An adventurous journey and an amazing tale, spanning history and some wild terrain
Area: West Coast / Buller Time: 3 or 4 days Distance: 196 kms loop
If you're the cycling kind, and you haven't been hiding under a rock, you've probably heard of the Old Ghost Road by now. We had been hearing a lot of good chat about a magical journey by bike from people coming through Good Rotations looking for bikepacking gear to carry their kit on this mini expedition. I could only take so much FOMO, and had to go check it out myself!
A quick blast up the coast from Wanaka put me at the start point in Westport ready to ride at 4pm - not the best timing, but running a bike shop you take the chance to escape whenever it comes! I love routes that form a complete circuit, and the Denniston Shortcut add-on to the Old Ghost Road finishes an adventurous mostly off-road loop that removes any logistical hassles of getting to/from Lyell - the usual Old Ghost Road starting point.
Westport has all you need for pre-ride stocking up on food, cafés, and info if you need it from the Ghost Road office. Do drop in here before you head off if possible and have a yarn with some of the Ghost Road crew - full of handy info and infectious enthusiasm, they really do love this trail!
I had planned to bikepack the route as I had not booked any huts, and also because I would have a night somewhere on the Denniston Shortcut where there are not huts or amenities. In the end I lucked in and had huts to myself so used my 4 day window and savoured this wonderful bit of country.
Day 1: Westport – Mackley River (44km)
From Westport it's a road ride to Waimangaroa. This is where you leave the coast and begin winding up switchbacks towards Denniston, a mining area on the edge of the Papahaua Ranges at about 600m (population: 10). In it's hey day Denniston was a burgeoning hotbed of mining activity and had about 2000 residents. Many abondoned buildings from those times still remain. The Denniston Shortcut follows a pylon access track across the rugged limestone tops, and was pioneed as a bike route by adventurous cycle tourers in the 1970's. The riding is fun on the tops, double track with sections of bare rock and views across the plateau. As the bush and the humidity closes in the trail plunges in and out of several deeply incised streams, with tough gradients if fully loaded.
Day 2: Mackley River – Lyell Saddle Hut (37km)
It had been raining heavily on our drive up the coast, and I'd heard that the Mackley drained a large catchment. The crossing is not wide but can be deep and difficult when full, so I planned to ride to the river and camp up (I needed some sleep anyway!) to let the level drop and so I could eyeball the crossing. There wasn't much in the way of a tent spot at the river due to the steep terrain the river has cut, so s little backtrack up the trail was required. In the morning several jacked up 4x4's passed me after negotiating the bouldery river bed. The crossing was much better in the morning, around crotch high. The trail continues with some steep climbs, gradually giving way to gentler and more open country as it winds it's way to Lyell and Highway 6.
Here you'll find the remnants of what was once another busy mining area during a gold rush around 1860. There's little to show for it now, all signs of the town are long gone with all that remains being a small and sad looking cemetery, and various mining relics visible from the trail. There is a DOC basic campground at Lyell with lots of info about what life was once like there. This is the start of The Old Ghost road.
The first part of the trail climbs steadily but gently through forest on the old miners dray track, which was rediscovered and reopened from it's windfall blocked state by the instigators of the Old Ghost Road as they made their first recce's looking for a way through to the West Coast. 765m of climbing later, and and a hair-raising traverse of the Big Slips brings you to Lyell Saddle hut (11 bunks plus 2 x 4 person sleepouts and a couple of small tent sites). It's a great hut, complete with wood to burn, gas stoves and pots/pans/crockery & cutlery - you can really go light on this trail if you plan your nights well.
Day 3: Lyell Saddle Hut – Stern Valley Hut (22km)
Day 4: Stern Valley Hut – Westport (93km)
Support the Trail
The Old Ghost road is the product of a huge numer of volunteer hours, labouring in hard conditions.
Spirit to the Stone is a great read, documenting the trials and tribulations of building this trail against huge odds. All proceeds go to track building and upgrades - so grab yourself a copy! It's well worth reading before the ride as it gives context to the terrain you are passing through and really enriches the journey.
The gargantuan process of completing this epic ride and walk is told in the Muscle & Dreams movie. You can watch it on Vimeo for a few dollars - again, proceeds to the trail. We saw it at the NZ Mountain Film Festival - well worth watching.
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