The Old Ghost Road Cycleway
12–17 Nov 2014
I guess most PTC members will have read something of the OGR over the last four years. It is due to be completed in 2015. Starting from the southern end, in the upper Buller Gorge, at the site of the former mining town of Lyell, the trail runs north, then turns west along the spectacular Mokohinui Gorge, to end upstream of Seddonville. Funded from a number of sources including DoC, The Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust built substantial huts a nominal 5 hours walk from both ends—Lyell Saddle Hut beyond the end of the old dray road up from Lyell and Specimen Point Hut, toward the inland end of the Mokihinui Gorge. Then along the Lyell Range north-east of Lyell Saddle, they built Ghost Lake Hut on a bluff with a spectacular view. The route north from Ghost Lake continues with scenic ridge travel before dropping to Stern Valley Hut. Beyond Stern Valley, the route continues over Solemn Saddle and drops eventually via Goat Creek to the South Branch Mokihinui, crossing to the true left for easy travel down to the fifth of the Trust-managed huts, Mokihinui Forks, which we bypassed. Hut accommodation needs to be booked and paid for before starting the trip.
The historic Lyell dray road already existed, but the rest of the cycle-way is being constructed to a MTB standard, 750mm wide and average 7º slope. The Trust were aware when they started planning, that from Lyell Saddle they could have run the track down-valley through the bush at far less cost but it wasn’t a typical bush track they had in mind. So from the saddle, the track zigzags up onto the open ridge to pass Mt Montgomery and Rocky Tor at about the 1350m level giving great views in fine weather. Along this section Paul Jennens, based at Ghost Lake is working hard, slowly blasting the track from solid granite. Further north, Bill and Barry down at Stern Valley are ploughing through the mud, pushing the track up-valley. Further north again, Steve Stack from a work camp in Goat Creek is working on the next stage of track surfacing. Everything that needs to be bridged is bridged now, including the 120m suspension bridge over the Mokihinui.
The whole track is now open to trampers, with a warning that the incomplete sections are marked as temporary routes only. In Steve’s opinion, once the track opened there was a surge of trampers which soon dried up once the word got around that the marked routes through bush weren’t particularly easy. Having trampers lose the route didn’t help, thus the triple orange markers in places now!
Transport problems were overcome by driving to Westport on the Wednesday evening and staying at Brazils Hostel, leaving our vehicles in their car park. On Thursday morning Brazils took us to Lyell and picked us up from the Mokihinui on the Monday afternoon. So here is what happened.
Seven gathered at Joy’s at 4.30pm and left in two vehicles. The weather was changing and somewhere up the Waiau it started snowing! Alfresco is the first café when arriving in Reefton. In no time the host had a table organized for unexpected customers. The one hour stop in Reefton for dinner made us a bit late arriving in Westport, but that was no trouble to Ray and Steve at Brazils. The place seemed a bit of a rabbit warren in the dark but they soon had us set up in our self-contained unit—probably a converted hall, but very comfy—West Coast style and very cheap.
THURS – UP TO LYELL SADDLE
8.30am outside Brazils on a sunny calm day. We were loaded in their old van for the hour’s drive back up the Buller and then Upper Buller, to the reserve at Lyell. We were walking by 9.45am up through the bush at a MTB gradient to the saddle. Most of the trail had been the original dray road in gold mining days. Arriving at Lyell Saddle Hut at 3.45pm, we had our first introduction to the ‘hut standard’ for OGR. Definitely solid, each hut site could include the hut, a composting toilet and two separate sleep-outs. The bush on the saddle had been cleared for the buildings, so there is still a large supply of firewood.
FRI – LYELL SADDLE UP TO GHOST LAKE
This was our high-level day. After a starry night, the day dawned clouded-in and stayed that way all day. Away at 8.30am we passed Paul from Ghost Lake, on his motorbike coming down to the Saddle to bag firewood for the Karamea chopper to transport up to Ghost Lake. Up the zigzag in the bush we were soon in snow remnants. Once above the bush-line, we could see the cycle-way would provide great views on a clear day. A side-trip to Rocky Tor will have to keep for another time. Along the ridge there is the 800m section where Paul is battling the granite. We passed all his gear in the gloom, including the brand new, neat little rock crusher for surfacing material. Arriving at the hut at 12.30pm, lunch was first priority. Later in the afternoon the cloud lifted enough to show the great view out the hut window and later on, the lights of Murchison way below.
In a surge of activity five bikers arrived, having carried bikes through the top section. The bikers took their bikes down the spur to ‘The Anvil’. Three of them returned to spend the night and tramp down next day. A Robinson R44 suddenly appeared out of the cloud and plonked down in front of the terrace. The chopper then took the bikes on a strop from The Anvil and the other two bikers, down to a point beyond track construction. The weather clouded in again with light rain and wind all night.
SAT - GHOST LAKE DOWN TO STERN VALLEY
It was still clouded in at daybreak but half an hour before leaving at 8.10am it suddenly cleared to a fine day. The track zigzags down from the bluff and sidles to a long spur running down into the Stern catchment. Along the spur, we left the MTB track sidling below us on the true left, as we continued on the marked route along the ridge—a great place to be. Further down, the track will cross the ridge to the true right and sidle down to the hut. Our route eventually took a right turn and descended steeply to the Stern. We met Bill and Barry near the hut, working away in the yellow clay. At the hut by 2.05pm, we found they had a good set-up with a big gas fridge and stove, plus a generator for lights and a TV. Bill and Barry are choppered in for 8-day Friday to Friday shifts. We had a good evening with them on another wet and windy night.
SUN - STERN DOWN TO SPECIMEN IN THE MOKIHINUI GORGE
This was our longer day. Bill and Barry were up at 6am, making lunches and away up-valley on the dot of 7am. We left at 7.50am on a completed section of MTB track, past the two lakes, Grim and Cheerful, heading for Solemn Saddle. Leaving the MTB track, we turned left onto the marked route and climbed to the saddle, then climbed again to sidle around to a spur to take us down on the Goat Creek side. Once off the spur in the valley at 11am and back on to formed MBT track, cries of jubilation could be heard echoing around the valley; not naming anyone in particular, Dan.
At the bottom of Goat Creek, on the true left, the old DoC hut has been restored, including new floor and bunks. In a sunny, sheltered clearing, it would be a nice place to overnight. Goat Creek runs into the Mokihinui’s South Branch and a kilometre downstream, the MTB track crosses to the true left on the new 120m-long suspension bridge. This was interesting. It has a possum proof barrier and door because powelliphanta snails have been predated by possums on one side of the Mokihinui, but not on the other. DoC want to keep it that way. They think possums from one side have learned how to eat the snails and don’t want them to teach their less competent cousins on the other side. The easy trundle north down the true left of the Mokihinui was nice in the afternoon sun. By 3.25pm we were at Mokihinui Forks Hut, which is DoC standard construction but with some nice touches.
The confluence of the South and North Branches is spectacular, as is the Mokihinui Gorge for its length. To think, there nearly was an 85m high hydro dam built to flood the gorge! We arrived at Specimen Hut at 4.30pm. It is sitting on the spur above Specimen Creek with a terrace that gives grandstand views of the gorge. The hut itself, has a number of major stuff-ups in its design, but I can imagine some of these being changed in the not too distant future.
MON – SPECIMEN TO ROAD END BEYOND SEDDONVILLE
Last day and another fine one. The walk out from Specimen included some impressive cliff-face sections, with the track all cut to MTB standard, except where particularly tight bits mean walking the bike. With not too far to go, we passed Steve Stack riding in to work on some of the boggy yellow clay sections. By noon we were at the first car-park at Welcome Bay so stopped for lunch, then walked on toward the second car-park, arriving there at 1pm just as the Brazils van arrived to pick us up.
Back at Brazils in Westport the shower we had requested was unexpectedly at no charge! Brazils had been brilliant with nothing a trouble. So all cleaned up and the vehicles loaded we could then walk out the back to a café across the main street for coffee, etc and the divvy up, before starting the drive home.
Each day on the Old Ghost Road was very different, both in terrain and scenery. The weather made it most enjoyable. Being there during its construction added interest. Paul, Bill, Barry and Steve were all unique individuals and great to talk to. It was strange walking a nearly finished track yet not meeting other trampers. So timing was everything and we felt we hit it just right. Later in 2015 when the bike track is finished we can picture it being flooded with bikers with considerable pressure on some of the huts. Whether walking or biking, we won’t see it the same way again. Many thanks to Dan for coping with the organization and the day to day leadership. We were: Rick Bolch, Helen Harkness, Merv Meredith, Miriam Preston, Dan Pryce, Joy Schroeder and Douglas Woods. (MM)