Great trails: Walking New Zealand's Old Ghost Road

A historic South Island gold miners' road has a new lease on life as a rewarding walking and mountain biking track. 

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (Te Papa Atawhai) says the land of the long white cloud has 10 Great Walks (with a capital G and W). Often they are on bucket lists.

NZ has many other great walks (with lower case G and W) but there is a new one that vies to be a Great Walk with the likes of the Milford and Heaphy tracks. 

The new track on the block (two years old in December 2017) is The Old Ghost Road. It is a very rewarding walk or mountain bike ride (advanced grade) with an interesting history.

The Old Ghost Road is not a road but one end of it started life in the late 1800s as a dray road on to the Lyell Range from the gold mining town of Lyell on the Buller River, upstream from Westport in the north west of the South Island. 

The dray road ended on the watershed of the Mokihinui River which flows to the west coast near Seddonville.

When the gold ran out, Lyell became a ghost town, the old dray road was abandoned, and the forest reclaimed it for more than 100 years.

In 2007 an antique map of the old dray road and a planned extension of it to the west coast came to the attention of some enterprising folk who decided to look for the old dray road and complete the extension. 

Eight years or so later the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust, a not-for-private-profit body, with the aid of money for mountain bike tracks from the NZ Government (a far-sighted investment), completed what had been a huge job with quite a few frustrations. 

The old dray road (18km) had been reclaimed from the forest and about 50km of new track had been carved out of the steep slopes and open high country to join it to an old trail built by miners through the Mokihinui gorge upstream of Seddonville. A new great walk was born. 

The history of the track is told in a book Spirit in the Stone, copies of which are in the huts or can be bought.

The result is 85km of single track on mostly easy gradients for walkers and riders through a spectacular landscape of ancient forest, open tussock grassed hills, river flats and gorges.

At both ends are historic reminders of the gold mining days and the incredible achievements of the old timers. In good weather (the weather must always be considered when walking in New Zealand) the views from the tops and forest windows are amazing. 

To the east far below in the Buller River valley is the town of Murchison. Beyond it the snow-capped St Arnaud Range in the Nelson Lakes National Park. 

To the north are the great wilderness areas of the north west of the South Island. To the west the coastal ranges and the Tasman Sea. It’s a wonder you cannot see Australia. In winter the tops are covered in snow.

The Trust has also built four modern huts which have bunks, mattresses, gas stoves, crockery, cutlery and cookware as well as tools to service their bikes.

Trampers (as the Kiwis call hikers) and riders need to provide only food, clothes and a sleeping bag. Some arrange to have food and drink or themselves delivered to huts by helicopter. 

The track seems more popular with riders most of whom do it in two days, although some take one. Trampers tend to take four or five days. 

There is no shortage of businesses that help people get to or from the track. At Lyell there is only a camping ground (tents) but at Seddonville there are the newish Rough and Tumble Lodge and the Seddonville Hotel, a country town pub with considerable appeal.

Situated where it is, The Old Ghost Road can easily be walked in conjunction with the Heaphy Track which starts/finishes about 75 km north of Seddonville. Walking both means you will have done a great walk and a Great Walk. 

Fantastic. It’s one to put on the bucket list.

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