off the grid

Nicole Formosa

A hut-to-hut journey along New Zealand’s remote Old Ghost Road trail

Photography by Sven Martin
Photography by Sven Martin

I was about to embark on an overnight hut trip riding the brand-new Santa Cruz Highball on one of the most pristine pieces of backcountry singletrack in New Zealand, and all I could think about was not becoming breakfast for the swarm of sandflies feasting on every square centimeter of my exposed skin.

With each smack of a tiny bloodsucker I started to seriously question that thing about New Zealand not having any natural predators. I wondered if I would make it to the trailhead.

“That wasn’t even bad,” our guide Sven Martin, a Kiwi transplant from South Africa via California, later says. “They’re usually much worse.”

So I put on my big girl pants and switched to powerful (chemical-filled) bug repellent and we were off, cruising down gravel doubletrack from the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge, a quaint riverside cabin whose owners are wisely capitalizing on its fortuitous location at the northern Old Ghost Road trailhead. We were set to become some of the first through-riders (well, sort of, read on) on the Old Ghost Road trail, a point-to-point trail that is a current and future gem of New Zealand’s South Island.

When the trail is finished later this year, it will be the longest stretch of singletrack in the country, measuring some 90 kilometers (55 miles) from start to finish. More than that, it will be a chance for this rugged part of the South Island to distance itself from its mining history by transforming into a recreational epicenter. In fact, a big chunk of the $7 million cost to build the trail was paid for by Solid Energy, a government-owned coal mining company and the country’s leading coal producer, presumably to satisfy social responsibility requirements.

“The Buller River (region), it’s a very boom and bust area because it’s very reliant on mining. Mining’s down right now so it’s quite a depressed area. It doesn’t replace mining, but it’s certainly a way to induce people to come here,” says Susan Cook, one of the Lodge’s proprietors.

Susan Cook
Susan Cook

Santacruz Bicycles Stigmata and Highball NZ press launch.

It does take some work to get there, given the remote nature of the west coast rainforest, but that’s the beauty of such an undertaking. From Nelson, on the South Island’s northern tip, a three-hour drive on a winding two-lane highway (passing by tour operators promising Thrilling and Scenic! jetboat rides) leads to Seddonville, a rural village that was once the heart of the region’s coal mining industry.

The Old Ghost Road trail connects two former mining catchments, bringing to a fruition a concept from 1870 when a public road was first surveyed and commissioned to join the two boom towns of Lyell and Mokihinui. Back then, builders progressed about 10 miles from either end, but never closed the gap due to waning gold fever and two massive earthquakes–one in 1929 and a second in 1968–that destroyed the towns (and bridges crossing the river to reach them). A century and a half later, the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust endeavored to restart the project with recreation and heritage in mind, and has worked with the Department of Conservation for almost a decade to make it a reality.

A handful of paid trail builders, who sometimes live in basic wooden huts for up to six weeks while they’re on the job, have spent the past six years blasting tons of rocks in order to etch singletrack into the contours of the mountain ridges, carving track through river valleys and over the Lyell Range, in addition to building bridges and the four backcountry huts situated along the trail. They’ve been helped along by volunteers, who have so far logged more than $1 million worth of work hours. The result is a stunning time capsule that carries riders (and hikers) past the ghost towns and former mining sites that harken to the gold fever that once swept across this region. The diversity of flora flourishing in the rainforests along the way must be a botanist’s dream.

Trail builder Paul Jennens
Trail builder Paul Jennens

As part of a Santa Cruz Bicycles media trip for the new Highball hardtail in February, we were able to ride most of the trail, but ferried over the 24-kilometer unfinished section in the middle via helicopter. Our group started from the north trailhead in Seddonville, just out the back door from the Rough and Tumble Lodge, where the trail climbs steadily along the Mokihinui River Gorge. Most of the trail cuts through a lush, subtropical podocarp forest–a mixture of hardwood trees and a dense undergrowth of shrubs and house-sized ferns–but every so often, opens to spectacular views of the green river flowing below.

The final push to Goat Creek–the trail’s current terminus from the north end–required strenuous climbing up a piece of trail so sheltered from the sun that it was still mud-packed from recent rains. From there, a helicopter flew us and our sloppy bikes over the unbuilt section to the Ghost Lake hut, where we spent the night before continuing on to the southern trailhead.

At 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) above sea level, Ghost Lake is nearly the trail’s high point in elevation and certainly is its high point in scenery and atmosphere. The evening and morning light shines so perfectly on the peaks of the Lyell and Glasgow ranges that it turns any iPhone-toting Joe into a master photographer. Off the grid with life’s many e-distractions out of reach, the only thing on the mind is sitting on the hut’s deck with a beer and good conversation.

Old Ghost Road trail

The next morning, we picked the trail back up on the other side of the hut for the start of what would be mostly downhill once we reached the trail’s summit, the 1,456-meter (4,776 feet) Rocky Tor. Although there are a few exposed, loose, rocky sections traversing the ridge to the Tor, the trail in its entirety is never too technical and a 4-inch-travel full-suspension bike suffices on the most technical bits.

Old Ghost Road Trail

The trail passes by one more hut, the Lyell Saddle, before a final 18-kilometer (11 mile) virtually pedal-free descent to the town of Lyell. The green blur slows down only when one is forced to grab a handful of brake around the many 90-degree turns encountered as the trail follows various creeks down the valley on gravelly singletrack (or when one runs head-on into a hiker, or tramper, in Kiwi-speak).

The Old Ghost Road trail offers that feeling of exploration and remoteness that so many of us mountain bikers crave, and in a setting spoiled with spectacular views. The only thing that could make it better is more of it. And if the folks behind the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust see to it, that could happen. They envision one day connecting the north and south ends of the trail to create a massive 165-kilometer (102 mile) loop.

Sand flies be damned.