Busting the Old Ghost Road
The Old Ghost Road
Our Trail Story
It was pretty obvious from the outset that I would not be riding this epic alone. One mention of this legendary trail and friends came flocking. Who wouldn’t want to ride what is arguably our country’s greatest backcountry trail:
it’s not a matter of ‘who you gonna call’ but who wouldn’t you call?
So after one postponement due to severe weather we teamed up to tackle the trail for a couple of days. While not my first overnight riding adventure, it would be one of my longest climbs hauling gear to the tops. I wondered as I packed if there are riding sherpas out there anywhere, or is this what mates are for? These were my thoughts as I squeezed my weighty overnight gear and mapping equipment into drybags the night before the trip.
Arrival at the trailhead at Lyell saw us hooded up for shelter as the drizzly clag drifted through. If the misty rainforest was not scary enough visiting the bush cemetery behind the trailhead is freakily spooky. Spooky ... but cool. The sandflies here are anything but cool, pass the repellent! After double checking the tracking of my GPS units we start the climb with our bikes fully laden for our overnight adventure.
The climb is impressive; it’s a bit of a gutbuster - a thousand metres primarily on old pack track to the sub-alpine tops. As we pass some big slips the mist starts to dissipate letting warm sunbeams penetrate the forest canopy. A group of Kaka spiral and plummet and screech out of the mists. This and the group of us with our heads down, muscles taught pedaling and sweating for the tops in this filtered light will be with me forever. Every moment was a biking blessing.
Reaching the cloud forest I was bust. A broken man. Each rotation of my chain was a challenge. As I climbed my party slowly drifted away evaporating like apparitions up the track as my sweat-stung eyes try to see where they went. Then a magical moment as we reached the open tops. Relief! Unveiled were the most stunning mountain vistas, which I considered my personal reward for the hours of climbing. Before us were forest clad mountains cloaked in wispy swirling vapours that weren’t quite cloud.
Craggy peaks appeared above like castles in the sky.
The trail ahead traversed their steep sides, it was as if a cobblestone pathway drew me forward. This was my sort of wonderland! Gone was the agony miraculously cured by a rider’s paradise. The skill required techy trail then stepped up a notch as it became narrow, exposed and loose. The consequences of a mistake were more evident now. We started to grin and fizz. As we headed downhill the fist sized rubble popped under our fat tyres as we whizzed past The Tombstone; a slab of rock that Obelix the Gaul could have well carried. Before long we descended a sweeping corner to find Ghost Lake Hut and the biv named ‘Tor’ which was to be our overnight home.
The view from the hut is outstanding. Sitting above the bushline and a sparkling tarn it has a northerly aspect. From this airey perch we watch the foreboding clouds whipping along the tops. Despite arriving in the summer months, the weather quickly deteriorated and snow showers blanket our backcountry home in an inch of white powder. However we were snug in the hut with the chatter of folk from all different parts, warmed by the fire and rich company.
Later that evening we retreat to our cold biv to hunker down in our sleeping bags all layered up in our clothing. That’s not to deny the charm of the bivs associated with each of the main huts along the trail. They are well thought out sleeping dens with sheltered entranceways and shelves perfect for gear organising. There are many top notch hotels that would envy the views afforded us by our biv. Still... it was snowing out and there wasn’t any heat except that produced by the four of us. Brrrrrr!
As morning light broke through the cloud we studied the map for the ride ahead. The contours below the hut squeezed tight like the wrinkles of age. Turns out the map didn’t lie – a series of switch backs down a reasonably precipitous ridge had more than a few foot-dabs around the hairpin of the zig-zags. After the really tight corners the down-hill began to flow more, and descending at speed produced a youthful vibe in all of us. Wrinkles be damned – we’re young and bullet proof again! It seemed only moments before we reached the Skyline Steps, a series of staircases to walk down before the speedy bliss continued to the valley floor. Back in the forest canopy we rode with joyful hearts.
The next challenge encountered is the Boneyard boulder field, a trail designer’s mischief. The trail sends us between two lakes (called ‘Grim’ and ‘Cheerful’) and toppled blocky rocks that could be headstones on the graves of giants. Approaching the Boneyard the chance of a rideable bike trail traversing it seemed impossible. The fact it was a climb though this ludicrous rocky strewn terrain, and that we did it in a light rain shower yet still enjoyed it is testament to the skill of the trail builders. These guys rock! The Boneyard is followed by a section called ‘Hanging Judge’ - another fascinating section of trail sending the rider on a less direct but more enjoyable exploration of the mountainous terrain. For some this challenging climb might be grim, but me, I am cheerful relishing the trail designer’s creativeness and playful visions.
Before long we reach the Mokihinui River where we regroup at Goat Creek Hut and a bite to eat. This is one of many huts along the track and is by far the smallest, oldest and cutest. What it lacks in conveniences it makes up for in character. There is a story behind the hut’s diminutive size too. It’s one of the first in the country to have been airdropped - seems it didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned. Something gave rise to some damaged materials (I’m picking more the landing than the takeoff), as a result the hut was narrowed by a couple of feet. It’s a cosy wee thing and would be a welcome port in a storm I’m sure.
We left the hut together and crossed a huge suspension bridge over the river before following it downstream past the resurgence. This crystal clear coldwater spring is one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and I stop and appreciate the feature before taking a GPS point to add it to the Great Rides App I have developed. We continue on the trail downstream and pass a couple more huts before entering the Mokihinui Gorge. The newer huts on this trail are terrific – cosy and roomy at the same time. They are all well set up and have great views to boot.
The Gorge is something else. Crikey! How those early pioneers built a track and a road in the lower valley is beyond belief. At times the trail hugs the nearly vertical cliffs, somehow providing a foot or wheel hold around the river bends. Not for the feint of heart this bit! Then there are side creeks that have water carved vertical walls; here there are more amazing suspension bridges without which we would be swimming for our lives.
The forested gorge with churning white water rapids below and bluffs above us is both exciting and scenic. I have a sense of being compressed before being spat out towards the Tasman Sea. It is hard to believe this could have been all lost underwater in recent times by a proposed 85 metre hydro-electric dam. The defunct project would have formed a 14 kilometre lake up this gorge drowning the rapids, forest and historic trail. Near miss there, people. I continue to ride under my own power.
Just as we are starting to tire, the walls of the gorge come to an abrupt end. After a flat finale we reach the carpark and the arched trail gateway sign – the perfect spot to take that memorable snap to rub it in when posted on social media for those that couldn’t make it. I waypointed the trailhead and took a few photos of the surrounds. Just out of the carpark is the beautifully situated Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge. Up we go to have some drinks, hot chips and to yarn about our adventure while we wait for our shuttle back to Lyell.
The Old Ghost Road is not a trail for all, this is no leisurely flat cycle path through vineyards. It’s trail that allows one to wrestle with raw nature, with punishing climbs and heritage that drips off the rainforest branches. I marvel at the trail builders who spent months away from civilisation to build these cycling dreams. However this is no field of dreams, this trail had riders trying to experience it before it was built.
The trail has become so popular in the mountain bike community that I struggled to get a hut booking many months ahead. It goes to show that you can build a trail in the middle of nowhere far from any population centre and providing it is well designed, built and scenic; riders will come. As we finished refuelling and revelling in our Old Ghost Road story I realised just how fortunate we were to ride this trail and have this epic escape. They say Australia is the lucky country, but with our national cycle trails I think New Zealand is the luckiest of them all. So .... who you gonna call?