GISBORNE man Greg Bothamley and his partner Carol Aston have a small tree — no wider than four inches thick — to thank for saving their lives.
When they drove Carol’s Suzuki Grand Vitara over a hole on the edge of the Motu Road on their way to Opotiki for a fishing trip on Saturday, it dragged sharply to the left over a 200 metre cliff.
The spindly tree held its roots — and the vehicle — to break the fall.
They decided to take the Motu route to Opotiki after a road sign at Matawai showed the Waioeka Gorge to be closed.
The sign was earlier tampered with and the gorge road was in fact open throughout the weekend.
“Somebody decided to play a prank with the sign, which can be changed manually,” said Constable Motu Noanoa of Matawai police.
“The red ‘closed’ sign was pulled down. It was brought to our attention on Saturday morning and changed,” he said.
After taking the diversion for “an adventure”, the couple struck the hole about 23km into the road and “carefully” got out of their four-wheel- drive, which was “balancing precariously” on the cliff edge.
Mr Bothamley unhooked his small domestic trailer, which was carrying a small boat, in an attempt to secure the vehicle and then watched it roll 200 metres down a steep hill.
“We are pretty lucky to be alive,” he said.
“We left from Ormond early on Saturday, so when we got to Matawai and saw the closed sign at about 9am we decided to take the Motu Road.
“I’d say we were doing no more than 15kmh when it happened. There was a small hole on the side of the road. When we hit it, the Vitara dragged sharply to the left and over the edge.
“We got out and saw that a small tree was wedged against the front bumper and the car was overhanging, balancing precariously.
“I found an area with cell reception and phoned friends and my insurance company.
“Gisborne Panel Beaters came and took care of the trailer. I want to say a big thanks to them, because they were a fantastic help.
“But it could have been very different. Something has to be done with the smaller access routes, before someone is killed.
“To hear the gorge was open and that the sign was changed for a prank is pretty gutting.
“It’s just salt in the wound. There were truck drivers held up at that sign. The person or people who thought it would be funny to do this have a lot to think about.”
Responsibility for maintenance of the Motu Road lies with Gisborne District Council up to 21km into the route from the Gisborne side, and with Opotiki District Council from there on.
“Unfortunately, this is an example of what might appear to be a humorous prank at the time but can quickly lead to serious implications for other road users,” said GDC land transport manager Dave Hadfield.
“The road is windy, steep and very narrow and needs care when considering this route as an alternative to the gorge.”