by Andi Sykes
December 30, 2016
Chipps rides the Old Ghost Road, 88km of unbroken singletrack in New Zealand’s South Island.
This article first appeared in issue 97 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
Words by Chipps, pictures by Sven Martin.
I don’t know how old Paul the Trailbuilder is. His sun-charred features and deeply lined face tell of a lifetime spent outside, but he could be a rugged 35 or a youthful 70. His vice-like hands are tearing down a rock crusher into its larger component parts, so that they can all be choppered off the mountainside and reassembled where the machine is next needed to turn blasted rock into crushed gravel for trail surfacing.
This section of trail has taken a handful of workers several weeks to build. Paul’s a little apologetic about it; it’s not technically ‘in grade’ and is steeper than the textbook guidelines would like in a singletrack trail that should be passable by anyone on a decent off-road bike. To give him his due though, the trail in question has just made its way across a featureless, rocky cliff face where there previously wasn’t a single horizontal surface. In order to build a bench wide enough to accommodate a bike, large sections of rock were blasted out of the hillside with dynamite.
Those rock fragments were then manhandled into metre-cube bags, picked up by a helicopter and dropped at the rock crusher (which, I notice, was made in Nottingham). The rocks were crushed into railway ballast-sized lumps and reloaded by hand into metre-cube bags for the chopper to collect and to drop, with inch-perfection, in a neat row, a hundred metres long, along the newly blasted and cleared bench. The full bags then needed to be unloaded again by hand and spread onto the trail and beaten down into a compact trail surface. Only then could Paul and his small crew of volunteers move on to the next section.
It’s a frustratingly slow process, but by the end of this year the whole trail will be complete: 88km from end to end. The longest singletrack trail in New Zealand. By then, Paul will have been working on it for five years, sometimes for six weeks at a time, barely seeing a soul. The only way into town, 30 miles away, is by helicopter, and while many of the other workers usually head home on a Friday, Paul seems to like it up in the mountains, with just the immense silence and endless sky as company. And yet, far from being a hermit, he is delighted to have us ride this trail for the first time. The pride in the thousands of hours of mostly volunteer labour that have gone into it radiate from his cheery smile.
He waves our group off as we start on yet another piece of mountain bike perfection, under azure skies. Apparently this next slice of singletrack heaven was made over the course of a few weeks, almost entirely in the pouring rain. I redouble my appreciation of every kink and roll of the trail under my wheels.
Bigger than big.
I like to think that I’m reasonably well travelled (in the first world, at least) but I’d never been to New Zealand. I’d not particularly been fussed about going as I knew that it meant 24 hours of flying just to get there and that it was a huge place that you need weeks to explore. When I got the chance of going there for just five days, the perverse bit of my nature got the better of me and I leapt at the chance. While the excuse was to see some new bikes from Santa Cruz, the appealing bit was that we’d spend three days riding in the wooded mountainsides, far from what little civilisation there is on the South Island of New Zealand.
After a day of settling in we drove to the west coast, four hours or so from Nelson. There we hopped on a trail that took us into the hills. There was a lot of mining here, not even a couple of hundred years ago, and New Zealand enjoyed its own version of the Gold Rush (and also the inevitable bust). We rode in on the remains of a mine railway, cut out of the rock back then and now made into a pleasant walking/riding trail, for 20km or so until we reached our staging point for the Old Ghost Road in Seddonville. It’s a town that looks small enough that it would struggle to put together a football team, but thanks to its great location on the Mokihinui River, with great fly fishing and at the start of the Old Ghost Road, it supports the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge – a guesthouse/mountain lodge that has been hewn out of the trees to be a springboard further into the rainforest.
The clue is in the ‘rainforest’ name, but we were lucky enough to miss all the rain on our trip, although this meant that the sand flies (a sort of muscular midge) were out in force. The Lodge, however, had screened windows and porches, so our stay was pretty comfortable. More than comfortable, actually. Our delightful hosts cooked up home-made (and locally shot) venison pie, served with a selection of local wines and craft beers. With locally roasted coffee and Wi-Fi, it certainly didn’t feel like we were on the edge of the wilderness, but that would all change the next day.
After breakfast and a bit of stemswapping and fork inflating, we started our journey on the Old Ghost Road. It starts at the end of the road the Lodge is on and heads into the steep, inhospitable hills beyond. The track isn’t just a path to nowhere; it follows a route that was originally planned, and began construction, to link two gold mining areas back in the 1870s. Although five gold-mining ghost towns line the route, their homes (and schoolhouses, pubs and churches) have all but been swallowed back into the jungle. Here and there we’d find some rail tracks, or a huge gear chain from some old mining machine, links rusted into a strongman’s circus prop. We mostly had our eyes on the next corner, as they came thick and fast on our singletrack journey deeper into the hills.
We stopped for lunch at Specimen Point, one of the basic, bothy-like, camping huts that are bookable along the way. We sat on the balcony in blazing sun, munching on sandwiches and gazing at the mighty river below. Reverie over, we ploughed on, under the shade of giant ferns, crossing the river and finally getting to the furthest point of built trail on this stretch. Our goal for the night was Ghost Lake, 1,000m higher up and apparently ‘a 16-hour tramp’ through the jungle from this spot on the as-yet-unsurfaced path. And that’s without bikes.
So, without any particular fanfare, our guide Sven told us we’d be ‘choppering’ up to Ghost Lake to our lodgings for the evening. Not only had I never been to New Zealand before, I’d never been in a helicopter. While I, and several of my mature, experienced, bike journalist colleagues, could barely contain our excitement, Mike Stylianou, one of the other Kiwis on the ride, told me that it wasn’t uncommon for mountain bikers there to take a helicopter uplift. For special occasions, a couple of times a year perhaps, they’d club together and book one – for probably not much more than the cost of a day’s uplift in South Wales – and get them and their bikes lifted miles away to a distant peak, to spend the day coming back down.
The chopper had already left the bike cage on the ground for us, so we packed the bikes and waited for the telltale sound. Some companies tie them onto a huge rope – a bike every three metres like knots on a string – but our landing area would be pretty tight, hence the cage.
We didn’t have too long to wait and the sound, air and everything was suddenly full of chopper. Six of us at a time hopped into the ‘bird’, which barely slowed its rotors, and as our T-shirted bush pilot casually took to the sky we all giggled like children.
Climbing straight up, we soon left any sign of life behind as we rose over the empty hills. Empty apart from one tiny trail, carved into the folds of the mountains. This was the section of the Old Ghost Road that was yet to be finished, and it looked like some of the best so far; endless, switchbacking trail that tumbled up and down the wooded hillside like Silly String. In no more than five minutes, we were circling Ghost Lake, and the pilot put us down onto a tiny gravel landing pad that most of us would struggle to reverse a car into.
Ghost Lake hut is a solidly built bunkhouse at one of the high points of the Old Ghost Road. It’s also where a lot of the construction workers and volunteers have been living for many months – and it’s where we first met Paul the Trailbuilder and a couple of others, just getting off after another ten hours of shifting rock on the mountain.
Sven and co-guide Anka had prepared well, and the staff at the Rough and Tumble Lodge were old hands at this too; the chopper had also brought dinner for the dozen of us (including pudding) from the Lodge, along with all our small overnight bags and sleeping gear. All that remained was to sit out on the terrace and watch the sun disappear while the chicken curry heated up.
As we sat on the balcony, full of dinner and a couple of beers, wrapped up against the cool air, a sky full of unfamiliar stars revealed itself. More and morestars as the darkness took hold, and our eyes accustomed to that darkness, until there was a comedy amount of heavenly light. It seemed that there were more stars than sky. We could still see the nearest streetlights; not as an intrusive glow, but as a small orange blob down in the valley, perhaps 20 miles away. The sky was ours alone to appreciate.
Dawn, too, was as impressive. The orange fire of the sun lit up a blue sky, revealing a valley below, full of cloud. As we rose from our bunks, a constant stream of people would fill up with coffee and disappear outside to marvel at the sight. Eventually the hypnotic silence was broken as Paul fired up the petrol generator to charge the work team’s radios and phones for the day – and to power the toaster. “This is the highest toaster in New Zealand,” he told me with a grin. Every slice of toast would cause the engine to labour, making it simple to tell when the toast had popped up as the gennie dropped back to a purr.
Packed and ready to ride, we set off uphill. Despite cheating yesterday with the chopper, we still weren’t at the highest point of the trail, so we were soon working off our breakfast as we climbed on singletrack, and traversed sheer cliff faces to the point where we would meet Paul and his rock crusher.
Lost in the woods.
At some point after that, I saw Sven’s bike by the side of the trail and sped on. It’s not uncommon to see an abandoned photographer’s bike as they hide up a tree somewhere, so it didn’t even register until perhaps 20 minutes later, when I realised I’d not caught up with anyone in the group. Nor did there seem to be any tracks in the pine needle duff that made up most of the trail surface. I stopped to listen for them.
Absolutely nothing. Not the slightest hint of man-made noise. The sound of the birds and the insects were all around, but that was it. I stood and listened for ten minutes. I wasn’t unduly worried – after all, I was on the only trail for miles and there hadn’t been any trail forks since… since I saw Sven’s bike a mile or so back. I slowly started riding back up the gentle grade, and it wasn’t long before a slightly confused-looking Sven rounded the corner with the rest of the bunch in tow. I’d missed the day’s hut-side lunch stop, that was all.
Changing direction once more, I could look forward to descending again, faster and faster towards the end of the trail, under the shade of huge ferns, the smell of the jungle, lush and fragrant in our nostrils. The end of the trail brought with it a sense of achievement and palpable disappointment.
More than big.
The sheer scale of the Old Ghost Road project is astounding. Having a 50-mile singletrack trail is big enough, but to do it so far from even the nearest dirt road is precocious in the extreme. What’s more impressive is that the project was only proposed in 2009 and the first untracked ground was only broken in 2011. And now, most of the trail is already finished. Even the material for the huts has all been flown in and built on the spot.
The section we were now riding is already popular with walkers and day-tripping mountain bikers, as it’s possible to climb up to Ghost Lake from the roadside in Lyell Gorge and return the same way in a day. It won’t be long before the whole trail is open from end to end, though, tempting an obvious challenge to do it in a ‘oner’. We were happy enough with our three-day version from the coast as it gave us a chance to enjoy the peace and quiet of the stops, the views, and of course, the stars, as we made our way between those long-gone mining communities. What was easily achievable by us with hardtails, vans and helicopters must have been astoundingly hard not much more than a century ago. The original planned road was never finished, but the spirit of it – and that spirit of pioneering adventure – certainly lives on in the hills.
The Old Ghost Road in numbers.
Sitting on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the eastern end of the Old Ghost Road starts about two hours’ drive from Nelson. Alternatively you could drive another couple of hours to the other end (you can see why helicopters are so popular – it only takes 15 minutes in a chopper). So far, 260 volunteers from all over the world have contributed 24,500 hours of labour to date, including some ‘serial volunteers’ who have made massive contributions. Of the original 1880 trail, there was almost 18km of old construction at the southern end (Lyell to Lyell Saddle) and almost 16km at the northern end (Seddonville to Specimen Point). However, although most of both sections had been completely lost to landslips, slumps, earthquakes and windfall, Phil Rossiter from the project says: “There was just enough there to coax us into taking it on…”
Sven and Anka at Ride Housemartin ridehousemartin.com
Santa Cruz Bicycles, santacruzbicycles.com
Rough and Tumble Lodge, roughandtumble.co.nz
The Old Ghost Road, oldghostroad.org.nz
Fundraising for the last few kilometres of trail: