Exploration and Self Discovery – New Zealand

Staring out of the window on a New Zealand coach is usually hugely rewarding on the eyes. The serpentine, gorge hugging road was doing its best to distract me. My eyes fixed on the white water below did little to convince my head to think about anything else but my adventure that was edging closer by the minute. The frequent gear changes the driver was making to keep the coach meandering along state-highway 6 was almost in time with my edgy bouncing knee. P1050577To say the least, I was pumped and ready to take on the Old Ghost Road (OGR). Two days of planning in Westport led me to no other option but to take the 3.50pm coach to Lyell Campground where this newly reopened and fully restored old mining trail started.

The anticipation was killing me. My passion for natural riding adventures was bubbling over, mix that together with the Ghost Lake conundrum playing on my mind; would I or could I make this second camp before I lost the light? The true technical nature and potential effort required for the first 30ks were just side issues. Sven Martin’s ‘Must do MTB destinations bucket list’ was the reason I wanted to see for myself if Kiwi ‘natural’ mountain biking could stand alongside what the UK and Europe has in droves. Rob Dean’s words to me over a coffee 5 years ago, when we were work colleagues during a time when he was taking endurance mountain biking by storm, was the reason for my determined mind-set. “You’ll never be as fresh as you will be at the start of a race! Go hard and fast. The legs can always do more”

Clambering off the coach reality kicked in. I had two races, get the front wheel on the bike, tent secured to the handle-bars and take the selfie at the start before the clumsy sand flies locked on and of course the race against the light. Turning my back on the campground and rolling under that sign announced to my legs and head that we were on. The OGR immediately played to my 80’s childhood, Indiana Jones style swing bridges led me into a lush rain-forest setting. Starting this late in the day should guarantee me a solitary ride. The early evening soundtrack closed in behind me as the trail was not giving me any free yards. Twisting and turning the chiselled corridor of singletrack did its best to unsettle my rhythm that was hard to come by. I wasn’t that far from a state-highway and a campground but already I felt the awesome sense of history and wilderness.

I was desperate for an easier day two, but at 18k’s in Lyell Saddle camp was just not an option for me. Irishmans Creek was flowing well and finally so was I. Having read Sven’s article and browsed his Instagram, I had a few of his pictures fluttering around my memory. So much for complete solitude, my flow soon came to a firm stop as one of Sven’s photos was now right in front of me. A huge fallen tree across the trail that had enough space under it to ride through. But unlike Sven’s staged photo there was no mountain biker riding down it but instead a young lady standing tall and taking in the view. A quick chat revealed that an American couple were about 10 minutes ahead of me on bikes also heading for Ghost Lake. Exchanging farewells and leaving Sven’s ad-hoc studio behind, I was promised 85ks of singletrack and so far so good. The part loamy, part bedrock ledge, threaded me in and out of crevices and treated me to long sections of flowing trails and scree that warranted construction site high vis gates and signage.

The Big Slips and 8 Mile Creek went by without too much fuss. My target was 7.30pm or earlier at Lyell Saddle or forget Ghost Lake before dark. For the first time I reached into my pocket to grab the Garmin. I was sure I had time in hand. But the stops for photos had delivered me at Lyell Saddle spot on 7.30. The climbing gets severe after Lyell was the reminder I had flash up from Denna at Habitat Sports, back in Westport. How bad could it really be? Fresh as a daisy still, I punched on. Switchback after switchback and the first glimpse of Team USA. Reeling them in wasn’t an issue, as Mr Dean’s coffee machine advice was winching me up this channelled climb. But unfortunately most of this section was receiving major maintenance and was very claggy from the small digger they were using. My iron-horse was not coping as well as the mining mules would have done back in the day. Finally, normal service resumed and some altitude gained. The views and riding changed considerably. I was convinced Ghost Lake was not far away now. But what lay ahead before the satisfaction of space-man food and sleep was simply breath-taking. Exposed ridgeline singletrack with a back-drop oozing seamless panoramic views. It was here, that not only was every box ticked for mountain biking must-haves, but the views and sense of wilderness adventure stole the show. You can see why I am addicted to this type of mountain biking. The OGR for me was still less than 30k old, but I couldn’t help agree with this –


The roof of this ride had been reached. Rocky Tor at 1456m was not quite as lofty as Bolivia’s 5000m Inca trails which was my only other riding on this world trip. However it was enough to drop me down through the fauna and loose rock to Ghost Lake camp. The cloud forest mist was descending. The modern huts built for the tour groups were stilted and dominant above the craggy outpost looking out across the Lyell Range. The biting chill against my rapidly cooling body, gave me little time to really soak it up. I wanted hot food, dry clothes and an early night. Convinced I’d pass out with the hope of an early rise and cracking on was a little bit ambitious!P1050579

It is never about sleeping like a log or home luxuries. I think you get that by now. Warmed up from the sugar laden instant porridge, camping gear stowed away in the Osprey and the Trance sitting and waiting to take up its role as trail mule, day two commenced with what felt like the pause button having been released on the action. Straight into a demanding descent that was loose and sketchy, soon shook away my dreary cobwebs. The trees draped in sodden moss as the OGR jinked through sleepy hollow at the foot of Skyline Ridge. Less than 30 minutes in I was already thinking about the cold beer in Seddonville and I knew that was not ideal at this stage. My mind and body were still very much in the tent. A punishing climb back up on top of Skyline did not help matters. A short-lived burst of flow and almost a whoop, was squashed by the wooden steps that have been built to safely allow passage down this near vertical section. So far day two was awkward, clumsy and failing to inspire. At the point of really needing the OGR to deliver again, it did. I was covering distance again at a pace and with a purpose. I was mountain biking again on singletrack that drove me through the heart of the Stern Valley before the Boneyard and its two lakes, Grim and Cheerful.

Clambering out of the Boneyard I was relieved to clean it. One last look over the shoulder to give the tough climb recognition and it was onto Goat Creek to connect with the Mokihinui River for the first time. High alpine and cloud forest gave way to native brush, river basin and fern. The trail beneath the rubber was back to its sinuous best. Tracking the Moki and matching its flow with winding menace, throw in a handful of swing bridges and the real sense of following in the footsteps of those gold prospectors was cranked right up. A quick water refill at Specimen Point and the end was insight with 17ks left to Seddonville.P1050572 


It was these final handful of K’s that allowed me to reflect and compare. The bike was on autopilot and the OGR continued to roll fast and provide glimpses of its industrial origins. Immense work has gone into bringing this forgotten singular vein of history back to life in the form of a hiking and mountain biking trail. I loved every minute of this adventure from the planning in Westport, the race against the fading light, the vistas across the Lyell Range and the overall personal challenge. But for me like many of New Zealand’s great walks and trails there were some elements missing that took the edge of it. Although it was nice not to have to navigate, an adventure without at least breaking out the map once makes it all feel a little too safe, in fact you simply do not need one. Overall the calibre of riding was not a patch on the variety and unpredictability that natural trails in the UK offer. This may sound harsh, for me the OGR and this type of mountain biking is all about the bigger picture rather than the out and out quality of what is under the tyres. The reason for my nervy bobbing knee, the anticipation and the bubbling excitement was all about the sense of adventure, the challenge, embracing the backcountry, absorbing the great views and of course enjoying all the small things. The digging for gold may of finished decades ago but the OGR has shovel loads of reasons to be on your MTB bucket list.

I’d like to finish by thanking Denna Lee at Habitat Sports, Westport for the oodles of local knowledge and an even bigger thank you to the two rangers who were working on the OGR and gave me a lift back to Westport and recommended the steak house to replace the calories. To plan your adventure visit the official website – http://www.oldghostroad.org.nz/


Sean Howell

Marmalade MTB – Mountain bike guided rides, holidays, skills