Along-forgotten gold miners’ route with ghost settlements is being revived in the South Island’s northwest corner as a cycle/ tramping trail. SARAHBENNETT and LEE SLATER report.
The Old Ghost Rd is a 82-kilometre epic which will eventually link the ghost town of Lyell in the Buller Gorge, to Seddonville, a small rural outpost on the West Coast. It is sure to become a classic.
Like many of the new cycle trails, the Old Ghost Rd follows an historic byway. The LyellMokihinui Rd was begun at both ends in the 1870s but abandoned at the end of the goldrush. It seemed destined never to meet in the middle until the MokihinuiLyell Backcountry Trust secured $2 million Cycle Trails funding and the support of DOC, Development West Coast and other partners to finish the job.
The first section officially opened in February – a 27km, 1200m sidle up to Mt Montgomery, the high point of the trail at around 1300 metres.
We survey the route from a helicopter, before being dropped on a tussocky ridge as far as is currently able to be ridden. The section from this point to Mokihinui Forks is expected to open as a tramping-through route in July, complete with several new huts for stopovers. As it descends towards the West Coast, the trail hugs the Mokihinui River, that deep-wilderness waterway recently saved from a hydro dam.
It’s likely to be well into 2014 before the entire track is chipped into shape for cyclists, but our short foray makes us impatient. The ride across the tops promises to be truly spectacular.
Up on Mt Montgomery, the views are staggering. Pockets of cloud creep around a sea of peaks as we begin our descent.
The track has been built from the bottom up, so while the lower swoops are bedding down nicely, the upper section is bumpy, its most troublesome rubble not yet scrambled from the common line. I keep off the seat and employ my best rock-dodging skills, pausing every few minutes to gather more gumption. We’re soon below the bushline where peeks must be sneaked between snaggy old beech trees.
We stop for lunch at Lyell Saddle, where a smart 11-bunk hut and two sleepouts cluster on a ridge overlooking the Mokihinui South branch and the Glasgow Range. Here we meet a posse of riders embarking on a 34km return day-trip. None seem particularly out of puff despite their 800m climb.
The expertly cut and cambered surface will make for largely easy, flowing riding once all the rocky bits are smoothed out. The Old Ghost Rd, however, is grade 4 (advanced), while the majority of New Zealand Cycle Trails are 1-2. It is the trail’s remoteness, length and sheer drop-offs that ratchet the grade upwards.
We encounter a few tricky bits as we descend into the Lyell Valley, its steep hillsides fractured by the 1929 Murchison and 1968 Inangahua earthquakes. The damage is clearly visible in a series of gouges, still largely bald except for the odd tree clinging precariously to the rocky slopes.
We, too, feel like we’re clinging on as the track crosses such landslides. The most perilous are heralded by metal gates that force us to dismount. As advised, we wheel our bikes – somewhat gingerly – across the precipitous path. My heart is in my mouth, and rightly so. To quote the unflappable Kennett Brothers in their book, Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails: ‘‘If you wobbled off the edge, you would have a long time to think about your last blunder as you fell hundreds of feet to certain death!’’
Our ghosts might find good company amid Zalatown, Gibbstown and Lyell, settlements deposited in the valley’s lower reaches during the 1870s goldrush. Little betrays their existence beyond the odd rusty relic lying scattered in the undergrowth, and overgrown graveyard of old Lyell.
The Old Ghost Rd: See website oldghostroad.org.nz.
Derek Winwood descends from Mt Montgomery. Exhilaration: Anka Martin seems to be enjoying her Mt Montgomery descent.
Slip alert: Care is needed.