The Old Ghost Road in a day
Biking the Old Ghost Road is a spectacular experience although organising the pick-up and drop off can be a challenge. There is another way however…
The Old Ghost Road needs little introduction. This 85km resurrection of a centuries old gold miner’s route, stretching from Lyell to Seddonville, forms the longest continuous mountain biking trail in NZ. It’s been an ambitious project with strong community support as well as the odd fierce opponent. It’s one of the most scenic and remote trails you’ll find anywhere.
The logistics can be an issue though. With the start and end points separated by a couple of hundred kms of highway, traversing the entire trail takes some planning. Then there’s the wild west coast weather. Three years ago I booked a hut on the trail in advance, the weather clagged in, and the vaunted views, like the hundreds of volunteers involved in the construction, were solely the stuff of legend.
This time I took a different option though – to check the weather forecast the day prior and then bike partway in and back out in a day. So after a splendid evening at the charming Seddonville Motor Camp (Seddonville School in a prior life), I found myself beside the Mokihinui River all set for a 7am departure.
With comfortable DOC huts dotted along the way, my first objective would be Specimen Point Hut, about 17km in. And what a magnificent 17km it was! The single track was well formed, flowing, mostly flat and the scenery, with the mighty Mokihinui ever present just below, felt perfectly untouched and serene. I was surprised not to see a single rider on the trail but at Specimen Point Hut the reason soon became apparent. There was a bustling feed station at the hut; I had inadvertently chosen my ride on the day of the Old Ghost Road Ultra Marathon!
Whilst nibbling on scroggin (and being simultaneously nibbled on by sandflies) I pondered my options. Riding into Specimen Point Hut and back would make a wonderful day ride (it’s certainly achievable by those less confident on the bike). But I wanted to explore much more of this epic trail. So long as I rode carefully, the foot traffic should not pose too much of a problem.
Heading deeper inland the sense of isolation grew, but conversely so did the number of runners. I was trumpeting a loud ‘Rider Coming” so often that my voice was growing hoarse. I did however have the odd break, mainly to take photos but also to browse the information boards. One explained the reasoning behind an unusual barricade smack bang in the middle of a swing bridge. It seems the giant Powelliphanta snail are being swiftly devoured by the cursed possums on one side of the river (as I was by the sandflies). But on the other side, the possums haven’t learnt about this great source of tucker. Hence the barrier; to thwart the learned marsupials from instructing their evil uneducated brethren.
The superb single track continued to twist and turn beneath the forest canopy. The podocarp gave way suddenly and a vast rocky face loomed. I was looking at the ‘Hanging Judge’, the first significant ascent of the day. Skywards I toiled though my efforts were insignificant compared to the poor souls on foot. “Hooray for bicycles” I thought, as I reached ‘Solemn Saddle’ and began my descent down ‘The Boneyard’. This is an immense landscape of earthquake loosened boulders, and not for the first time I marvelled at the effort that would have been needed to blast a trail through this unforgiving terrain.
The Stern Valley, impressively remote, stretched below as I made my descent. There are many areas on the Old Ghost Road where reckless riding is not a good idea, and this was one of them. Concentration is needed, not only to prevent punctures, but also to avoid hurtling over the cliff and adding my bodily remains to the Boneyard.
Shortly thereafter I arrived at Stern Valley Hut and encountered a hive of activity. Runners were taking on provisions and marshals were busy officiating. A chopper buzzed overhead, detracting somewhat from the isolated nature of the land. It was nearing midday, I’d been riding almost 5 hours and I still had to get back to Blenheim by nightfall. Could I make it to the next stage, the famed Skyline Ridge? I’d covered almost 40km of trail but I still felt alright. Nothing ventured, nothing gained I thought, and onwards I pushed. Over another swing bridge and the foot traffic intensified. If I got to the ridge, I realised I’d be descending back down into this mob. Like most mountain bikers, I like to push the envelope a little on the downhills; but riding into this crowd would not be fun. So time to reassess – time to turn tail and head home.
Of course the main problem with the “In and out in a day” method is that you don’t get to complete the whole trail, but end up re-riding tracks you’ve already covered. But as I passed the final straggler on Solemn Saddle, I realised that ridden in reverse, the trail (if not the landscape) was still completely fresh.
Descending the ‘Hanging Judge” was a highlight with a drop of 300 metres over 3 kilometres. It wasn’t overly technical, with the most hazardous part being the scaling of a ten metre high boulder to take photos.
Reinvigorated after the drop to earth, I sped past Goat Creek Hut and took a final rest at Specimen Point. It was 2pm, supplies were getting low, and I was keen to make it back to the car.
The final 17km was glorious, even better than it had been 7 hours earlier. The sun blazed down as I blasted along the rock face and through cascading waterfalls. Then there it was – the final corner and the Old Ghost Road Start/Finish gate. I’d made it!
What an epic day, an epic ride. I had previously maintained that the Heaphy was the finest back country ride at the top of the south. But now, doing the Ghost Road with great weather from the Seddonville end, I’m not so sure. It has the isolation, the scale, the history and there’s the “Non-Great-Walk” ness of it. Surely the Old Ghost Road must be one of the best multi day mountain bike rides, not just here, but anywhere.