After two days hiding from the rain and falling in love with Motueka I finally get back on the road. Autumn is in full swing; the road is framed by golden leaves and the trees are looking progressively barren. The sky is a dull gun metal grey and a cool wind hits my bare arms. my exposed skins tingles with the chill.
I have a building anticipation. Every pedal stroke brings me closer to the Old Ghost Road. The section I have been most looking forward to. Taking in the iconic trail put a huge dogleg into my otherwise north to south trip but there was no way I would miss an opportunity to ride it.
The Road to The Old Ghost Road
I’m not there yet though, there is still 100+km of riding to get to Lyell and the start of the Old Ghost Road. It’s 100km of mostly road riding with some occasional dirt roads through forestry section. I make solid time and reach looking for a place to eat dinner. It was just a place name on a map that I aimed towards.
Turns out, Glenhope is a very small town and I had in fact missed it as I rode by. Clearly a very small town. Now I was on Highway 6. The road was scenic and smooth, it cut low through the steep valleys of the Buller Range. I craned my neck to look at the fading sunlight retreating up the flanks of the valley. Steep thick woodland turning golden by autumn and the dying daylight. Occasional glimpses of the Buller River below show the cause of the valley and the road runs parallel, accepting that the river knows the best route.
The downside of Highway 6 is that due to the November 2016 earthquake in Kaikora this is now one of the busier highways on the South Island. I am buffeted by the tail wind of trucks one after another. Huge lorries carrying full loads churning out fumes as they power up and down the hills, the road is windy and there is a solid metal barrier to my left. I feel squeezed in and claustrophobic. I turn off the road just outside of Murchison to escape ‘rush hour’.
I shelter in an abandoned layby underneath the road, far enough away that the river drowns out the traffic. It’s an idyllic spot and certainly rates high on my best camping spot competition. Someone else clearly has had the idea before me and I relight the remnants of the fire, mostly just to keep the bugs away. It’s my first fire of the trip which strikes me as odd. I have been just too tired at the end of the day to bother. Looking into the dancing flames and then into the surrounding valley I am hit with gratitude for the moment.
The next morning, I feel the crunch of the first frost on the ground, it’s an icy start to the day. With crisp blue skies, the sun hasn’t ventured into the valley yet and has just highlighted the peaks of the surrounding mountains. It would be a while yet before the warmth slowly oozed into the valley. I ate quickly and rode fast to get my blood pumping. Any heat this morning was coming from me so I had to get a move on.
Time to use the Ductape
Arriving in Murchison I stop for a warm breakfast and a major resupply. My last stop until Westport. My seat has been making a weird squeaking noise for the last few days and I finally realise what it is. I have managed to snap one side of the runners under the seat, far from ideal before riding the toughest section of my whole expedition. A snapped saddle could be an absolute nightmare.
I get an old aluminium can from the bin and cut out the centre part with my Leatherman to give me an aluminium tube.Then, I wrap the tube around the broke runner like a splint and cable tie it either side. I wrapped the whole thing in Ductape and then sit back to enjoy my workmanship. It has all the calling cards of a good fixer-upper (Ductape and cable ties? They could hold anything right?) Hopefully it will hold until Westport.
Onto the Old Ghost Road
At the trail head to the Old Ghost Road I am bouncing with excitement. I read the interpretation signs about the mining history but I am itching to get riding. I mean itching very literally I was being slowly eaten alive by sand flies.
Once in the forest the flies died down and I was surrounded once again by deep lush flora. The cool morning had burnt away into a gorgeous sunny day. Bright golden beams of light broke through the thick canopy and huge swathes of blue sky filled the gaps between trees. Thick olive-green moss hung from every bough like long forgotten tinsel, it captured sound and muffled the forest noises.
Autumn seemed to be a distant possibility. The whole trail was lush and vibrant and teeming with energy. Fantails hopped along the trail and even on my tyres when I stopped to try and photograph them. They seemed unperturbed by my crossing, so used to heavily laden cyclist and walkers feeding them energy bars and oat meal I assume.
Slow and Steady
I rode slow and savoured the moment. In my eyes this was the pinnacle of the trip, the most remote and technically difficult section I would have to ride. If there was going to be any accidents or major problems it would be on The Old Ghost Road. I relished the challenge and was excited to test myself against the technical climbing and tight singletrack descents. This would all start tomorrow on the Lyell Saddle. I couldn’t wait.
The opening section was a solid 18km (760m ascent) climb up to Lyell Hut just below the alpine section of Lyell Saddle. So far, the path was great, good condition well packed gravel and dirt. Although relatively steep it was all rideable. Of the Great Trails I had ridden (Waikato River Trail, Timber Trail, Bridge to Nowhere, Queen Charlotte) it was new and well maintained. Also, It looked like it had been designed for bikes (which it has) as opposed to converted from a walking path.
I idled along, spending time to make some video footage and look for the ruined shelters of the mining town that once clung to this steep mountain side. I was riding up the old rail way line with the steady gradient and gentle corners. Passing through sections clearly blasted through with dynamite in the none too distant past. I tried to imagine what it had been like living here in those days.
Hard, Fast and Hungry
My gentle pace seemed to be getting me nowhere, I checked again on my GPS and was expecting to get to Lyell Hut any second. Double checking with my guide book I realised I was still quite some way off and I had misjudged how far the hut was. I put my camera away and tried to get a shuffle on. The gentle railway path had finished and a steeper rockier path had replaced it, I had reached the end of the old town and heading into the mountains. I rode through fast fresh streams fizzing with energy as they bustled across the path. The water was delicious and icy fresh, straight from a spring, young and full of energy.
The trail clung doggedly to the edge of the steep and increasingly higher mountainside, each sweeping corner came with a complimentary valley panorama. The shadows tinged blue as they crept back up the forested walls. The sun was already retreating over hidden summits and I was racing against the chill. The balmy summer afternoon was bait that had lured me into a false sense of security, now the cold evening was fast on my tail.
Out of Energy
Thinking that the hut was surely just around the corner, I pushed on as my stomach rumbled. My legs grew weak and I became increasingly downtrodden by the elusive Lyell Hut. Two older riders broke my morose silence as they shot past me like I was standing still. They had about 20 years on me and I just stared in there wake as they were quickly swallowed up by the forest. I thought I was fit? How had they over-taken me so easily? Sure, I was packing more gear but they still were carrying some supplies? I felt defeated in a race I didn’t even realise I was racing. I stopped and stuffed jelly bears into my face.
The jelly bears instantly lightened my mood (as they always did) I settled in to grind through a long climb. Fretting about the distance wasn’t going to change it. With sugar on my side I had a much sunnier outlook. If need be I could always ride through dusk and even in the night I had plenty or lights and batteries. I reset back to savouring the moment.
The next corner I basically stumbled into the steps up to Lyell Hut. Amazing what a change in perspective can do.
An Alpine Camp
Carrying my bike up the steps I laid it down next to the buffet of mountain bikes that scattered the clearing. An epic view stretched out over the hitherto hidden side of the mountain. The sky faded from a ghostly pale grey at the mountain summit to a rich dark purple, stars weren’t out yet but they weren’t far off.
Well-marked gravel paths lead between fresh looking wooden buildings, the smaller sleeping huts orbited the warm aura of the Lyell Hut, a comforting yellow glow flickered out of the windows with the low murmur of chatter and cooking. Smells wafted out as people opened the door to grab various forgotten items from the smorgasbord of bikes parked outside. As the door opened the rich thick light of a roaring fire spilled out and the hustle and bustle were captured in a snapshot.
There were probably twenty bikes scattered haphazardly around the hut in various states of undress, my bike looked positively homely compared to some of these sleek, carbon bikes. I felt like I was arriving at a horse race riding a pack mule.
I set up base quickly, just out of ear shot from the hub of activity. The night was already setting in cold, the altitude sucking away any pretence of warmth left behind by the setting sun. I fell into my quick practised routine of setting up camp. Food was on my mind and I wanted to meet the others who had ventured into the mountains on their bikes.
The warmth of the hut poured out as I opened the door, a cocktail of smells and sound hit me. It was like walking into a busy kitchen, the hubbub of people cooking and packing and un packing. There was maybe a dozen people milling around the kitchen area. Clothes hung from every corner, socks had pride of place by the fire, the roof was bedecked in waterproofs that rustled as people passed like the thick fern leaves outside.
Maps and notebooks were spread across tables, over lapped with tin cups of steaming hot chocolate and mess tins full of rehydrated food. Steam rose from multiple pots of boiling water on the gas stoves, the windows were opaque with condensation and the blackening sky was partially hidden.
There were about a dozen people in the hut possibly more in the bunking area if the number of shoes outside were a good indication. I was some what to surprised to see that I was by far the youngest person in the cabin. Amongst the Lycra and merino wool there was sun-wrinkled faces, grey hair and salt and pepper stubble. But also, there was hardened bulging legs bound with knotted veins, every handshake was firm and calloused. Seasoned tan lines from years on the bike riding in the relentless New Zealand sun.
These were older but they had grown old outside, they had been shaped by the thing that I love most. The call of the wild had captured them all and they had spent years upon years answering that call. Though decades separated us, these were my kind of people. We shared a common love and it was clear in their shining exuberant eyes that they were as excited as I was.
They spoke passionately about riding and camping and hiking. The stoke level was so high even if that’s not the words they would have chosen to describe it. Everyone was keen and raring to go for the alpine section tomorrow morning. We swapped stories as the hut filled with warmth. Above the stars came out in force as we sat in our firelit cocoon nestled high on the alpine ridge.