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