In a country where mountain bike trails are being carved into the landscape faster than they can be ridden, the claim of New Zealand’s longest continuous single track is a serious accolade. This claim belongs to an 85km stretch of dedicated single track known as The Old Ghost Road. Its length however is far from the most impressive thing about the trail. The Old Ghost Road caters to trampers, trail runners and mountain bikers. It also offers several of New Zealand’s famous ‘full-service’ huts, set in idyllic and varied scenery. These huts are pricey but include; mattresses, gas cookers, crockery and pots, fireplaces etc. One only needs to bring food and a sleeping bag. They are like a palace to an outdoorsmen. All this makes overnight mountain bike trips remarkably accessible. Alternatively, if the weather is as good as I had, then you can carry some more gear, save some money and camp out. Campsites are less than a third of the cost of a cabin and while you are not allowed to use the hut facilities, you still have access to water and a table.
The Old Ghost Road is a long-forgotten gold miners’ road from the 1800’s, that has been wrestled back from nature. The volunteer-driven Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust, in conjunction with the Department of Conservation and various corporate partners have created one of New Zealand’s premier mountain biking destinations. The location, trail and scenery are all world class, and since its opening in late 2015, trail user numbers reflect how good this ride is. They grow each year and include many international visitors.
The track finishes at Seddonville, so I left my car there and caught a Hike’n’Bike shuttle to the beginning of the trail. The first part of the trail climbs up 800 vertical metres from the historic gold rush town of Lyell, now nothing more than a DOC campsite, to a hut and helipad in the saddle. This 18 km of trail winds at a cruisey but consistent grade, through beautiful old beech forest. I motored up at about 8km/hour passing many larger groups who had to deal with the inevitable slinky effect of group members never coordinating their breaks. In contrast I pedalled non stop until I had gone 6 km’s when I stopped for a quick muesli bar and water. This method allowed me to keep a constant rhythm and reach the saddle in about 2.5 hours.
Lyell Saddle Hut, where I stopped for a quick lunch of salami, cheese and crackers, is the access point for those who fancy spending the coin on some helicopter access biking. It makes the following climb and resulting decent back to Lyell more feasible as a day ride and I imagine the views from the helicopter are spectacular. I didn’t linger too long because I still had nearly 10km of climbing left before reaching the high point on the trail. I knew that the second half of the day would be much harder and tried to limit the amount of lactic build up in my legs. Nevertheless, as I pedaled away from the hut my legs felt like the blood had been replaced with hummus. My shoulder blades were bruised from my heavy pack and my butt was already sore due to my very light, minimalist race saddle. My legs eventually loosened up as the trail wound upwards, the beech gave way to sub alpine and then eventually it burst out of the tree line into the alpine environment.
“Wow”, I gasped as I rounded the corner and got my first look at the Lyell range proper. Rocky Tor (1400m ish) stood before me and I could see for miles.
Building this trail must have been fun. I can’t imagine any other way for it to be built other than rope access and dynamite! I’m sure it was a bit of a boys club up here as the trail bench was blasted into the side of the range.
I looked out at the stark white, granite line indicating the trail, it was incredible how much work had been done to make this terrain rideable.
From the highest point I began my decent to Ghost Lake Hut. It was here that I came across a gentlemen pushing his bike up the hill. I stopped for a chat and he was very pleased to learn that he was only about 800m from the highest point from which it would be all downhill to Lyell. Not many people travel this direction and I was curious. Richard and a friend had booked the trip for the following week but the weather was looking horrible so they decided to leave a food drop at Lyell and then ride it from Seddonville in the good weather, and ride back in the bad. His friend however had come down sick and they had separated, Richard doubted he had made it even halfway. His plan was to motor on to Lyell, collect the food and ride back the next day to meet his friend halfway. I wished him luck and continued on.
Ghost Lake Hut is perched on the precipice of a ridge with stunning views. As an added bonus I had a nice flat tent platform to bivy on for the night. The night was interesting, as I was lying under the most magnificent Milky Way I had ever seen, and the night was incredibly clear. Unfortunately this meant there was lots of morning dew which then promptly froze over my Bivy sack nullifying all its breathability. By the morning my sleeping bag was drenched from my own condensation.
Luckily the sun rose quickly and in a spectacular fashion and I was able to dry my sleeping bag before moving on.
Finally after the day of almost constant climbing yesterday I got to reap the rewards. Two kilometers of technical, exposed switchbacks led down followed by a punchy climb up onto Skyline Ridge. This was by far one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately by now my phone was well and truly flat. I stood looking along a knife edge ridge with a pristine trail weaving between brilliant white granite boulders along its back. On either side the cloud was like a tumultuous ocean with peaks poking through creating islands. Throughout 10 years of riding I had never witnessed such a majestic view.
After walking my bike down the 330 skyline steps I bumped into Richard’s mate, pushing his bike up. I told him Richard had planned to grab the food and ride back to him, He was relieved to hear this as he had left most of his gear in Goat Creek Hut to try a last ditch attempt to experience the alpine section of the trail. He was ecstatic to hear he only had 330 steps between him and one of the best views I’ve ever seen. I then got to experience 10km of fast, flowy, loamy single track to Stern Valley Hut. The kilometers ticked by and soon I was winding my way up another climb, through the treacherous Boneyard. The trail here weaves through an active slip zone and numerous warning signs urge you not to linger on the climb. It was hot and exposed but I was feeling invigorated by the decent and knew that this was the last significant climb of the trail. After gaining the saddle another fast decent brought me quickly to lunch at Goat Creek Hut. The trail then meanders along the Mokihinui river through lush west coast bush land full of mosses and ferns.
I made really good time and smashed out the 38km day to Specimen point by 2pm. Unfortunately at lunch I had been ravaged by sand flys, so now and my ankles and legs were covered in a multitude of red welts. I understandably wanted to be inside, so I hung out in the hut with the other riders. Luckily nobody seemed to mind. I learnt from them that Richards friend, upon gaining the high ground, had received a text from him saying that he had made it to Lyell but had come down sick. He was now going to catch a shuttle around to Seddonville and ride in the next day to rescue him from the easier approach. Poor fellows, their plans had gone completely to hell.
That night I decided to sleep inside one of the empty bunk houses. I wanted an early start so, I couldn’t afford for my sleeping bag to get wet and wait for it to dry again. I also didn’t fancy a night battling the sand flys and having my face resemble my lunchtime legs. The following day was a cruisey 17km with one final steep climb, just when I thought it was all over. As I descended down the backside of this climb who should I come across but poor old Richard, pushing his bike up the hill. He was clearly in struggle street but he hoped to finally be reunited with his mate at specimen point hut in a few hours. I wished him luck and then rode an additional 3km to Seddonville proper, where I had left my car with the shuttle company.
On a lightly loaded bike a fit rider can ride this route in a single day. However, for me, taking time to enjoy the views made carrying the extra gear and riding at a slower pace well worth it.
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