To experience sublime natural beauty is to confront the total inadequacy of language to describe what you see. Words cannot convey the scale of a view that is so stunning it is felt. In such moments natural beauty becomes a kind of devastation – it is pure encounter, too compressed in time and space to be properly contained – Eleanor Catton, author of the Luminaries
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries delves into the gold mining history of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand – stories of pioneer courage, strange dealings in the deep landscape, and the ever-present torrential rain of the West. It makes a suitable introduction for the Old Ghost Road on two points: the first, that the Old Ghost Road is carved from resurrected 1800s mining trails, and the second, that the Old Ghost Road will contain mountain biking so amazing that it becomes a kind of devastation.
A labour of volunteer love throughout 2013-2016, the Old Ghost Road links together some 85km of backcountry singletrack between the abandoned mining town of Lyell on the West Coast, over the range to Seddonville, a small hamlet tucked just inland of Westport. With about 20 major bridges including a huge span over the Mohitunui River, thousands of crushed rocks, a 60vm sheer staircase and cliffside cuttings, the result is a monumental mountain biking experience.
Over Easter 2017, I’d schemed with old friend Phil to take on the Old Ghost Road, suitably sold by the images of backcountry riding. We’d decided on a rare single-day traverse, with a return the following day – it was 85km, and how hard could that be? This was met with various reactions of shock, awe, and general disappointment. The prevailing wisdom was to camp at at least one of the huts to save the legs, make the riding more achievable, and have more time to enjoy the stunning backcountry.
In the weeks preceding Easter, New Zealand was ingloriously visited by the remnants of two tropical cyclones. Camping at Lyell in the pouring rain, the possibility of a very wet ride was apparent. Arising in the morning to a slight lull in the rain, we headed off into the deep forest gorge of the Lyell River.
Sublime Natural Beauty
The trail begins immediately with a 25km 1200vm climb to the top of the Lyell Range. This climb is steady and beautiful graded on a flowing trail through the forest. With a benched and armoured construction, it holds up well to wet conditions, and immersed in pristine native forest, the kilometres pass pleasantly if slowly as you progress the climb.
Forest thins as the climbing transitions to the higher climes – with views over the gorge and the occasional slip to cross. Eventually, the trail emerges above the tree line, clinging perilously to the side of the Lyell Range. After a few steep pinches, you’ll arrive at Heaven’s Doors – rocky outcrops across the range. If you’re lucky, there’ll be panoramic views from here, however fairly often, the exposure can lead to foul conditions and a plunge back down for the treeline.
Traversing across the range, riders soon arrive at Ghost Lake Hut, perched atop the spine of the hill and with abundant panoramas. The view reveals the trail ahead – diving down the side of the ridge before climbing again to Skyline Ridge, a knife-edge serrated with the white rock of the trail.
This next section forms alternatively a brilliant descent or a heinously technical climb, depending on the direction you’re riding, with sharp switchbacks plunging down the hill, through the rocks of the forest, before unceremoniously dumping the rider at the base of Skyline Ridge. After a violent and technical climb, Skyline Ridge unfolds.
…The Total Inadequacy of Language
It’s the sort of ridge-line, hero riding everyone dreams of. Sketchy tight switchbacks, rockgardens, perched perilously atop a knife-edge ridge with ridiculous exposure. The thrill of the risk combines with the joy of the riding for an adrenaline-packed ride. A riding experience that exposes the total inadequacy to describe, with plummeting edges and expansive views along the ridge-top. On a clear day, you can see to the coast and the entire gamut of the remaining trail weaving through the endless remote terrain – but being the West Coast, don’t be too upset if you’re shrowded in fog.
This soon reaches the Skyline Steps – 60vm too steep for any trail to traverse – and a nasty little hike with a loaded bike to broach. But for the effort, comes the reward – the enormous descent down to the Stern Valley. Carved from the side of the hill and rough-cut over rock and root, it’s a mountain biking delight, coursing the edge of the ridgeline and eventually swooping alongside a tumbling stream in the kind of flowing, dream-like singletrack usually confined to glamorous magazine photos. For all the descriptions – it is a total inadequacy of language.
A kind of devastation
From Stern Valley, the trail wends gently through the forest and begins to climb gently again up the valley floor through rough gorse and scrub. This leads to the next major climb of the Ghost Road – the Boneyard.
The Boneyard is carved into the side of a boulder and scree field on the side of a mountain, heading for solemn saddle. In the colossal M7.3 1929 Murchison Earthquake, the side of the hill collapsed in a massive slip. The remaining devastation forms a unique and creepy landscape, beautiful in its barren devastation, and a reminder of the destructive and violent underlying geological tendencies of New Zealand’s landscape.
However, what climbs, must be rewarded. On gaining the pass of Solemn Saddle, the trail swoops down again towards Goat Creek, swollen by the rains into a raging torrent. For all our fear of the swollen rivers, the trail team had installed numerous bridges over the creeks and rivers, culminating in a massive suspension bridge to span the entirety of Goat Creek, and allowing safe passage even in poor conditions.
From here, the remaining trail eases on paper, with a flatter profile following Goat Creek to the Mohikinui Forks, the confluence of the two rivers with a spectacular rainfall over giant rock slabs, also torn from the ground by the 1929 earthquake. While flatter on paper, the trail carves a perilous line along the narrow and exposed Mohikinui Gorge, with numerous cuttings, slips and significant exposure to the river below, today raging in the violence of April flood. While beautiful, it’s also slightly ominous riding with a feeling of instant death so perilously close, and fatigue in the legs and arms.
Despite the flat profile, this last 20km down the gorge is slow-going, and all either climbing or descending. With the evening light failing, we crested the last violent little climb of Cowboy Hill and broke out of a widening valley towards Seddonville.
…too compressed in time and space to be properly contained
It was with the sublime combination of elation, endorphins and exhaustion that Phil and I completed the trail in golden sunset light. Having certainly underestimated its difficulty for a single day mission, we were battered but in awe of the diversity of landscapes traversed, the unbelievable logistics and quality of the trail building in such a wet area – each metre rock-armoured arduously to deal with the flow – and the trials and tribulations of a day that began in a sodden torrent, through rainbows in the middle, and ended in golden sunset.
An experience compressed in space and time. Which could only possibly be improved by riding back the next day in the opposite direction….
The Nitty Gritty
- Distance: 85km but this is no 20km/h trail. Very, very few consider this rideable in a single day and it’s a massive day. Don’t expect to do much more than 10km/h average speed.
- Time of year: The trail is year-round, but summer or autumnal riding is best for weather and daylight hours. Snow is highly likely during winter and riding would be ill-advised. The West Coast is known as the Wet Coast for good reason – if you have a dry ride, you’ve got lucky, so pack-prepared.
- Logistics: Buller Adventures operate a shuttle service to transport from Seddonville to the start at Lyle.
- Accommodation: there are numerous huts along the Old Ghost Road which can be booked ahead of time, and attract a flat fee of $140 NZD irrespective of how many nights you spend on the trail. These are well supplied, so all you have to pack is a sleeping bag and food, and other essentials. Seddonville has accommodation both at the beautiful Rough and Tumble lodge and the Seddonville Hotel
- Direction: The prevailing direction tends to by Lyell to Seddonville due to the (relative) ease of the first climb, which also attains most of the elevation gain. The reverse ride is excellent too, but beware the phenomenal difficulty of the climbs between Stern Valley and Ghost Lake Hut, which would stretch even Nino Schurter’s technical climbing prowess
- Costs: For the continued upkeep of the trail (a mammoth effort given the volume of rain the region experiences), expect to pay a minimum of $30 to ride. Additional costs include out-and-back packages or hut booking.
- Preparation: The trail is extremely remote and difficult to access, so any medical or mechnical emergencies will need adequate communications (EPIRB or Spot tracker etc) and a long wait for a helicopter pick-up, if it’s even possible. Prepare accordingly.