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The Old Ghost Road: Hiking New Zealand’s gnarliest long-distance bike trail

Published
October 22, 2021
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The Location of the Old Ghost Road, between Lyell and Seddonville, in the north end of the South Island. The Heaphy Track is also in this region.

‍IN an earlier post on ‘The Heaphy Track and the Old Ghost Road’, I mentioned that I was going to try the Old Ghost Road in September 2021. Well, I’ve done it!

The Old Ghost Road is a multi-day tramping and mountain biking trail created by enthusiasts just in the last decade or so. It’s got a fascinating history, as it re-creates a long-planned route between two mining encampments, one at Lyell where they mainly mined gold, and one at Seddonville where they mainly mined coal.

The foregoing map is just to show you where it is. Here is a more detailed map of the Old Ghost Road itself, which you can download as a free 5 MB PDF from the official website oldghostroad.org.nz, where it says ‘Trail Information’. They also have an even more detailed map, which I used and which I recommend paying for — it costs NZ $24.

Reproduced with permission

Most people who do the Old Ghost Road start out from Lyell, at the southern end, where there is a picnic area and carpark, an old cemetery, and lots of remains of gold-mine workings.

The car park at Lyell and the route into the hills

A signboard at Lyell

Starting Out

I will be describing my adventures on the trail further on. But first, here is some background.

How the Old Ghost Road got Built

In his book Spirit to the Stone: Building the Old Ghost Road, the co-founder of Seddonville’s Rough and Tumble lodge, Marion Boatwright, describes how a mysterious stranger turned up at his door one day with a yellowing, colonial map of a road that had once been attempted through the wilderness betwen Lyell and Seddonville, but never completed.

The stranger said that the terrain of this part of New Zealand had defeated the roadbuilders in the end. The half-built road had then been forgotten and reclaimed by the rain forest.

Which was a pity, because the country’s razorback ridges no doubt yielded incomparable views in fine weather. The only problem was getting to them.

Boatwright grasped that if the remains of a road still existed, it could perhaps be renovated to a walking-track standard, at least, without too much trouble.

It would make an incredible mountain bike trail too, a neighbour chipped in. Weren’t mountain bikes starting to become trendy? That would really put Seddonville on the map.

By a coincidence, the Rough and Tumble had been shut down for a while so that hydroelectric works could be carried out nearby. Boatwright needed somethng to do.

So, along with a few other interested locals, he decided to put his efforts into mounting an expedition to see if the story of a lost road was true.

Well, the road did exist, sort of. And by another happy coincidence, it was just about then that the New Zealand Government also made some money available for new bike trails.

Did anyone have any ideas where another trail might go? Well, yes, actually, piped up the folk of Seddonville.

The track-builders were also helped out by Meridian Energy, the firm that was carrying out the hydroelectric works near Seddonville. And by Solid Energy, a state-owned coal mining firm with historic ties to the Seddonville region. Solid Energy was later closed down in 2018, as part of the general retreat from coal mining.

Over the next few years, Boatwright and his fellow locals, including helicopter operator Wayne Pratt who chipped in the use of his Robinson R44 for next to nothing, put in a heroic effort to renovate and complete the old roadway, in the form of New Zealand’s longest mixed-use tramping and mountain biking trail.

What the Old Ghost Road is Like

You can buy Boatwright’s book from the trail’s official website oldghostroad.org.nz. Or read a potted version of the story in a recent Wilderlife review by Shaun Barnett, who also sums up the key facts:

Completing the project — including building four new huts and 16 bridges — took seven years, $6.5 million, 26,500 hours of paid and voluntary labour, as well as a lastminute crowd-funding appeal to get it over the line. The grand opening came in December 2015. Some 2500 people tackled the trail in its first two months, with mountain bike guru Jonathan Kennett rating it world class.

The official website oldghostroad.org.nz also describes the trail in detail, including the usual itinerary that people take, from the southern end at the old ghost town of Lyell and its colonial cemetery through to Seddonville.

The south to north direction is strongly recommended for mountain bikers, though trampers (i.e., hikers) can do the trail in either direction.

The website includes information specifically for mountain bikers, and for trampers, including distances and the times expected.

For trampers, like me, the journey usually takes five days and four nights. In brief, and “purely for illustrative purposes” as the Old Ghost Road website puts it, the typical itinerary, which I also followed, goes like this:

Day One: Lyell Carpark to Lyell Saddle Hut

Day Two: Lyell Saddle Hut to Ghost Lake Hut

Day Three: Ghost Lake Hut to Stern Valley Hut

Day Four: Stern Valley Hut to Specimen Point Hut

Day Five: Specimen Point Hut to Seddonville

The huts listed above are all still quite new, built specially for the Old Ghost Road by Marion Boatwright and the other renovators.

The total length of the trail is 85 km (53 miles). The longest day on the above itinerary, Day Four, covers 25 km or fifteen and a half miles. So, it is a bit of a slog and that is no doubt another reason why mountain bikers were identified rather early on as likely users.

You don’t need to stay in the huts listed above, by the way: you can camp outside them. There are also two un-insulated summer sleepouts outside each of those huts. But you do have to book and pay ahead, even to camp outside those huts.

One of the summer sleepouts, at Specimen Point. This one is named after the old Red Queen Mine, in the Mōkihinui Gorge. More on that, below.

There is also the Top Camp Shelter, on an exposed ridge between Lyell Saddle Hut and Ghost Lake Hut. People usually only stop there for lunch, but it is also an emergency refuge.

There are also two Department of Conservation huts on the long stretch between Stern valley and Specimen Point, namely, Goat Creek Hut and Mōkihinui Hut. People often crash out in these if they can’t make it from Stern Valley to Specimen Point in one day. No booking is required for these and they are free to stay in, as they are fairly old and not all that flash. Goat Creek hut is also quite tiny, only sleeping four. Mōkihinui Forks Hut is bigger, sleeping ten.

Pricing and booking arrangements for the other parts of the trail are explained here.

A lot of people do the trail in four days and three nights, but it can get quite dangerous if you are pushing it, either as tramper or a bike rider. That is even more true in the wet. Sections of the trail are Grade 5 for mountain bikers, that is to say, ‘Expert’, while the trail as a whole is Grade 4, that is, ‘Advanced’.

My feeling is that unless you spring for the NZ $24 custom topographical map from the oldghostroad.org.nz website, you are not fully forewarned about some of the hazards on the trail. At least, not in terms of any handy reference.

For instance, as regards hazards, not only is the track quite gnarly and exposed in many places, but it also pays to bring a bike helmet or climbing helmet even if you are not cycling, as there are numerous safety signs along the way warning of potential rockfalls.

These range from yellow cautionary signs to red ones warning of more extreme peril and a more urgent need to keep moving along, like this one.

Day One

Since you are on the West Coast, the weather is often wet. Some people quip that the trail ends at Soddenville!

When I turned up Lyell, things were looking sodden from the start. Indeed, I had planned to do the Old Ghost Road a couple of times before and had to scrub the idea when the weather turned. This time around, I was determined to press on, in something of a state of denial about my choice of weather conditions.

And so did not put my wet weather gear on until I was already wet. Though it wasn’t so bad really, as I was hiking through beautiful rimu bush that broke the fall of the rain to some degree.

After a few kilometers, I got to Irishman’s Creek where there were two smelly cans of sardines that someone had left behind along with a whole lot of iron relics of old time days that people had evidently found and also thought relevant to stack by the sign.

According to the Old Ghost Road website, there are twenty-one bridges along the Old Ghost Road. But the website warns that even so, there is potential for flooding on sections of the trail and from un-bridged side streams. It says that “The most notable of these is Irishman’s Creek . . . .” So presumably that is another good reason to proceed from south to north: namely that if you can make it safely and with the appropriate skills over Irishman’s Creek the rest may not be so bad. Provided that the rain does not get worse, of course.

This section of the track wasn’t yet true wilderness, as there were lots of remains of old gold mining workings and other ghost towns like Gibbs Town, Zala Town and 8 Mile, which made me think of Eminem and Detroit!

There is a hut at 8 Mile, but it seems to be historic and not actually in use.

Here’s a really informative billboard about Gibbs Town and Zala Town.

And more relics at Gibbs Town. Not sure if the bottle is an ancient one or not, but the shoes certainly look authentic.

My pack was extremely heavy because I was loaded up for five days.

This is an issue by the way, if you don’t feel up to that much torture, you can always go on a guided tour where the food is waiting for you. You still carry your own packs, but they are greatly lightened. A 2020 Wilderness magazine story called ‘Going guided: The Old Ghost Road’ quotes a guide named Angus McKenzie:

“ . . . for dinner you might get something like smoked cheese polenta with confit duck, and roast vegetables, all carried in by the guides,” he says.

Ah, that sounds about right! The new huts are all fairly luxurious by outdoor standards by the way, with phones, composting toilets and (cold) showers.

In the meantime I plodded along beneath what was now a horrific storm. I could still get cellphone coverage most of the time, but I risked getting the phone wet. That’s another thing, if you are a Kiwi tramper, you should get one of the new weatherproof ones.

Along the way, I came across a bike that had been hit by a slip (i.e., landslide), and left behind. This was another issue in such steep terrain. Indeed, on this section there was an area called the Big Slips, created by the Murchison Earthquake of 1929 and the Inangahua Earthquake of 1968.

The Big Slips had obliterated the older roadway, and the builders of the modern Old Ghost Road had been forced to carve a new track that was mostly above the Big Slips. This was one of the earliest things they did, and it gave them the confidence to carry on.

I got to the Lyell Saddle Hut, which is 875 metres above sea level, at around 4 p.m.

The Lyell Saddle Hut

There were photos of how the hut was built.

The hut and its site were beautiful, with commanding views when the clouds parted. There was wood in the hut, but it had run out of cooking gas. The huts are supposed to have gas but I recommend taking your own gas and a burner along this trail too, just in case.

It’s in the vicinity of Lyell Saddle Hut that the old road that was actually built runs out. From here on, till you get close to the other end, the trail is entirely the work of the builders of the modern-day Old Ghost Road.

Here is a video I made of my first day:


Day Two

From Lyell Saddle Hut, the trail followed a waterless ridgetop to Ghost Lake Hut, perched on top of a cliff at 1,200 metres above sea level, and also with epic views of everything below the cliff. It pays to bring plenty of water bottle capacity, and to fill up at Lyell Saddle Hut, and again at Ghost Lake Hut.

The trail is consistently gnarly by this stage, as you can see.

Here is a billboard explaining why the land is so steep.

On the way you get up to the trail’s peak altitude, passing the Top Camp Shelter, which is a good place to have lunch, with a view of the Rocky Tor (1,456 metres) before descending to a lookout called Heaven’s Door, shortly before Ghost Lake Hut. In fact, there are great views all along this section.

The Top Camp Shelter

I

n spite of the weather, I did manage to get some majestic views through the clouds, which even added to the atmosphere. Take for instance the following shot from Heaven’s Door.

Heaven’s Door. This is framed by another vertical outcrop to the left, of which you can just see a little bit at the left of my photo!

There are seveal remarkable features along the trail, which include the Rocky Tor and Heaven’s Door, and also a great slab called ‘The Tombstone’.

I was enjoying myself, even though the weather wasn’t perfect.

The author, between Lyell Saddle Hut and Ghost Lake Hut

Here is a photo of Ghost Lake Hut in the drizzle, with a sign saying optimistically that it will take only one more minute to get there.

And another photo of Ghost Lake Hut with what looks like rain or overflow from the roof, lit up by the sky in front of the dark shadow of the eave.

According to Tramping New Zealand, Ghost Lake Hut is also the most heavily booked-out of all the huts on the trail, and it can pay to book months in advance.

There is a tiny little alpine tarn nearby, presumably the lake that the hut is named after.

Here is a video of scenes I filed on Day Two:


Day Three

On the third day I hiked from Ghost Lake Hut to Stern Valley Hut, which is at a hight of 400 metres above sea level. So, this was a mostly downhill day.

A sign at Ghost Lake Hut

I left Ghost Lake Hut at about 9:30 a.m. I could still get cellphone reception. When I left there were no views at all, it was just misty. I had read that the weather was going to clear but it was very wet.

I was inclined to imagine, by this stage, that it rains from the morning onward. It is a rain forest area after all!

I descended and then ascended four kilometres of track that were being improved. I sure as anything would not take a mountain bike on that track! This section included the Skyline Steps, a staircase with about 200 steps.

There is no water till you get to Stern Creek. Ironically, there is no shortage water once you are there, indeed to the point that the bank has had to be shored up with gabions to stop the creek from undermining the new hut!

I was wet to the bone and my jacket leaked after I sealed it, so it was all a wet weather situation. I can’t believe I paid $600 for a jacket that only lasted five years and spent $50 sealing seams. Ironically, this was my third attempt at doing the Old Ghost Road, the two previous attempts rained off! Oh well, it is a rain forest after all And you can get this weather at any time of year.

Day Four

From the Stern Valley Hut, I hiked to Specimen Point Hut past Goat Creek Hut and the Mōkihinui Forks Hut, both of which are old traditional tramping huts that predate the new trail. This was the longest day, and the one that yielded the most photos for this post.

This section leads through some quite weird terrain. From the strange meadows of the Earnest Valley where you find the twin lakes Grim and Cheerful, and up through a spooky climb called the Boneyard, and then across the Solemn Saddle and down through a section called the Hanging Judge (I think it is the mountain bikers who make up these weird names) to Goat Creek Hut.

Lake Cheerful, in the Earnest Valley

Terrain just past the Hanging Judge, in the direction of Goat Creek Hut

This area is one of the one of the most seriously earthquake-hammered parts of the whole country, entirely smashed up and full of geological fault lines.

This is a local consequence of a wider collision between the Australian and the Pacific tectonic plates. Throughout most of the South Island the Australian plate dives underneath the Pacific Plate in ways that give rise to occasional earthquakes (‘subduction’), while to the east of the North Island the Pacific Plate dives beneath the Australian plate. Here is an informative government video about how the New Zealand plate system works:

As the video explains, between the two subduction zones there is an area where the two plates are colliding head on. In that area, earthquakes are more frequent than in the subduction zones.

The Old Ghost Road is located in the zone of head-on plate collision. A sign I came across showed how the Earnest Valley was part of the smashed-up local fault system.

There is plenty of other evidence of those past earthquakes, including many slips, and rocks the size of houses that had evidently been tossed all over the place. This is another reason for even hikers to keep their helmets on wherever a rockfall is possible.

Eventually, I came to the beginning of the river flats, a less dramatic landscape though still affected by earthquakes.

A hundred years ago, the lower part of the river flats supported a population of farmers. Then one of the many slips triggered by the 1929 Murchison Earthquake dammed the river and turned much of the district into a lake. When the dam broke a few decades later, the submerged river flats reverted back to dry land. The district is now a conservation area.

A sign three minutes’ walk (officially) from Goat Creek Hut

Goat Creek Hut

Inside Goat Creek Hut. This hut is very small, for reasons I will explain in the next paragraph.

Here’s a video I made at Goat Creek Hut:

For some reason I thought that Goat Creek Hut was one of the oldest huts in New Zealand. In reality it was built in 1957, but it is the oldest hut in New Zealand to have been air-dropped as a flat pack. The reason it is so small is because about half the makings of the hut were smashed upon hitting the ground and they could only salvage the other half. (There are often drawbacks to being first.) Mōkihinui Forks Hut is a little bit younger, having been built by the New Zealand Forest Service in 1963.

Goat Creek Hut, and the whole of the trail from there to Mōkihinui Forks Hut are on the flats of the Mōkihinui River (whew!).

On this mostly wet trip I noticed that there were, indeed, several spots on the Old Ghost Road where raging streams spilled over the track, in the way that I had been warned about and which more safety signs also warned of.

Even though Goat Creek Hut was a few metres away from the creek that it is named after, it seemed to be at risk of being washed away one day by Goat Creek, which you cross by way of bridges somewhat further up.

There is only one drawback once you get to Goat Creek Hut and the Mōkihinui River flats, which is that it is important to have insect repellent handy once you get to the river! This is the West Coast after all, where the sandflies attack all day and then retire to let the mosquitoes have a go by night.

The river is quite good for fishing. The Old Ghost Road has made it much more accessible. Before then, both this section of the Mōkihinui River, and the two older huts, were quite hard to get to.

A bridge across the Mōkihinui River South Branch

Mōkihinui River Flats

There was a lot of controversy around the year 2013, when a giant kahikatea tree next to the Mōkihinui Forks Hut, and some other ancient trees as well, were felled as part of the construction of the Old Ghost Road in this area: an enchanted forest glade, one of the last of its kind in New Zealand, with many huge podocarp trees such as kahikatea, matai and rimu bearing girths of one to 1.5 metres. Only the area’s remoteness and possibly the sentimentality of a bygone farmer had saved these giants from being logged in earlier times.

The trail through the ecological area, on the Mōkihinui River flats

The Mōkihinui Forks Hut

The developers of the Old Ghost Road felt that the kahikatea was getting old and menacing the hut with dropped branches or the possibility of toppling over, perhaps in one of the giant earthquakes to which the area is especially prone.

The objectors claimed that the government and the cycleway enthusiasts were allowing tourism to come before conservation. I imagine that they took thye view that the kahikatea had been there first for several centuries, and had survived much less conservation-minded times, so that it was pretty ironic that it had to come down now. One does wonder why the 1963-vintage Forest Service hut could not have been relocated instead.

Just past Mōkihinui Forks Hut you get to Specimen Point Hut, also on the river. All of three of these huts on the river from Goat Creek to Specimen Point are fairly low-lying, between 110 and 160 metres above sea level.

I made a composite video of scenes from Day Four as well:

Day Five

Though it is only 110 metres above sea level, Specimen Point Hut lies at the head of the Mōkihinui Gorge, with great views of its own.

Specimen Point Hut

A View from Specimen Point Hut

The view down the Mōkihinui Gorge, from Specimen Point Hut

Day Five is a gorge trip, with incredible views of the river and sections of track that are built along artificial structures poking out of the side of the cliff, above the river.

At Specimen Point: Only 17 km to go

Before the Old Ghost Road was built, the only way around a rather unfortunately named bluff and its slips was by hanging onto a wire and not looking down, whence the name I guess. Now they have proper bridges.

Just east of Jones Creek is the ghost town of Seatonville, where gold was minded in addition to the coal that made Seddonville.

The Meridian Energy hydro scheme that temporarily closed the Rough and Tumble Lodge and thus led to the creation of the Old Ghost Road would have inundated the Mōkihinui Gorge with all its scenery and history. An appeal to the Environment Court prevented the hydro scheme from going ahead. I wonder if the fact that the Old Ghost Road was being planned also had anything to do with the successful appeal? If so, that would have been ironic.

When you get to the end, if you haven’t been on one of those luxury guided tours, you will definitely want to call in either to the Rough and Tumble or to the Seddonville Hotel for a hot meal that isn’t out of a billy-can, at least!

The Rough and Tumble actually isn’t rough at all!

The Seddonville Hotel

Further Links

wildernessmag.co.nz/sultans-of-swing/

wildernessmag.co.nz/going-guided-the-old-ghost-road/

See, further, my new book The Sensational South Island: New Zealand’s Mountain Land, available from this website, a-maverick.com.

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