Old Ghost Road
Seemed appropriate that it was April Fool’s Day when eight aspiring trampers plus one walker/driver carefully packed themselves – and four days’ worth of tramping gear – into a rented 10-seater van to drive the 533km from Oamaru to Murchison before tackling the Old Ghost Road trail. It was a long drive for a long (85km) walk. Were we nuts?
But everything fitted in, the weather was fine and the forecast optimistic. So far, so good. And nutty optimism proved totally appropriate for the OGR. It is the spirit in which this ambitious and challenging bike/walk trail was built. Reading Marion (Weasel) Boatwright’s account of how it came about (some of us took advantage of the copies of Spirit to the Stone left in the huts) adds a lot to the whole experience.
It all began with an old map and the ghost of a road that had been built in the late 1800s from the once bustling gold rush town of Lyell.
After a meal fit for giants, a good night’s sleep in Murchison and an hour or so’s driving, that’s where our tramp started in what is now a DOC camp. The first day may have been all uphill but what was once an old dray track is gently graded through beech forest and boasts a rich mix of both human history and regenerating natural history.
At every stop, robins would emerge from the bush to hop close, perching on packs or even boots. Curious weka honed in on potential food sources with confident intent. Old kettles, pans, a collapsed hut held traces of the human history – detailed in story boards along the track. We paused for lunch at the “big slips” – where the old track had been obliterated by major earthquakes (Murchison, 1929; Inangahua, 1968). It had given pause to the current century’s effort to create a trail and the hand-benched track across this terrain is impressive testimony to the determination of its builders.
Our first overnight was at Lyell Saddle where we got a first-hand look at the role of helicopters both in building the track’s huts and maintaining them. The close manoeuvring onto a nearby skid site was impressive with a downdraught blowing the odd sock off the deck. An empty gas bottle and large white sack went into the sling, the rotors whined into full throttle and all was lifted away. Peace returned – along with a family of wild goats.
If we thought the views from Lyell Saddle were impressive, the next evening was even more so. That Ghost Lake Hut is built atop a very steep bluff becomes very evident when you leave it. Sleepwalking would be ill-advised. The second day’s walk was both shorter (13km as opposed to 18km) and more spectacular as the track rises above the bushline to the impressive Rocky Tor and “Heaven’s Door” – and yes, we did knock.
The quirky signs – the “Tombstone”, Lakes “Grim” and “Cheerful” along with the huts’ idiosyncrasies (moon and stars carved in toilet doors, hanging “hearts” of trunk cross-sections) highlight the fairly personal input the track builders (Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust workers and volunteers) had in its creation. Days 2 and 3 highlighted some of the other challenges they faced – the mudstone terrain past Lyell Saddle that necessitated painstaking “corduroy” beech track building; then the hard granite of Lyell Range which had to be blasted into usable track.
Mist covered the land below as we left Ghost Lake Hut and headed along the sharp spine of Skyline Ridge to pause where it dropped like a stone into the Stern Valley catchment.
This is where the brave bikers have to shoulder their machines to get them down the 300 or so steps that proved the only means of possible descent for the trail. Despite such obstacles, we met bikers who were doing the 85km stretch in just one day as well as a couple who were doing a two-day there-and-back effort with a night’s respite at Rough and Tumble Lodge.
The grandeur of the tops gave way to beech forest, rushing streams, more robins and the promise of whio (blue duck). At Stern Valley Hut, at least one of our party managed a full immersion in the freezing river. Even paddling was wonderfully refreshing – for a short time. West Coast, sandflies, ‘nuff said.
The next day was our longest – at 25km – and took us up through the rumpled landscape of Earnest Valley. Here, “The Boneyard” offers very graphic evidence of a landscape rift by faultlines. An info map marks some eight or so faults in the near vicinity! The rather haunted atmosphere is enhanced by keas calling across the hills. There were closer encounters with these cheeky birds at Ghost Lake hut. The track heads back to the Mokihinui South Branch and past the mysterious “Resurgence” where a flood of clear, green water surges from an underground source that even intrepid divers haven’t apparently managed to track. Magic!
Our next “hut with a view” at Specimen Point looks out over the tumbling, roaring glory of Mokihinui River (damming it would have been criminal) and is as comfortable as the others. All come well equipped with pots, plates, mugs, cutlery and even measuring cups etc – as well as gas cookers. No need to carry a kitchen in your pack.
From there, the trail mostly follows the Mokihinui – again tracking the history of those who’d hacked a trail up to the long abandoned Red Queen Mine (site of a small village in the 1880s). Various gold working remains plus the remnants of a bridge that once spanned the Mokihinui providing a route through to Karamea are features along this part of the track. The bridge fell during the 1929 Murchison earthquake.
The last day is easy walking and it seems no time at all before we arrive at the Rough and Tumble Lodge – which is both a start point for the Old Ghost Road’s existence (read the book!) and our re-entry into civilisation. Our driver, Mike, had walked in early to meet us, so it was back into the van for our trip’s next highlight – a long, much-needed dip in the hot pools of Hanmer Springs. Staying in Hanmer overnight was another great idea from trip organiser, Jane Green.
A big thank you to Jane for her brilliant organisation and to her, Graham, John, Christine, Lynn, Marion, Grant and Mike for their great company, evil card games and thoughtful support along what proved to be a fantastic trek.