Tackling this notoriously tough New Zealand mountain biking track isn’t for the faint hearted, but if you’re up to the challenge it’s an unforgettable and other-worldly experience.
As I perch precariously on the high slopes of the Lyell Range, it strikes me how apt the Old Ghost Road’s name is. Here, New Zealand’s longest stretch of continuous mountain-bike single track edges across the hilltops, and the trail hangs from the cliffs like a climber’s bivvy. Beside the trail there’s a pillar of rock named the Tombstone, and warning signs scream of the dangers as the slopes plunge hundreds of metres from almost directly beneath my handlebars. With my cycling partner Sandra, I continue on slowly and nervously, and I bump to sudden stops against ribs of rock that intrude across the trail.
Though this spectacular mountain-bike ride isn’t named for any of its hazards, it could be. Just one topple to the left, and I could become a ghost myself.
FACING THE WILD
Stretching 85km through a remote pocket of the South Island’s west coast, inland from Westport, the Old Ghost Road mirrors the path of 19th century tracks intended to connect goldfields in the Buller Gorge and the Mohikinui Valley. So rugged was the terrain that the roads were never completed, in a case of human ambitions defeated by nature. It would be more than a century before somebody uncovered an old map and hatched an idea to build a modern trail across the same route. The real ghosts here are the long-gone miners and the four towns that once dotted the course of the trail.
The Old Ghost Road opened in 2015, and is described in the guidebook Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails as “the wildest ride in New Zealand”. It’s hard to disagree. The trail is shared between mountain bikers and hikers, though it’s most popular with those on wheels. It’s typically a two or three day ride onto, along, and then off the Lyell Range, where the tips of the mountains are as bare as the frame of my bike, but the slopes are wrapped in a shaggy coat of rainforest.
It’s here, at the rainforest’s fringe, that the Old Ghost Road begins, deep in the Buller Gorge at the site of the gold-rush ghost town of Lyell. For a cycle trip, it feels like an improbable starting point, hemmed in by mountains with the tangled afro of rainforest. Standing here, I just can’t picture where the trail will head.
ONLY ONE WAY TO GO
It quickly becomes apparent the trail is heading up. Through an archway that announces the start of the Old Ghost Road, we dip to a river crossing and then a day of almost relentless climbing begins. Over the next 25km, we ascend 1200m, rising from the toes of the mountains to their tips. The climb is on a good gradient - about four degrees - through thick rainforest on slopes high above Lyell Creek.
This first section of trail follows the course of the original gold-mining dray track out of Lyell. It’s narrow and at first it feels exposed on the steep slopes, though this quickly comes to seem normal. We’ll soon discover that in comparison to what’s ahead, this section will seem like a six-lane highway.
THE TOUGHEST TEST
The transitions in the landscape are frequent, and first become noticeable after about 10km, where streamers of lichen suddenly hang from trees as the rainforest morphs into cloud forest. Cutting a scar through this forest are the Big Slips, where an entire hillside sheared away in a 1929 earthquake, presenting trail builders with a precarious challenge that took a couple of years to overcome. Signs warn cyclists not to stop as they push their bikes through the slips, where the views open like shutters onto our afternoon ahead – Lyell Saddle and the tussock-covered peaks beyond it.
We lunch on Lyell Saddle, inside the first of six huts that line the Old Ghost Road – four purpose-built huts and two renovated bush huts. Each one features bunks, stoves, pots and pans and a bike workstation.
A few hundred metres past the Lyell Hut, the old dray road ended, showing where the miners were defeated. It’s an indication also that for us, the tough stuff is really about to begin, with the alpine country drawing near. The trail has steepened, and for about five kilometres the climb feels brutal, and the rainforest all the more primeval. The gold-mining history comes to seem like yesterday in comparison to these gnarled, wizened trees.
Finally, almost 25km from Lyell, the trail pops out into alpine bareness, and stretches ahead like string draped across the slopes. The contrast is extreme – from views no wider than a few metres inside the forest, to views that suddenly spread across endless mountains and valleys.
Though the Old Ghost Road ostensibly flattens now, its most spectacular moments also begin. It edges along the top of razor-sharp ridges and then scratches along the base of cliffs on an ever-narrowing and ever-looser track. For a short time I have one end of my handlebars almost scraping the cliffs, while the other end hangs over hundreds of metres of drop, with always that nagging sense of the possibility of becoming the Old Ghost Road’s next ghost.
A STEEP SLIDE
Along this high and exciting section is the second of the trail’s huts, our home for the night. Ghost Lake Hut sits poised on a knoll above colourful Ghost Lake. The view out one window is onto the lake, but out the other it’s over the rather discomforting sight of tomorrow’s ride, the most technical and tricky section of all - a dizzying line of squiggles along the ridges of surrounding hills. It’s like looking at a terrifying show ride.
Through the night, heavy rain arrives, pouring over the range and turning the coming descent into a slippery slide. From the hut, the track plunges, first to the lake and then off the mountains, wriggling down a steep ridgeline through bends so tight I almost need a concertina bike. The rocks and tree roots are slick with rain, and my bike slides, my handlebars clip a tree and suddenly I’m lying in front of my bike on a blessedly comfortable bed of moss.
So tricky is the terrain and trail here that it takes us nearly two hours to ride the first five kilometres (the irresistible urge to keep stopping to photograph the dramatic views doesn’t help). Just as the descent bottoms out far below Ghost Lake Hut, the trail’s toughest climb begins, rearing up onto Skyline Ridge. This spectacular ridge is as elevated and narrow as its name implies. At times the trail and the ridge itself seem as thin as dental floss, with potentially painful drops on either side.
In the morning mist, the mountains around us become almost ethereal, and the clouds blow through at Formula One speeds. One moment the views are endless, with just thin tendrils of cloud strung across the mountains, and the next I can’t even see Sandra a few metres ahead of me.
At the end of the ridge comes a sudden drop, a section of trail that proved so difficult for the track builders that the only solution was to build a wooden staircase. As I sling my laden bike over my shoulder and descend the swirling steps, I begin to truly appreciate why it took a year just to build one six kilometre section of this remarkable trail. On this 60m high staircase, the Old Ghost Road leaves the alpine section and returns to the rainforest, delivering us back to a wide (by Old Ghost Road standards) flowing trail – 15km/h has never seemed so fast after the previous couple of hours. Cascades and waterfalls hurry downhill beside us.
The rainforest bursts open again on river flats beyond Stern Valley Hut, where we ascend an ancient glacial moraine above Lake Grim (pooled next to Lake Cheerful, at least), a beautiful green pool fringed by beech forest. The lake is penned by mountains, and once again the only way ahead is up.
The place names get no more encouraging as the trail winds between massive boulders in the Graveyard - another section of mountain that calved away in an earthquake - and rises on to Solemn Saddle (seriously, which grumpy bastard named these places?). It’s a climb that feels as tough as anything on the previous day, or perhaps that’s just my weary legs talking.
THRILLS TO THE END
With its last major climb now over, the Old Ghost Road returns to cruise mode, following the Mohikinui River downstream. The river runs wide and strong, and the rainforest, washed clean and green by the rain, is almost aglow with colour, creating enchanting scenes as clear waters wrap around boulders insulated in moss. I’m tempted to think that this is it – a smooth green carpet all the way to the end of the trail – but the Old Ghost Road doesn’t do things meekly, especially endings. Past Specimen Point Hut, the trail squeezes into a tight gorge, and whatever fatigue I feel is erased by beauty. Far below me are rushing green waters and deep, clear pools.
The trail here is a daring bit of construction, cut once again into the base of cliffs, which at times arch over the path. Narrow swing bridges overhang massive drops, with one particular bridge so vertiginous that Sandra cannot bring herself to ride across it. Along this bit of trail, signs warn of extreme rockfall danger, and for hikers there are chain-assisted sections, and yet here we are pedalling bikes on the same path. One wrong move to the right and it’s a watery end. I feel the ghosts haunting me once again.
The Old Ghost Road is no Yellow Brick Road - this is a serious test of fitness and mountain-biking skills. Across its 85km, the track has 2600m of ascent, including an initial 1200m climb out of Lyell to the summit ridge of the Lyell Range. Past Ghost Lake Hut, there’s a steep and twisting technical descent (be prepared to push through parts of it), followed by an equally steep climb onto Skyline Ridge. The moral of the story? Train up for the Old Ghost Road. Get plenty of hills in your legs, and lots of loose surfaces beneath your tyres. A fair degree of comfort with exposure won’t be a bad thing, either.
MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES
- Looking for a new biking destination? Then you might want to consider mountain biking in Bhutan.
- Closer to home, SA's Flinders Ranges now boasts a whole heap of epic mountain bike trails.
- Before you set off on any mountain bike journey though, you need to ensure you have the perfect bikepacking setup.
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