One of New Zealand’s best known mountain biking tracks, The Old Ghost Road turns out to be slightly more popular with hikers than bikers (about 52:48 ratio). I walked the 85km track over New Year 2020, enjoying relatively luxurious huts and epic mountain views, and less so the track surface (built for bikers) and persistent sandflies.
The inspiration for the Old Ghost Road was a road that was never built between Lyell and Mokihinui through a particularly tough and remote area. In the early 2000s a group of volunteers started to develop the idea, discovering an overgrown but distinct survey track running from Lyell up toward Lyell Saddle. There was extensive tree fall to clear and a couple of major slips, which turned out to be relatively straightforward compared with later sections of track which required some serious track forming.
Today Lyell is a campsite and nearby has an atmospherically overgrown cemetery, but back in 1880 it was home to over a thousand people, despite being one of the most isolated towns in New Zealand. The gold rush was short lived and the town disappeared back into the bush. The Old Ghost Road has brought the place back to life with a popular campsite and facilities for people starting / finishing the track. Unfortunately the sandflies also call it home and my legs got bitten a dozen times just getting sorted to walk. They can’t fly as fast as you can walk so as long as you’re moving you’re fine, which discourages stopping.
There are a couple of decent bridges to cross at the start.
Every kilometre has a handy marker to gauge progress. It’s always a treat when you miss one and have walked further than you thought you had.
A group of 18 bikers started the track just before I did and we spent the whole 18km to Lyell Saddle Hut playing tortoise and hare, arriving at the same time. I’m a fast walker, and clearly a few of them weren’t used to climbing ~750m on a bike, despite all their gear being helicoptered to Ghost Lake Hut. The Old Ghost Road was originally going to be a tramping track until funding from the Great Rides fund in 2010 helped the track become reality, making it a dual use track. Personally I’m not a fan of them as the track surface is often tediously easy to walk on, no need to watch where you’re walking, the gradient is often gradual (though does get steep in places), and there’s a constant sense of unease about bikes coming from either direction. I’d hoped that I’d see bikers twice a day going in each direction, but it didn’t work out that way on day one as we leapfrogged each other half a dozen times.
The track was easy but steadily uphill, brought to life by some sunshine.
There were a scattering of historical remains along the early sections of track, accompanied by informative signage.
This cutting is from the original survey track.
The big slips were caused by the 7.8 Murchison earthquake in 1929 and 7.1 Inangahua earthquake in 1968, and required significant work to build a track across.
They offered good views of the Lyell Range.
The slips were 11km in, after which there was nothing memorable for the next 7km other than this giant fallen tree spanning the track.
Lyell Saddle Hut was memorable though, with ever changing views across the valley…
…and far more facilities than DOC huts (The Old Ghost Road is managed by a trust), including a wonderful bucket shower, flash composting toilets, cutlery and crockery, tea towels, gas cookers with lighters, and copies of Spirit to the Stone : Building The Old Ghost Road, an interesting and easy read. There wasn’t a lot of headroom on the top bunks though…
There are also a pair of sleep outs, separate huts with two double mattresses plus a camping platform. All were booked, by three families and two couples, who were walking the track in five days (the standard duration) to my planned four days so I didn’t see them again. At seemingly every hut, and along the track, were weka looking for food.
Day two was easily the best of the hike, with epic views from the tops, reasonable weather, and more interesting track surfaces. At the start of the day the valley below Lyell Saddle Hut was filled with atmospheric cloud.
The 7km to Top Camp Shelter was pretty dull though, lots of switchbacks for bikers. It would be good to have a shortcut for hikers up the hillside on sections like this. There were a few things of interest though.
It was wonderful to get up onto the tops and enjoy views across the valley as the cloud started to clear.
Opposite the Top Camp Shelter was an unexpectedly dramatic mountainside, unfortunately for photography the sun was behind it but it was quite a sight.
Of which there were many at the highest point of the track, 1,330m above sea level.
You could clearly see the track ahead, a rocky gash in the hillside, with wire fences for much of the way from here providing no doubt welcome and much needed protection for bikers against falls.
Heaven’s Door was a good lookout.
The play of sun and shadow did wonders to an already impressive landscape.
The Tombstone was an mighty piece of rock.
The weather was good, the views epic, and the track quiet, only coming across a few hikers coming the other way, a great section of The Old Ghost Road.
The track returned to the bush briefly before more dramatic mountainside was revealed.
In time for an early lunch I arrived at the incredibly situated Ghost Lake Hut. The weather was starting to turn but there were still great views from the hut deck.