Top And Tailing The Old Ghost Road

Wild, challenging, awe-inspiring with spectacular views – the Old Ghost Road has all the hallmarks of an epic mountain bike ride.

Mike biking through the historic site of the Eight Mile gold mine

Mike biking through the historic site of the Eight Mile gold mine

The 80 kilometre track links the long-forgotten old dray road from the Lyell in the Upper Buller Gorge which serviced the gold mining towns of the 1870s, with the isolated Mohikinui River on the West Coast.

Winding through native podocarp forest, exposed mountain ridges, wide river valleys and narrow gorges susceptible to heavy rain, floods, slips and year-round snow, the track lends a sense of the tough conditions gold miners and early farmers lived and worked in.

Hundred-year-plus hob nail boots, one of many relics harking back to the 1870s gold rush in the area.

Hundred-year-plus hob nail boots, one of many relics harking back to the 1870s gold rush in the area.

The track starts at the Lyell car park, a two-and-a-half hour drive west from Blenheim, or two hours from Nelson, and ends at Seddonville, 45 minutes north of Westport.

While the track is fully open to trampers, at time of writing, the 24km section between Ghost Lake Hut and Goat Creek Hut is closed to cyclists, and expected to be completed in June 2015.

Exposed mountain tops.

Exposed mountain tops.

A helicopter can be commissioned to transport bikes and/or riders over this section, but Mike and I decided to do two separate there-and-back-again missions at both ends of the track.

With plans to stay overnight at Ghost Lake Hut, we camped the night at the Lyell DOC campground ($6 per person per night) allowing us to get a decent sleep and an early start for the 30km ride.

The track climbs gently and persistently for the first 14kms, on a well-graded surface with several creek crossings, before flattening out for easy riding to the Lyell Saddle Hut, just before the 18km marker.

Under clear blue skies it took us about three-and-a-half hours to reach the 11-bunk hut and the large, sunny deck provided a charming spot for lunch.

Just after the hut a sign marked the end of the historic old dray road, and conditions became noticeably more rough.  After our long, lazy lunch in the sun, it was a bit of an ask to get the legs pumping sufficiently to propel us up and over the skull-sized granite rocks that shaped the track for the next 5kms.  Fitter riders with more experience have no problem negotiating this section, but we were definitely feeling the burn after several hours of ascent with overnight packs.

Just after the 25km mark and a couple of hours of solid uphill climbing, (with some carrying in especially tight pinches) we suddenly popped out of the bush line and were greeted with magnificent views of sweeping granite mountain faces, characteristic of Kahurangi National Park.

Mike refuels and soaks up the view - note the track behind.

Mike refuels and soaks up the view – note the track behind.

After the tough slog, we gratefully dropped our packs to soak up the views and re-fuel, before following the track along exposed tussock tops, in full sun.

We made good progress along the flat tops, and it wasn’t long before we reached the 800 metre section of particularly narrow, rocky track rendered unrideable due to the rugged track conditions and steep drop offs.

One of our group who was riding the 60km round-trip in one day biffed in a particularly hairy spot, landing six metres down a rocky gut.  Apart from a nasty fright and a few bumps and grazes he was lucky to avoid major damage to himself and his bike.

Trust member Paul and newly minted master blaster (me) on the 800m section of unfinished track.

Trust member Paul and newly minted master blaster (me) on the 800m section of unfinished track.

One of the original members of the Mohikinui-Lyle Backcountry Trust which was established in 2008 with the goal of building the Old Ghost Road, was working on this section of track when we passed through, in hopes of having it completed in January, in time for the inaugural Ghost Road Enduro event on January 31.

We helped him wire up the cordite to dozens of “bombs” packed into the granite along the 10m section of track he was working on, before retreating to a safe spot, connecting the charge box and pushing the Big Red Button. With a crump and a resounding boom, tonnes of rock disintegrated in a cloud of dust, and we picked our way through the rubble before continuing to the high point of the track (1340m) and breakneck descent down the other side.

Helping out for that hour, really brought home to us the incredible vision of the people driving this initiative, and the seemingly insurmountable scale of their task.  Volunteers and paid workers have worked for many years in difficult and remote areas, funded by various trusts to get the track to where it is today.  It’s humbling to see the results of their efforts and their 100-year legacy, which will be enjoyed by generations of outdoor enthusiasts.

Sunrise at Ghost Lake Hut

Sunrise at Ghost Lake Hut

We arrived at Ghost Lake Hut eight hours after starting out; dusty, tired and in my case a bit battered and bruised.  (The day riders in our group took five-and-a-half hours to cover the same distance, and two-and-a-half hours to get back down again.)

It was a golden evening and we and three guys from Nelson had a fine time eating and sharing gossip and tales from our adventures.

Apart from the one km ascent (300m) back up to the track the following morning, our efforts from the previous day were rewarded with an exhilarating downhill run and we were back at the Lyell car park in time for lunch, in half the time it took us to get up there.

Track start/end at Seddonville

Track start/end at Seddonville

After a few days rest, we decided to chance the weather and tackle the 30km of track up the Mokihinui River from the Seddonville end and stay the night at Goat Creek Hut.

Luckily for us the 40mm of rain forecast didn’t eventuate, and we set of in a mist of warm rain, just wet enough to pull our pack covers out.

The undulating track flows alongside the mighty Mohikinui River, with several river crossings, some of which would be dangerous in heavy rain.  Like any New Zealand river valley, we found ourselves winding through podocarp forest, grinding up short sharp inclines, navigating rivers, waterfalls, bogs and sandy flats, bouncing over football-sized boulders and sidling rocky outcrops.

The curious and cute South Island bush robin - my fave little guy.

The curious and cute South Island bush robin – my fave little guy.

For the most part, the track was easy going, and despite the low cloud there was plenty of opportunity to take in the achingly beautiful lush green bush, narrow river gorges, and towering mountains.

One of the highlights included the three swing bridges connecting rocky outcrops with sheer drops into the river far below.  While no fun at all for acrophobics, the impressive infrastructure is again indicative of the cost and scale of the project.

Plenty of hairy drop offs if you care to look down.

Plenty of hairy drop offs if you care to look down.

Of particular interest was the regenerating podocarp forest and the site of the historic town of Seatonville – it’s just so hard to imagine towns thriving in such a remote and wild area.

After two-and-a-half hours riding, we reached Speciman Hut, just shy of the 16km mark, which provided some shelter from the rain for lunch.

Continuing on, the river valley widened, the track flattened and the sun came out, making for a pleasant half hour ride to Forks Hut, and two hours to Goat Creek Hut.

4-bunk Goat Creek Hut was the first NZ back country hut to be dropped in by fixed wing aircraft

4-bunk Goat Creek Hut was the first NZ back country hut to be dropped in by fixed wing aircraft

The trip wasn’t completely without mishap.  We missed the turn off to Goat Creek Hut shortly after crossing the South Mohikinui River and soon found ourselves carrying our bikes through a muddy, incomplete section of track.  We didn’t have trip counters or a topo map with us and (while we had our suspicions) had no way of knowing we’d overshot the turn off and traveled a good three or four kms before deciding to retreat to Forks Hut.

Needless to say the turn off stood out like dog’s bollocks on the way back, but with the sign on the ground and another group overlooking the turn off the next day, I thought a word of warning wouldn’t go amiss.

After a hot and restless night in the rather cramped Goat Creek Hut (four bunks), plagued by mosquitoes and woken at first light by countless sand flies, we were only too happy to pack up and make our way back the following morning.

The return journey with its sweeping corners and banked trail was a dream to ride and despite the rain closing in on us again, comfortably made it to the end in five hours.

  • If it’s your first bike-packing trip, I’d recommend practising biking with a full pack.  While it didn’t take long to adjust to the extra weight on my back, I did find myself a little off-balance to begin with.
  • There are plenty of places to collect water from Lyell – Lyell Saddle Hut and from Seddonville to Goat Creek Hut.
  • The Old Ghost Road topo map is available for $20 incl postage here.
  • There are a number of huts to choose from, depending on how far you wish to ride – if staying in the huts managed by the trust, be sure to book in advance here.
  • The Old Ghost Road has relied heavily on volunteers.  The trust has just released another volunteer campaign, so if you want to volunteer be quick, spaces are limited.
  • Alternatively you can donate some money to the cause here.



Some words about books and reading

Book love

I know, it’s been a long while since my last entry, but there are always so many other things I could be doing.

While the subject of procrastination is earmarked for a blog at some point, it is also relevant to this story – that which is singularly responsible for the dark circles under my eyes, my tardiness, those crumbs on the bench from breakfast and the mouse-grey dust balls lurking furtively behind the doors and under my bed.

My best friend and confidante, my ally in all occasions whose well worn pages never fail to bring me comfort, joy, lust, enlightenment, anguish, heart ache and excitement.

The book.

Reading is a pass time I’ve cultivated from an early age, with seeds sewn by my dad, who taught me to read and write before I could tie my shoe laces.

As a kid, I read hundreds of books; in the car, on family holidays, on the four kilometre walk to school and back, after dark by the light of my torch.

I look back at that nerdy knobbly-kneed girl, walking to school in West Auckland with her nose buried in a book and marvel at how I was never run over, or teased mercilessly by my peers.

As one of my teachers once put it, I’m a voracious reader. I devour books like food and wine. In great big gulps and swallows, snatching bitefuls at any opportunity.

Like any addiction, I’m always squeezing in “one more chapter” or “five more minutes”, and forever making up for lost time or sleep.

Appreciator of the haphazard book stack

Appreciator of the haphazard book stack

“No reading tonight” Mikey says every night when we go to bed, in hopes he might be able to drift off to sleep without being jolted awake as I surreptitiously turn a page.

And when I reluctantly fold the page to mark my spot for later, I experience an immediate sense of loss as I wonder when I’ll next get a chance to return.

I read and re-read everything.  The labels on shampoo and conditioner bottles in the shower, number plates, the engraving on the cutlery at cafes, the signs at look outs and on nature trails, and the advertisements on the back of receipts.

At some point though, I realised not all books are equal, and there are way too many books in the world than I’ll have time to read in my little life. Consequently, I’ve become a lot more discerning about what I read. If I can’t get into it within the first few pages or chapters, I have no qualms about turfing it out and starting the next book on the haphazard stack on my bedside table.

Ripping through books at speed was something I used to be proud of, but these days I try to remember to make myself slow down and digest the meanings and ideas beneath the carefully crafted words and paragraphs, probably because I’ve gained an understanding of the amount of time, research and double checking that goes into a seemingly simple sentence.

For all the time I spend reading, until now I’ve spent little time musing about the role it plays in my life.  Like fresh air and water, I’ve taken it for granted my entire life.

The forthcoming Marlborough Book Festival is really what prompted this little journey, because I’m more than a little excited about it.

Confession time: I don’t really know what to expect at a book festival (except we receive a glass of wine on arrival, alright!), because I’ve never been to a book festival before, plus I know precious little about the authors and their works, (I haven’t even read any of their books!!).

Here’s a quick run down of the festival:

There are six New Zealand authors at eight sessions over two days, held at the Blenheim Club and the lofty Cloudy Bay “Tree House”.  And of course no self-respecting festival held in Marlborough would be complete without wine.

The authors cover a wide range of genres and interests and come from all around the country. Most compelling for me was discovering that Marlborough is home to some accomplished writers. Featured authors including romance author Barbara DeLeo and writer of New Zealand history Ron Crosbie live in Marlborough, while award-winning young-adult fiction writer Karen Healey, moved to Blenheim earlier this year,

As a novice writer, I’m looking forward to hearing from the distinguished Dame Fiona Kidman about what inspires her, and hoping to glean some tips on capturing the reader’s attention.

Elizabeth Knox has been on a role this year, winning a string of awards and accolades, including the Best Young Adult fiction for her novel Mortal Fire at the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

And Harry Broad’s session will appeal to hunters, farmers and anyone who has spent any time at Molesworth Station.

As you can see, there’s something for everyone.

Personally, I’m pretty chuffed that Marlborough has it’s very own book festival, kudos to those that have organised it.

It gives us an opportunity to let books be the hero, even if it’s only for one weekend.

It’s not just about celebrating books and their authors, but acknowledging that we live in a society that provides us with the means to learn to read, and the freedom to read whatever we choose.

See you there!

Festival tickets cost about $20 per session.  Click here for all festival and ticket details.


Waitangi Day

If you spend Waitangi Day on the couch, with only main stream media to keep you up-dated with how Waitangi Day events around the country pan out, I can understand why you’d be a bit over it.

For politicians, Waitangi Day is an opportunity to get in front of the cameras and deliver their lectures about “looking to the future”, “embracing challenges as opportunities” and make promises.  This is never more true than on election year.

Some small groups of people use Waitangi Day and the media’s hunger for conflict as an opportunity to rally for change.

These two groups make up a tiny per centage of our population, yet every year, they are top of the news bulletins, creating the impression that us New Zealanders are a disgruntled and divided bunch.

(But hey, media is only giving us what we want.  Who wants to read a nice fluffy story about a group of happy people who don’t have a cross word to say to anyone?  Those headlines just don’t make compelling reading or viewing.)

Meanwhile, the rest of the country gets on with the day in their own way, just like we do at Christmas and Easter – according to our own beliefs and family traditions.

When I lived in Auckland, we’d jump in the car and head to the Orakei Domain on the waterfront for the day. With stalls, good food, great music, and hoards of people dancing, singing, eating and generally having a good time, it was a pretty festive occasion.

Here in Marlborough, everyone is welcome at Waikawa Marae near Picton, to visit, learn a bit about the local iwi’s role when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed back in 1840, and partake in food and conversation.  It’s a welcoming atmosphere, centred around family and community.  I reported on the day’s events two years ago for the Marlborough Express, and the only dispute was between judges of the baby show.

I guess what I’m trying to say is – don’t be disillusioned by the media into believing that New Zealand has issues with its cultural identity.  Or by the people who compare Waitangi Day celebrations to Australia Day or Independance Day festivities.  I’ve been in both countries for these days, and they still have deep-rooted issues stemming back to their colonization as well.

If we want a New Zealand Day, let’s create one on its own merits, not replace Waitangi Day just because we’ve had a few decades of seemingly inconvenient negotiations between Maori and Government.

February 6 represents a hugely pivotal point in our nation’s history and more than 170 years later is one of our oldest traditions.

Yes we’ve had a colourful history, and we don’t all see eye to eye, but why not use Waitangi Day as an opportunity to better understand our history, warts and all, to build a stronger and better country in the future.

Do you think all our brothers and sisters overseas are grizzling about Waitangi Day today?  Hardly – they’ll be seeking out their fellow countrymen and women, heading to the bar and wishing they were right back at home with family and friends.

Well, that’s just my thoughts – how about you?  What do you think of Waitangi Day, and do you celebrate it?

Or are you like me  and just passed the day doing nothing much?