The Old Ghost Road

Mark dropped a casual, “Hiya, would you like to do the Old Ghost Road after the Faultline Ultra?” in a Slack message before we headed over to New Zealand. Without hesitation, we enthusiastically typed, “YES!” and boy, are we sure glad we did despite the self-questionnaire:

  • Can you ride along a narrow winding trail that is only 400-600mm wide in places?
  • Are you competent and confident riding along a trail with steep, exposed edges and drops on one side?
  • Can you ride over rocks, drops and obstacles the size of soccer balls?
  • Are you fit enough to ride long steep hills for an hour at a time?
  • Can you ride for extended periods (up to 8 hours) each day?

After a quick recovery day after the Faultline Challenge, we hopped on an 8-seater plane with Mark to Westport, a small town located in the West Coast region of South Island. Originally named Buller, it is on the right bank and at the mouth of the Buller River, close by the prominent headland of Cape Foulwind (cue the foreboding music). There, we met Phil Rossiter, who played an instrumental role alongside Marion “Weasel” Boatwright, in building the trail. You can read more about the trials and tribulations on building the trail here. He arranged all of our bikes, an overnight at the Ghost Lake Hut, as well as good weather! Phil took us to meet James at Coast Outdoors, who dialed in our bikes and made sure we had everything we needed. The shop is the go to if you’re headed out on the Old Ghost Road!

The next morning, we hooked up with Nigel (one of the NZ Trailblazers we met at the Faultline) who drove up from his place in Central Otago. We started the trail in Lyell where we encountered our first of many curious weka. We loaded our bags with gear (the usual stuff of sleeping bags, change of clothes for every imaginable type of temperature, rain gear, and food) and then hit the trail. Up, up, up we went…pedaling endlessly. But strangely enough it wasn’t “hard” per se, because there was so much to see, listen, and admire. 

We started in the forested section that was dripping with mounds of moss – it literally looked like it was breathing! Coming from Colorado, it felt like being in a tropical rain forest, complete with tree ferns. And the birds, the birds! The songs were so diverse, and the birds curious…very curious. We stopped for a bit while a couple of Riroriros (grey warblers) inspected our bikes, tires, bike bags, you name it! We stayed still enough so that the birds tilted their heads with a “Well, aren’t you something?” and inched closer and closer to us. I think we must have stayed in some spots at least 15 minutes just to commune with the birds and soak in the lush green forest!

We continued climbing and climbing to the Lyell Saddle Hut (18km climb with 765m of ascent) which gave us our first open vista. One of the cheeky weka snagged a granola bar from Nigel’s pack and took off into the forest. Beware the weka!  No rest for the weary! We pedaled upwards to the open tops of the Lyell Range where we were greeted with jaw dropping views from the Lyell Saddle and treated to Heavens Door. Photos don’t do the views justice – it felt like we were on top of the world looking down on clouds, valleys, and endless mountains.

So far, so good, but on our final bumpy descent to the Ghost Hut where we were staying for the night, a flying object appear out of nowhere. It turned out Jeff’s rear pack had flown off along with his now broken rear rack. Mark will complain endlessly about the extra weight, but he strapped Jeff’s pack onto his rack and we made it the short distance to the hut where zip ties and some master engineering helped us keep the rack intact for the rest of the trip.

Certainly one of the highlights of the trip was The Ghost Hut. Sitting at 1200 meters above sea level, it has one of the most amazing views of the trail. We snapped my “Picture of the Trip” here during sunset. The hut itself has everything you need: gas cooking facilities, cooking equipment, crockery (although we just used our dehydrated food bags), and a water supply. Interesting little factoid: no concerns about giardia on this trip – you can drink from any stream and be fine! Turns out, NZ has no native mammals other than some bats and marine mammals. Old Ghost is in a roadless area with no cattle or sheep grazing.

The tables are communal, and we ended up meeting a nice family that knew about Durango! Their kids were avid mountain bikers and working their way up in the sport. Our goal was to keep their son well fed (a challenge for a >6’ 15 year old!). So any leftovers we had went straight to him! We have to give a shoutout to the dehydrated meals we had from Real Meals, an outfit from New Zealand whose founder is an adventure racer. Amazingly good. I could have attached their bacon mashers to an IV. If we ever come out with Mashed Potato Tailwind, I know who to call.

We slept in a foursome (a bunk bed on either side), and quickly conked out. The next morning, we woke to a lot of way-too-early activity as trampers (backpackers), cyclists, and others put together breakfast and made their way out the door. After a quick meal of oatmeal (with any extras going to our new found family friend), we hit the trail. The trail descends over 800 meters the next 13 km to Stern Valley. This is one of the sweetest sections, but also pretty technical and loaded with S turns at the beginning. We all had grins on our faces and lots of whooping.

Then some more climbing until we hit THE STAIRS. All I can say is thank goodness we were traveling this direction, because we went down and not up hundreds of bush stairs! We gingerly guided our bikes down, and finished our descent into the spectacular Stern Valley before heading to the dreaded Boneyard.

We had been hearing about the Boneyard since the beginning of our trip. Mark and Nigel spoke about it in an almost spiritual way. It was as if it was a “rite of passage”, and now the time had finally come. A goat announced our arrival as we ventured forth with a wildly-oscillating "baaaaHHHHHHaaaHHHHH" piercing the air. The Boneyard is something to behold. It appears out of nowhere – just a white monolith of a mountain slide in front of you. The trail is made up of white rocks and makes a delightful crunchy sound under the wheel. Thankfully, the climb was long, but not super steep, and gives way to some nice soft packed dirt. Boneyard complete, and to help us celebrate, a weka miraculously appeared along the trail on the hunt for handouts as always.

From here it was a series of ups and downs (no surprise there) stopping at various huts to soak in the views, share a granola bar with a weka, and admire the rivers, crossings, and fauna. We came upon the oldest hut in New Zealand, Goat Creek Hut, that was the first ever in New Zealand to be air-dropped in by fixed wing aircraft and much, much more.

One thing to note: the last 17km that looks like it’s all downhill? It’s not! When we looked at the map, it looks like a nice steady runout, but if you zoom in, it’s actually a spiky and exposed, cliff-hugging 17 km journey out to the Seddonville end of the trail through the spectacular Mokihinui River gorge (2-4 hours). There was one climb at the end that stopped us in our tracks after the long day. A sign that said, “Steep climb next 400 meters”. Our collective response? Fu*k!

But we did it. The ride was spectacular, the camaraderie second to none! We ended with a delightful dinner and stay at the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge. Beer never tasted so good! The next day, we transited back to Westport, and Phil had another treat in store with e-bikes rented to ride the Kawatiri Coast Trail. Did we mention the great weather? Well, it finally broke, and we rode through driving rain. But it was a ton of fun on the e-bikes, with the highlight of a seal rookery.

About that weather…our flight back to Wellington was iffy because of the storm, but visibility held just long enough for the 8-seater to get airborne. Winds are a thing in Wellington due to the wind funneling through the strait between the north and south islands, and the pilots who fly into Wellington are apparently amongst the best in the world. Good thing too because the landing was crazy! The pilot (he looked 27 max) had the curtain open, so you could see the runway on approach. Only we weren’t lined up with the runway for more than .25s the entire descent! The plane was all over the place and turned almost 90 degrees when the pilot put the gear down. I was in the crash position. Not kidding. Somehow, the pilot got us down to applause from the cabin. One lady said she’d been flying bush planes for 30 years, and this was the second worst. We wondered if she was the only survivor of the worst one! In the end, the pilot passed it off as no big deal and headed on his next roundtrip. But we felt like we had the full experience – a fantastic ride through the bush on the Old Ghost Road plus the full local experience of landing in Wellington wind!

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