At 85kms long the Old Ghost Road is New Zealand’s newest adventure mountain bike ride or walk located on the West Coast of the South Island. Read on to find out whether this old gold mining route that cost over $6 million to build, took 110,000 construction hours to complete with 17 bridges and 6 huts is worth travelling to this little known part of the South Island to experience?
After pre booking some 6 months earlier the time had come for 15 of us to ride the Old Ghost Road. We flew in early to Nelson from Auckland and were picked up by Barry & Rimu from Buller Adventures. All 15 bikes and bags arrived so we were off to a good start. From here it was around a 2 hour drive to the beginning of our ride at Lyell. The drive from Nelson to Lyell is scenic, travelling through Murchison and parts of the upper Buller Gorge. Barry kept us entertained and informed with stories about the region and the gold rush which gripped the small town of Lyell in the mid 1800’s. Upon arriving its hard to believe that over 2000 people used to live there! Quite literally nothing remains other than small mostly unseen relics and sandflies… lots of sandflies.
There are several ways to bike or walk the Old Ghost Road, typically most riders opt for either 1 night – 2 days, or 2 nights – 3 days on the track, with walkers usually opting for a 3/4 or 4/5 split to complete the entire track. There are other options such as riding/walking part of the track for a day or being dropped in by helicopter and experiencing a selected section. Our group chose a 2 nights – 3 days mountain bike option and to have food, refreshments and some gear flown in via helicopter by Wayne from Helicharter Karamea.
After the obligatory photos from Barry & Rimu we set off from Lyell on the 26 km climb to the highest point of the ride. The gradient is fairly gentle at around 5%, as you switchback your way to the first hut at Lyell Saddle. Having packs on, means the going is slower than normal, fortunately the views are excellent. Old gold mining memorabilia litters the trail throughout the climb, giving you an insight into the steely live’s these old diggers led. Here we were cycling up the hill for leisure purposes constantly reminded about the people toiling their living here 150 years ago, the irony was not lost on me.
After around 2.5 hours with a few stops we had lunch at Lyell Saddle hut thinking we had largely finished climbing, we probably should have looked closer at the map! Whilst its true we’d broken the back of the climb the gradient was slightly steeper and we still had around 500 metres to climb. The trail building work they’ve done is superb and the scenery outstanding as you wind your way up to the open tops on the Lyell range. A few photos near Bald Hill and Montgomery saddle, then onwards to our abode for the night at Ghost Lake hut. This part of the trail is literally carved out of the mountain side as it traverses and then drops the final 4 kilometres to Ghost Lake. The strewn rocky downhill is fun but pinning it isn’t recommended with some pretty big drops if you get it wrong.
Is wasn’t until we left the next morning and looked back at Ghost Lake hut we realised it was perched on a rocky outcrop with spectacular drops in front. The grandeur of this spot is even more apparent when looking back and the night spent here was probably the pick. Light snow was falling when we arrived so the hot food and cold Garage Project Beer was well and truly welcome after a hard day in the saddle. One of our group had managed to snag a few kilo’s of whitebait in Nelson, so it was whitebait fritters on a mountain top followed by red wine, a shot of whiskey (a.k.a. cramp juice) and a well earned sleep. The huts are very warm even with out the wood fire roaring; you could easily pack a lighter sleeping bag unless you were sleeping in the external sleep outs which aren’t insulated.
The rain was hammering on the tin roof in the morning so the call was made to wait until late morning then head off. Todays ride was the longest at around 40kms but filled with sweet downhills, incredible terrain and dramatic scenery. As we left the hut the rain stopped on que, ideal for the tight switchbacks that take you all the way to the Skyline Steps. Not being used to riding with a pack I was clipping out my inside foot on a few corners. The drop to the valley below is a long way down, so better to clip out that bail out. The skyline steps aren’t ridable (at least not for me) but are only a short interlude for what is about to come – the best down hill section of the ride. From the bottom of the Skyline Steps to Stern Valley Hut its fast, flowing single track and all downhill. Its hard to not want to stop as the views are spectacular but then so is the downhill – perfect terrain for the Santa Cruz Bronson!
Time for some lunch at Stern Valley hut before the Boneyard which is the last notable climb of the trip. The Boneyard is unlike other parts of the trail and aptly named, looking like some some sort of prehistoric wasteland with enormous boulders scattered throughout. At the top of Solemn Saddle is another snaking downhill with plenty of switchbacks interspersed with long fast sections. A quick stop at Goat Creek for some cramp juice (he who shall remain unnamed got well and truly stitched up!) and off for the final 13 kms. The riding is slightly downhill single track along side the Mokihinui River all the way to Specimen Point Hut. Like Ghost Lake Hut Specimen Point is elevated but sits above the Mokihinui River, right on a bend offering staggering views of rapids, mountains and valleys.
The hut is quite similar in layout with perhaps an even better view depending on your preference. More of the same for night two with hot food and beer flowing chatting about the day and what lies ahead for the ride out tomorrow.
The morning dawned clear with blue sky’s and mild temperatures for the final 20kms out to the trail end at Seddonville. We thought we’d seen the best scenery already but this is the trail that just keeps on giving. The trail has been miraculously gouged out from above the gorge with unimpeded views for almost the entirety of the track. A few bike dismounts are required and you’ll see why when you ride it, the name suicide slips says it all! A nice easy ride out mostly down following the Mokihinui Gorge, normally I would be going flat out but I didn’t want this ride to end! A few more photo stops and a swim in the river concluded a fantastic 3 days of epic riding. A celebratory beer was in order and there is no where better to stay at the end of the OGR than the Rough and Tumble Lodge. Susan and staff looked after us all afternoon, keeping us fed and watered whilst we dissected the trip gazing over the Mokihinui River.
So is it worth a trip to the Old Ghost Road? Having ridden many of the trails in New Zealand the OGR is truly a special trail and in my opinion the best adventure ride in New Zealand. Its not that the other trails aren’t great, it just has so many facets to it, and as mentioned previously it just keeps on giving. What Phil, Wayne, Weasel (Marion Boatwright) and numerous other volunteers have created here is priceless. Do yourself a favour and put this trip on your bucket list, i’ll be back thats for sure.
1. Pack as light as you can – common sense really and as mentioned taking a lighter sleeping bag is a good way to reduce weight and space if you’re sleeping in one of the two main huts above, which are warm.
2. Consider taking a set of spare brake pads if there is rain or the ground is very wet like we had. I went through set of sintered metal pads in three days that were brand new. The fine rock and water make an excellent grinding paste.
3. Take a portable battery charger for your phones, you’ll be taking plenty of photos.
4. If you’re using Strava put the phone in flight mode, you’ll minimise battery usage and the GPS still works. Upload at the end, it worked for us but you may want to test prior.
5. Go light on water, there is plenty of drinkable water along the trail and at the huts mostly year round. In the height of summer this may change and the best way would be to ask OGR what the water situation is like around the time you go.
6. Cellphone coverage is slim to none. Even on the suggested spots on the map we struggled to send an sms, let alone data. That was our experience, yours may differ.
7. Consider taking a PLB along with your group should anything go majorly wrong.
Thanks to Phil from Old Ghost Road, Barry and Rimu Buller Adventures, Wayne Helicharter Karamea and Susan Rough and Tumble Lodge.
Tony Townley is the owner of Luxury Adventures – Tailoring luxury travel in New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific Islands since 1999.