BLOWN AWAY ON THE OLD GHOST ROAD

Buf­feted by the rem­nants of a cy­clone, four bik­ers ex­plore an his­toric route that delves into the South Is­land’s min­ing coun­try.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - By Huw Kingston

A cy­clone com­pli­cates a biking trip along an old min­ers’ trail in NZ.

GHOST LAKE HUT SHOOK VI­O­LENTLY AS wind and rain ham­mered it from ev­ery di­rec­tion. Ex-trop­i­cal cy­clone Fehi had come knock­ing. I looked at the can of Happy Daze beer, now empty in my hand. Omen enough, I de­cided. I thought of many past trips into the moun­tains I could have aban­doned due to weather but hadn’t. Per­sist­ing of­ten led to some of my best mem­o­ries. A cou­ple of days ear­lier over din­ner back in Christchurch, I had dis­cussed with my rid­ing bud­dies, the Mote fam­ily, what the storm might mean for our planned tra­verse of the Old Ghost Road. The name sug­gests that the 85-kilo­me­tre trail, New Zealand’s long­est sin­gle­track, is a long es­tab­lished route. That’s only half-right. When we rode the trail in late Jan­uary 2018, it had been open to bik­ers and hik­ers for just two years. But the trail was in use long be­fore the moun­tain bike was born – dat­ing back some 125 years to the days of the coun­try’s very own gold rush. Sat around the ta­ble, our con­ver­sa­tion also cen­tred on strik­ing it lucky. Lau­rence had in­formed me that, “It’s once in a blue moon that New Zealand’s South Is­land gets hit by a cy­clone”. Viv looked ap­pre­hen­sive while 13-year-old Pearce wanted to make the most of the pre­dicted waves and go surf­ing in­stead. But Jan­uary 31 was in­deed a blue moon. Com­monly taken to mean the sec­ond full moon in a cal­en­dar month, it is also used more pre­cisely to mean the third full moon of four in a given sea­son. Ei­ther way, it’s a com­par­a­tively rare event, and in Jan­uary 2018 it was a so-called Blue Blood Su­per Moon: an ex­tremely rare tri­fecta of blue moon, lu­nar eclipse and the Moon be­ing at its clos­est point to the Earth. Surely the heav­ens would ap­prove of our au­dac­ity? Lyell was our start point, the south­ern trail­head of the Old Ghost Road. The mur­der­ous, blood­suck­ing sand­flies we en­coun­tered right from the get-go there en­sured we didn’t hang around. NZ, un­like neigh­bour­ing Aus­tralia, has lit­tle to bite, eat or kill you. But these in­ces­sant lit­tle pests do their darnedest… It was up hill all the way for the first 18 kilo­me­tres to Lyell Sad­dle Hut but the trail was graded well enough to take most of the pain away. Along the side of the trail were scat­tered

oc­ca­sional ar­ti­facts from an­other age: an axe head; the rusted blade of an an­cient shovel; a pair of work­boots, leather now hairy with moss. Back in the late 1800s Lyell was a thriv­ing boom­town of 1,000 res­i­dents; today the gold rush town is just a road­side camp­ing area. Men had once struck out to ex­plore the sur­round­ing hills and a trail was built to Lyell Sad­dle to serve their quest for gold. Today’s Old Ghost Road roughly fol­lows the line of this trail through deep beech for­est. Bold-as-brass robins landed on our packs and the flight­less weka scratched around in the dirt just be­yond our wheels. We emerged from for­est at The Big Slips. Mas­sive earth­quakes in 1929, and again in 1968, had torn away the hill­side here, and the thin, grav­elly trail seemed to tip­toe ner­vously across the dev­as­ta­tion. Along the Old Ghost Road are five spec­tac­u­larly lo­cated huts. The first, at Lyell Sad­dle, had been our orig­i­nal Day One tar­get. But with Fehi fore­cast to hit that night, we stopped only to cook some noo­dles be­fore push­ing on an­other 12 kilo­me­tres to Ghost Lake Hut. The grade steep­ened as we climbed switch­backs, tighter and more grav­elly higher up, be­fore we emerged onto open tus­sock coun­try with spec­tac­u­lar views of the Lyell Range. With a strong wind and rain threat­en­ing, Pearce, an Old Ghost Road old hand – this was al­ready his third time at the ten­der age of 13 – led the way along the ex­posed tra­verse line be­low Rocky Tor (1,456 me­tres). Al­ready the spirit of the trail had me in its thrall, al­ready we were well sat­is­fied to be up there, de­spite the fore­cast. Once be­yond Heaven’s Door, where the wind tried its best to dis­lodge us from our sad­dles, we en­joyed the fruits of our labour with a long, fun de­scent to Ghost Lake Hut. A group of riders from the North Is­land were al­ready in res­i­dence, along with vol­un­teer war­dens Lloyd and Jackie, trav­ellers from the UK I sat down with that can of beer, and be­gan to learn the full story of the Old Ghost Road. Each hut on the trail has a copy of a thin pa­per­back, Spirit to the Stone, which should be re­quired read­ing for any­one in­ter­ested in trail­build­ing, trails in gen­eral or in­deed just the per­sis­tence of a small group of in­di­vid­u­als with a love of wild places and an in­abil­ity to shy away from a seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble chal­lenge. The book tells how in 2007 a lo­cal West Coast man knocked on the heavy wooden door of a lodge built on the banks of the Mok­i­hinui River. Mar­ion ‘Weasel’ Boatwright, Amer­i­can mu­si­cian, builder and co-owner of Rough and Tum­ble lodge, wel­comed the man in. In his hand he had a faded map from 1896 show­ing a sur­veyed road from Lyell through to Mok­i­hinui, a road that was never built save for the sec­tion of old min­ers’ track we’d rid­den ear­lier that day to Lyell Sad­dle, and a trail at the other end some dis­tance up the Mok­i­hinui gorge. This meet­ing was the cat­a­lyst for the build­ing of the trail, named be­cause un­til then it had been but a bold idea, a sur­vey, a ghost. Mar­ion pulled to­gether three other men to chase the ghost into re­al­ity – Stacky, an old West Coast bush­man, Phil, a lo­cal moun­tain biker and Wayne, who ran a lo­cal he­li­copter busi­ness. As the ghost train rolled, hun­dreds more jumped aboard: govern­ment land man­agers, vol­un­teer trail dig­gers and hut builders from across the world. As every­one else in the hut played cards by can­dle­light, I lay on my bunk and read on. Seem­ingly noth­ing could stop this train. Not land­slides, not pro­posed hy­dro dams po­ten­tially flood­ing its route, not fund­ing chal­lenges (the trail even­tu­ally cost some US$5 mil­lion). Not even the moun­tains and gorges them­selves which would have chased lesser men and women away, such are the chal­lenges of the steeps and deeps of the New Zealand wilder­ness. BANG! We all woke to a sin­gle mas­sive clap of thun­der that ac­com­pa­nied the dawn. It had been quiet overnight but now Cy­clone Fehi was knock­ing on the door and keen to pump up the vol­ume. As the morn­ing drew on, the wind

and rain smashed into the hut, threat­en­ing to tip it over the precipice which it over­looked. We waited, brewed up, waited some more. We’d later learn that other parts of the South Is­land were dev­as­tated but in truth Fehi was not as bad for us in our ex­posed spot as we feared. By early af­ter­noon we de­cided to ven­ture into the del­uge and head for Stern Val­ley Hut, reck­on­ing that with it be­ing only 13km away and mostly down­hill, we had plenty of time. “Come on, come on,” chided Lau­rence half-jok­ingly. “No won­der it took you a year to get around the Mediter­ranean,” smiled Jackie, re­fer­ring to my cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of that sea by hu­man power alone that we’d dis­cussed the night be­fore. I was last to be ready and by then Lau­rence and Viv had al­ready set off. Pearce and I had only gone 200m when we came across Lau­rence with his bike on his back: “Smashed my bloody de­railleur and hanger,” he said. I knew I shouldn’t have rushed. We spent an hour back in the hut fix­ing his bike which re­quired some fine-sight work. Lau­rence is legally blind, but that doesn’t stop this leg­endary for­mer rep­re­sen­ta­tive rider for his coun­try. In 2013, he came close to death after an ana­phy­lac­tic re­ac­tion to a sin­gle bee sting. He spent years re­learn­ing to walk and talk, and of course, get­ting back on the bike. A level of per­sis­tence the Old Ghost Road builders them­selves would have been proud of. We all left the hut for a sec­ond time and de­scended the tight­est of rocky switch­backs as wa­ter cas­caded all around. The back-and-forth took us down to a sad­dle be­fore a short, steep­ish climb to Sky­line Ridge. Fehi pushed and pulled at us along this kilo­me­tre-long ridge, forc­ing us to cling to each other in the gust­ing wind. The end of Sky­line Ridge ends in a near-cliff that posed a ma­jor ob­sta­cle for the trail builders. They weren’t to be stymied hav­ing come this far though: Weasel pre-fab­ri­cated 302 tim­ber box steps that Wayne he­li­coptered into the site for in­stal­la­tion. By the time we reached the bot­tom of the steps, Fehi had fi­nally moved on, leav­ing us to en­joy an in­sanely fun, 10-km flow­ing de­scent to our last overnight at the Stern Val­ley Hut. Lin­ger­ing show­ers punc­tu­ated the early hours of our fi­nal day on the Old Ghost Road as we took on a su­perbly graded climb through the Bone­yard to Solemn Sad­dle. Then it was pin­back-the-ears time for more fun down Goat Creek and out to a wide sus­pen­sion bridge across the swollen Mokhinui River. A solid steel gate guarded the mid­dle of the bridge and, as we crossed, sig­nage re­vealed its pur­pose. On both

sides of the river lived the en­dan­gered Gi­ant Land Snail as did the pos­sum, a mar­su­pial pest in­tro­duced from Aus­tralia. On one side the pos­sums had learned to hunt the snails while on the other they hadn’t. The idea of the gate was to stop the hunt­ing pos­sums from teach­ing those without the skill! Once across the bridge, we headed down the Mokhinui, climb­ing over nu­mer­ous trees felled by the storm. Pass­ing Mokhinui Forks Hut, at the junc­tion of the north and south branches of the river, we be­gan our fi­nal trail treat. The sin­gle­track now picked up the rem­nants of the old min­ers trail cut into the side of al­most ver­ti­cal gorge walls. We del­i­cately guided our wheels around blind cor­ners with the river rag­ing be­neath the drops. It all felt Hi­malayan, like those clas­sic gorges that pro­tect the high val­leys and moun­tain coun­try above. Here though there were no smoky tea­houses built into the walls so we made our own tea at Spec­i­men Point, the fi­nal hut, cling­ing to a small ridge above the gorge. By now I was shak­ing my head at the all-round good­ness and madness of the Old Ghost Road. I wanted to hug those leg­endary souls who’d nursed it into a re­al­ity. In a cou­ple of places the gorge walls had col­lapsed into the river leav­ing a road to nowhere. Here sus­pen­sion bridges had been slung across the chasm. It was be­yond one of these that for­tu­itously I got my chance to hug a leg­end. Trav­el­ling up the gorge on a mo­tor­bike was Stacky, one of the orig­i­nal four trail pro­po­nents from 2007. Now re­spon­si­ble for trail main­te­nance, he was head­ing in to clear those fallen trees. Ec­static to meet one of the trail’s cre­ators in the flesh, I pep­pered him with ques­tions. De­spite the press­ing need to get to those trees, Stacky was most gen­er­ous with his time. Fi­nally we said our farewells and ped­alled the fi­nal kilo­me­tres to fin­ish at Rough and Tum­ble Lodge, Weasel’s place, to which that 1896 map that started it all had been de­liv­ered. Hav­ing rid­den trails all over the world, I’d say this 85-kilo­me­tre route is as good a moun­tain bike tour as I have ex­pe­ri­enced, for the trail, ter­rain, huts and, of course, the story. Could you ride it in a day? Yes, some could. Should you? Em­phat­i­cally no. Savour it, watch out for cy­clones and make sure you read the book along the way.

AA

TOOLS OF THE TRADE Where once trod min­ers, in their hob­nail boots (right), today bik­ers spin their way up the trail in cleated shoes.

HIGH WIRE ACT Re­in­stat­ing the route meant adding new bridges to ne­go­ti­ate stretches of trail long-ago lost to the river.

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