Morning on the Old Ghost Road
The cold pulls me from my sleep, my toes are numb but my feet ache. The 3-season sleeping bag is really being put to the test. I’m camped on the highest edge of the treeline; an inversion layer has the cloud far below and the cool air swirls around camp. Although I can see my breath in the air I am quickly out of my sleeping bag and getting packed. Today is the alpine section of the Old Ghost Road! This is my most anticipated section of the whole Offroad Aotearoa trip. Also my first foray above the treeline and onto the mountain ridges.
I rush into the Lyell Hut to thaw my toes. The bustle of people packing and eating adds to the anticipation. The fog of coffee and excitement fills the cabin. The sprawl of belongings recedes like a tide, back into various bags and then in turn onto the bikes. A dozen or more keen cyclists abut to head out on the trail as the sun is still rising. Smiles on their faces and warm food in their bellies.
I mill around the cabin a little longer than usual, helping Murray (who I met last night) finish his dehydrated Full English (not bad actually.) then I can wait no longer and head onto the trail, a few people have already set off but most are still packing. The trail Is still and quiet as I begin the final climb out of the treeline.
The Alpine Section
The trees thin with each switchback, the clear grey sky getting wider and wider as it creeps free of the forest. At 1275m I roll out of the trees and stand eye to eye with the surrounding mountains of the Buller Range. Clouds below fill the valley like a forgotten rock pool. A Rorschach Test of clouds dapple through the scattered peaks. Deep forest in every direction as far as I can see. The wind chills the sweat on my arms as I stop to take photos.
Ahead of me the tracks winds along the jagged ridge, a meter or two wide with a gaping drop off one side. Its sticks to the ridge flossing its way through the steep rocky outcrops known as the Tors. The Old Ghost Road is the most technically demanding track so far and this was the most technical section. A slipped pedal and a fall would be a long way down. Help was even further, only a helicopter can come to save you out here.
The track is a rough jumble of rocks, large boulders the size of my head mixed in with rolling fist sized stones. AS I pass through my wheels skitter loosely over the mix. To my right the horizon is hidden by stubborn tussock, clinging forlornly to the peaks of the Tors. To my left a yawing drop to the tangle of forest below. I can see glimpses of the river through the patch work of clouds below.
Scary Ride to the Ghost Lake Hut
As I cycle along the ridge every dip has me tense, feathering the brakes or slowly easing more pressure onto the pedals. The rocks and gravel beneath my wheels slosh loosely before my tyres grip. My pedals slip often, the jolt forward sends me off balance and I wobble precariously with the fully laden bike. I shoot a foot out to the cliff side of the path, even a low speed tumble could send me careening down the steep rocky slope.
Some sections are too steep for me with the bike so heavy. So I get off and push, watching a pair of Keas circle lazily on the stiff cold breeze. The famous alpine parrot or New Zealand giving yet another reminder that I was a high up and far from rescue (they only live in the high mountains).
For 2km I creep my way along the tightrope through the sky, I stop often to take photos and regain my composure. The views are incredible, unimpeded by trees the panorama stretches out to infinity. Spines of other mountains piercing through the low cloud, hinting at unexplored valleys and hidden rivers.
The trail drops from its precarious route and winds back down towards the tree level once again. Around the corner a high alpine lake shines bleakly in the grey light, its water a dull green. This is Ghost Lake and standing above it is Ghost Lake Hut. I pull in as the weather clears and sun beams break through and light up the valley. This looks like a good enough reason to stop and have a snack, I have only been riding a few hours but I wanted to savour every moment of this epic journey.
Making Friends in High Places
As I sat, staring out of the window at the (for now) sunlit peaks I hear the clatter of bikes. The skid of tyres and loose gravel followed by excited murmuring signals the arrival of company. In comes Murray, Cathy and Paddy grins stretched from ear to ear, red in the face from the cold or the exertion. They look like children, in from playing in the snow. Their eyes are bright and jump around energetically, adrenaline is pumping for sure. They strip off layers and set about making teas and having snacks.
They are old friends and fall into the easy comfortable banter of long years of friendship, their excitement of the trail is infectious and I am drawn into their conversation. I offer them some of my sacred jelly bears and am welcomed into their group with biscuits. We chat about the past section of trail and stare out in wonder at the rugged landscape out of the window. We speculate on the upcoming trail as we point out the jagged zigzag of cleared trees and the scribble of singletrack leading along another alpine ridge. That is where we were headed next.
After a quick snack break they set off and I watch their multi-coloured rain jackets bob and twinkle through the trees. They are lost to view as they skirt underneath the high cabin. I hear more skidding and more clamouring outside as a much bigger group arrives at the hut. This is my time to leave and I sidle back to my bike as more excited red-faced riders burst through the door.
Ghost Lake Hut to Stern Valley Hut
The track is very different to the Tors section, here is it tight slimy singletrack snaking through tight trees and scattered with huge boulders, I have to pedal hard to keep my momentum over the slippy rockfall. Moss covers everything and my wheels are only loosely under my control. I hint at a direction and they make their own path. I bounce and bumble across rocks as fast as I can but it’s a juddering stop start motion.
As the track gets steeper the switchbacks get tighter, my XL 29inch bike feels like a bus as I manoeuvre the tight steep corners, I lean right over my back wheel, my tent and cook pot tight between my legs. It’s a dangerous combination of slicks rocks and too much weight over the back wheel. My front wheel loses traction and slides out beneath me. I pitch over the bike onto the floor, it’s a slow-motion fall and I land happily on all fours in a crouch. I selfconsciously look up at the cabin above to see if the group had spotted my little tumble. Dusting myself off I continue on.
The switchbacks continue but the gradient flips, now I am climbing and headed up the snaking clay coloured route we spotted from the hut window, I am pushing hard to keep speed on the steep slopes. I’m panting as I catch up with Paddy, Cathy and Murray, they are pushing their bikes and move aside to let me pass. Shortly they pass me as I am pushing and we continue to frog hop past each other, up and up the weaving path.
Stopping on the ridge we take a moment as a group to enjoy views and take photos. Then we all set off together riding the technical ridge and walking some of the steeper switchbacks. I am relishing the company and everyone having so much fun. We stopped and waited for each after the harder sections and then urged each other to ride faster on the flowy lower sections.
The time flew and before I knew it we were at Stern Hut. I pulled in for yet another snack break and Cathy, Paddy and Murray all set about settling in for the night. I didn’t have bed booked in the hut and the sandflies were out in force. Not to mention it was only 5pm! With great reluctance I said goodbye to my new friends and set off along the trail alone.
Stern Hut to Goat Creek Hut
Again the trail had transformed, the golden tussocks and stark rocky landscape had been eaten up by dense jungle as we had descended. Now as I pedalled away from Stern Hut I traversed around the valley and Grim Lake. The dirt trail turned into rough gravel as I traipsed my way up old landslide debris. The trail hammered flat on the tumble of rocks some as big as a caravan. I can’t imagine the force taken to send these hulking goliaths tumbling down the hill. I tried to cover ground quickly with my imagination running scenarios in my head. Where would I go if I heard a rumble from above?
The scenery was still ever changing and the weather seemed to be following suit. The sun had dried parts of the trail but huge bogs of mud covered other sections, as I neared the saddle out of Stern Valley the clouds looked ready to break. I debated making a hasty retreat back to my new-found friends and the warmth and security of Stern Hut. However, stubbornness won out and I pushed on over the saddle and into another unique habitat.
The Mokihinui side of the saddle rewarded the climb with a glimpse down the whole valley. The valley walls rising up steep reminding me that I had been up on the steep ridges just that morning. The gentle downhill had me riding fast and loose but on my own it seemed a little riskier. and I pulled back slightly after a few over excited drifts.
After a slightly tricky river crossing I pulled into Goat Creek Hut just before dusk. I watched a Weka noisily poke around the bushes outside my tent. I was wet and muddy and running low on supplies but absolutely stoked on the days riding.
Goat Creek Hut to Seddonville
I was up at dawn the next morning and made good time out of the valley. The technical riding was behind me and it was literally all downhill out. Also, I was getting hungry. So, I ate the last of my jelly bears and got my head down. Pushing through to the end of the trail by early lunch.
I was happy to have reached the end but also reluctant to have this part of the adventure over. So, I went into the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge to reflect and eat.Basking in the sun, i ate a sharing size plate of nachos as i sat contentedly watching the river.
I stepped out of the lodge to get back on the bike and head to Westport. I had resupply and possible shower on my mind. It had been 4 days since I had last showered and they had been a pretty strenuous few days. As I opened the door, in came Paddy, Murray and Cathy!
We all sat back down and had a few beers and plates more food. It was great chatting away and eating. Reminiscing on a recent adventure. It had been a hell of a ride, high exposure alpine ridges, tight technical switchbacks, flowy forest singletrack and some steep climbs and steps thrown in for good measure. It had been an epic journey. My most anticipated trail of the trip and the Old Ghost Road had seriously delivered.
I loved riding with other people and wondered what it would be like for the rest of the journey. After all, there was still over 1000km to go!