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 Press - Escape - - ESCAPE -

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


Derek Win­wood de­scends from Mt Mont­gomery. Ex­hil­a­ra­tion: Anka Martin seems to be en­joy­ing her Mt Mont­gomery de­scent.


Slip alert: Care is needed.

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