wanted to know was whether the staff had tea and coffee facilities and toilets and proper protection like earmuffs. I said yeah, well, it’s really only me and that I was wondering about the customers I was pushing down the hill. What did we need to have in place for them? And they said that’s not really our business. Things have changed a lot since then, and along the way we left the Zorb company and set up OGO on the original hill in Rotorua where it all started.

We invented a mechanical version of the OGO and set it up in water parks around the world. It’s called The Fishpipe and it’s a big inflatable barrel spun by a motor so it’s like a continuous water slide.

Working outside in Abu Dhabi, during Ramadan, you’re not meant to eat or drink during the day but we had to. One day my American friend asked when I’d last been for a pee, and I realised I hadn’t been for three days, because every last drop of moisture was sweated out. We were drinking masses of water and it just poured out of us.

Business today is really good. I think we do about 35,000 rides a year, rolling people down hills in big inflatable balls. If I’m ever having a bad day or doing accounts, I just go out and push some balls around and see people arrive at the bottom with big smiles.

Further information: see ogo.co.nz

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