The Old Ghost Road

Mountain Biking The Old Ghost Road

When the Marlborough Mountain Bike Club announced it was organising an overnight expedition to the Old Ghost Road, I immediately marked it on the calendar. One of NZ’s most ambitious cycling projects, the partially completed trail is seen as an epic off-road adventure. Off the beaten track, the trail stretches from Lyell, south of Murchison, to Seddonville on the West Coast. True to its name, the trail has a forlorn and ethereal feel. Tracing the route of the old gold miners, there’s no shortage of 19th century memorabilia lurking beside the rock encrusted path. The often misty and damp conditions in this part of the world only add to the sense of remoteness and abandonment.

Old Ghost Road Obstacle
Old Ghost Road Obstacle

Seven of us departed from the Lyell Historic Reserve on a clammy Saturday morning, and were immediately ensconced in gloomy beech forest. The well hewn track wound up the Lyell valley, presenting a gentle but persistent climb. Various information boards provided a good excuse to rest, refuel and learn about the exploits of hardy explorers in bygone days. With the weather clearing and the ever present sound of gurgling mountain streams, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the experience. The track, rock-based and in great condition, showed little sign of the frequent west-coast downpours. The views were magnificent; lush rainforested hills, with snow–capped Alps marching south in the distance.

After 17 km and 6 hours we reached our accommodation for the night. Shrouded in mist, the 11 bunk Lyell Saddle hut was a welcome sight. Abandoning thoughts of further forays, we settled in for an afternoon of hot food, card games and even the odd (warmish) beer.

End of a long day on the Old Ghost Road
End of a long day on the Old Ghost Road

A cold grey morning dawned and we set off en route to the termination of the completed trail, Ghost Lake Hut. Straight away the trail was noticeably more rugged. Although we still climbed, head sized rocks demanded the rider to carefully choose their line. Before long we cleared the bushline and were confronted by the most challenging section of the ride – an 800 metre sidle along exposed mountain face. At 1300m, this point demands extreme care, especially while carrying bikes in cycling shoes. The danger successfully navigated, we experienced reward in the form of a screaming descent to Ghost Lake Hut.

Misty conditions on the Old Ghost Road
Misty conditions on the Old Ghost Road

Although normally the domain of incredible views, visibility on this day was only metres. Without reason to linger, we remounted for the return journey; a predominately downhill 30km section back to Lyell Reserve. And what a great downhill it was, especially the segment past Lyell Saddle Hut. Fast, flowing and taunting the rider to push ever faster, it was a surprise there were no injuries sustained. (Although I did experience 3 flat tyres on the last stretch alone).
The Old Ghost Road is a unique, atmospheric and educational experience. One takeaway – the herculean feats of the gold miners made our adventurous weekend look like a walk in the park!

Fast Facts
  • The total trail length, Lyell to Seddonville, is 80km. However the section from Ghost Lake Hut to Seddonville is incomplete and not officially rideable. Completion is expected in 2015.
  • An average level of fitness is required. There are no steep climbs or dangerous descents on the stretch from Lyell to Ghost Lake Hut.
  • The trail is rated a Grade 4. However at a constant 1-2 metre width, the section to Lyell Saddle Hut would be easier than that.
  • If you don’t want to stay overnight, Lyell Historic Reserve to Lyell Saddle Hut makes a wonderful day trip. In my opinion, this is the best part of the trail (At the time of writing, at least!).

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