Local tramper MAX RAWNSLEY has covered most of New Zealand’s well known trails but his recent encounter with the South Island’s The Old Ghost Road left him in awe of the scenery and of those who worked to create the track.
In 2007 the delightfully named Marion Boatwright and a group of his mates had a vision. Looking at old maps of the gold mining roads on the West Coast they saw the potential to
create a world class tramping-cycling track between the Mokihinui River and Lyell on the Buller Gorge.
Despite many doubters and after thousands of hours of work – much of it voluntary – they have given us a national treasure. The Old Ghost Road is open to mountain bikers and trampers all year round.
It has four superbly equipped huts with gas cooking, pots, pans, crockery,
cutlery, comfortable bunks and even hot showers! The 85 kilometre track has everything too – stunning mountain views, glorious pristine forests and historic remnants of the Coast’s gold mining days.
While most people seem to do the track south to north (Lyell to Seddonville) we had just come off the Heaphy so it made sense to start from the north. The trail head is about three kilometres past the Seddonville pub. Being the West Coast there is an inevitable welcoming committee of sandflies, but these cease to be a problem once you get moving.
After a small hill near the start, the track settles into a fairly flat jaunt for the next day and a half. It mostly follows the Mokihinui River but is set into the cliffs many metres above the
The forest and the bird life are simply stunning – more like walking through a botanical garden than the slog that Kiwi trampers are used to. All major stream crossings are bridged and from time to time the rusting remains of old gold mining equipment can be seen.
The first hut is at Specimen Point about 17 kilometres in. It sits above bend in the river with panoramic views of the river and valley. There is even a deck to sit out on – if you don’t mind the company of a few sandflies.
Day two is longer (unless stopping at one of the two old DOC huts on the way) at about 25 kilometres.
It remains fairly flat until trampers are well up Goat Creek. Once past the turn of to Goat Creek Hut there is a steady series of climbs to “Solemn Saddle” above Earnest Valley – but, remember, this track was also built for bikers so the grades are relatively benign. This section is apparently debris material from the many slips that were brought down in the 1929 Murchison earthquake.
The descent into the Earnest Valley through the “Boneyard” is like walking through a moonscape. At the bottom trampers/bikers pass Lake Cheerful and Lake Grim before the last stretch to Stern Valley Hut. This hut is on the half way point and there are often a lot of bikers doing the track in two days staying here.
From Stern Valley up to Ghost Lake is a shortish day (13 km) but with nearly 1000m to climb it is still a challenge. Like all the uphill sections the track zigzags to keep the gradient do-able for cyclists – until you reach a 60m staircase, the only way the track could reach onto Skyline Ridge.
There the track breaks out onto open scrub covered tops and the views are stunning. And, there too, you see the first view of Ghost Lake Hut perched like an eagle’s nest on a spur
three kilometres away and some 200 metres above.
It is a good hour or more before Ghost Lake is reached but the last short slog up to the hut is worth the effort. There can be few huts in New Zealand with such an impressive panorama. With clear skies, Murchison can be seen away to the east and ridge after ridge beyond that.
The next day’s short stroll to Lyell Saddle Hut (12 km) is the easiest section and also the most spectacular. The track here is built just below the main ridge of the Lyell Range, and at over 1300 metres above sea level, the views are superb in all directions. To the west the Stockton Plateau seems almost in touching distance but in reality it is many miles away.
After a leisurely couple of hours the pathway descends back into the forest with the most impressive dracophyllum providing a real show. Another long series of zigzags should see you at Lyell Saddle Hut by lunch time. Even though it is lower down, this hut still has impressive views to the north.
We were entertained all afternoon by a whole clan of riflemen feeding in the trees below the hut. Sadly, hopes of seeing the possibly extinct South Island kokako were not fulfilled.
The final day is a continuous descent all the way to Lyell (18 kilometres) on what was once an old dray road used to service the many mining camps that were scattered through the region. Even today, its possible to come across old boots, kettles and other reminders of a time when hundreds of people sought their fortunes in this tough country.
Dropping through the beech forest, the trees get bigger and so do the sand flies. After crossing the final bridge to the DOC camp ground at Lyell most people head for the screened shelter. As we took our packs off and unlaced our boots for the last time we gave hearty thanks to the hundreds of volunteers who conceived and created this latest “jewel in the crown” of Kiwi tramping and mountain biking destinations – a must do in my opinion.
Note: all huts and sleep outs must be booked in advance – go to www.oldghostroad.org.nz