The Old Ghost Road is 85 km of man made trail, following a gold mining road that linked some (now) ghost towns and took workers through dramatic mountains to their mines. When a Kiwi friend posted an article about this trail on Facebook just after it opened, it immediately made its way onto my bucket list. Once I decided to visit New Zealand I knew that I absolutely had to experience this trail.
The opportunity came to ride it after following the Canterbury Mountain Bike Club on Facebook and seeing a post about someone with a spare car and hut space. I didn't get there in time before someone else took it but in the comments section I found Rossano, who was also looking to take another person with him.
We met up on a rainy Sunday afternoon to plan the trip. Rossano wanted to ride the trail in one day (two days are recommended) and we went on a quick ride together one evening a few days later. Despite starting with the huge Rapaki climb, Rossano turned up with a very heavy downhill bike and pedalled standing up for over half an hour whilst sweating profusely. At the top he told me tales of rally car racing, canyoning and vespa drag racing.
I knew that the weekend on The Old Ghost Road was going to be far from boring.
The plan was to make as loose a plan as possible, and then not follow it. I had worked out that we would need at least 12 hours to ride the full 85km in one day. With the amount of daylight available this meant starting just after sunrise and riding until sunset, with the possibility of a bit of night riding at the end depending on how many breaks we would need.
With the start and end of the trail an hour and a half drive apart, the idea was to drop me and the bikes at the start in the ghost town of Lyell on the Friday evening. Rossano would then drive to the end in Seddonville before hitchhiking back. Easy.
The first part was indeed easy. I was dropped off at a remote campsite and set up the tent, assembled the bikes, ate dinner and got eaten by sandflies. I had reckoned Rossano would return after about three hours. He didn't. There is no phone signal in Lyell so I couldn't call him. Bored, I had thought about making friends with some of the other campers but every time I went outside the tent I lost another pint of blood to the sandflies. I went to sleep instead.
A few hours later I woke up to a rustling sound. Was it Rossano...or maybe a ghost coming to steal my gold?* It seemed to be coming from the bikes parked next to the tent. I had a look and heard something darting off into the bush. Then I remembered the avocado I had stashed in my frame bag. I turned on my torch and found that something or someone had managed to open the zip and had scooped out several tiny mouthfulls of my precious avocado. Concluding that this probably was not Rossano, or a ghost, I retreated to the tent with the rest of the avocado muttering about thieving possums.
I woke again at 3 a.m. Still no Rossano. Assuming that he wasn't going to turn up until the morning I stole his sleeping mat and slept comfortably until sunrise. Expecting Rossano to turn up at any second I ate my breakfast, got dressed and packed my bag. I tried to sit in the sunshine but the sandflies wouldn't leave me alone so I took a quick walk around the old cemetery and read about the gold mining history of Lyell. The campsite sits in the middle of the town but there are no buildings left. The only remnant is the cemetery which has been reclaimed by the forest.
I waited a few more hours in the tent getting increasingly anxious about Rossano. I thought that if he had stayed the night in Seddonville then he would have left at dawn so should have arrived by now. What if he had been in an accident? How would I even find out? What would I do with two bikes, a tent and no transport or way of contacting anyone?
Finally a car pulled up and Rossano jumped out, clad in bright blue "Italia" lycras. Why would anyone dressed like that not find a ride straight away? We agreed that we were not going to ride the trail in one day and to get going as soon as possible before catching up on the road.
As we settled into the long climb, Rossano explained that on the road to Seddonville the previous evening, he had not passed a single vehicle so decided to sleep in his car and hitchhike in the morning. I told him about the sandflies, the possum and how very pleased I was that nothing had happened to him. I asked if he had any bug spray. No. Ok, better hope that there will be no sandflies higher up in the mountains.
After catching up I suddenly remembered that I was finally riding The Old Ghost Road. With the anxiety about Rossano gone and the realisation that I had started to tick off a bucket list item I was feeling great. Rossano was too. Out of nowhere he suddenly started shouting behind me "BURITTO BURITTO!". "You wot?" I asked. "Ah, it's just something I like to shout. Sometimes I also shout STEFANO!".
He then started singing Abba.
In high spirits we reached the first "dangerous" part of the trail. A sign warned us of a rockfall hazard and advised against riding. We did anyway and tried not to look down as the mountain dropped away next to us. Fortunately there was a wire rail to keep us on the right side. This was just a warm up of what was to come.
A few hours later after much more climbing through the woods, we had almost reached the highest point of the trail. The Ghost Lake hut sits 1200 metres above sea level with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. To get there we just had to negotiate the most hazardous section of The Old Ghost Road. For a kilometre or so the trail has been cut into the cliff. You have to deal with loose rocks if you are lucky, and wrestle the bike through rock gardens if you are not, while at the same time trying not to scrape your handlebar on the rock face on the right.
Making a mistake or overshooting a corner here could have serious consequences as there was no safety rail and a fall of I don't know how far. My peripheral vision told me it was a long way down. I didn't look to find out because I know all too well that the bike follows the eyes, plus I had various technical features to concentrate on. Safe at the other end I looked back at what we had just ridden...and wanted to do it again! This was the first taste of speed after long hours of slow climbing. It felt good to be out of the saddle and it was a good warm up for what was to come.
We had a quick break at the hut and chatted with the occupants. They were already drinking wine mid afternoon. Who carries wine all that way? Winding down the side of the mountain in front of us was the next section of trail. We didn't stop for long because I was excited to get Pascoe into the switchbacks.
Needless to say, the next 10 minutes were awesome. After crossing a boardwalk across the lake, the trail dives into several switchbacks with "nope don't look down there" drops on the far side. I only nearly overshot one of them. Don't tell my mother. You then get swallowed by the woods, filled with mossy rock gardens and muddy corners. A couple of minutes later the woods spit you out again towards some technical climbing, the hut now a tiny box perched up on the mountain above.
After the climb the trail follows another short saddle, cuts through some large boulders and then you arrive at the steps. The trail builders were forced to build a few hundred wooden steps as all other possibilities were too difficult to engineer or would damage the nature too much. Riding down the steps is not allowed. I usually laugh at this kind of advice and do it anyway but these steps were very steep and contoured in wild twists and turns. I wouldn't have got far so I walked down and behaved myself.
From the bottom of the steps it is downhill all the way to the Stern Valley hut. Nothing technical but fast, flowing singletrack and a massive grin all the way to where we stopped for the evening.
Our attempts to put up the tent and start a fire were abandoned after three minutes due to an onslaught of sandflies and the very real possibility of going insane. We decided to get the mud off and change into longer clothing first before trying again. Apart from the sandflies we had a new creature to contend with. There were several chicken like birds pecking around the campsite. I had never seen this bird before and have since learned that they were wekas. It turns out that they are very keen on human things, edible or not. When I returned from collecting wood Rossano told me that he had caught one stealing the chorizo out of my bag. As we were putting up the tent they had a peck around and tried to steal a pole. Curiosity and hunger seemed to motivate them.
Rossano asked me if I had a knife so we could roast one on the fire. Doubting the legality of this and also because I didn't want my multi-tool covered in blood I persuaded him that we probably shouldn't do that. A short while later while preparing my dinner, a weka stole an open sachet of taco mix from me. She plucked it away with such force that she ended up covering herself in taco seasoning. It was then suggested that since we had found a self seasoning chicken, a knife wouldn't be necessary as her next step would be to leap into the fire all by herself. Alas she didn't do so and stalked off to clean herself, tasting flavours that she had likely never tasted before.
With weka off the menu, I finished preparing my no-stove-needed meal of udon noodles, avocado and chorizo, seasoned with taco mix. The recipe for this potentially delicious fusion of Japenese, Mexican and Spanish flavours can be found below. I say potentially because although I was very impressed with how it looked as well as it being lightweight and hassle free, it didn't actually taste that good. I think the taco mix was to blame. Lucky the weka saved me from adding any more.
By the time we had eaten it was dark but not too late. With no stars to be seen in the cloudy sky we decided that 9 p.m. was definitely not too early to go to sleep and after such a big day we slept soundly until sunrise and the weka dawn chorus. People bang on about the beauty of a dawn chorus. The wekas didn't get the memo, it seems.
Check out the Relive video. I have never experienced vertigo when watching one of these before:
The first thing I noticed when I woke up was that it was raining. However I couldn't see any rain outside. It turns out that the sandfly morning rush hour crashing into a tent sounds just like rain. I made the executive decision to have breakfast in bed. While we were eating, the rush hour calmed down and we then packed up our things to get on the road again.
We had many km ahead of us but thankfully much less climbing than the previous day. By the time we set off it had actually started raining but this cleared up by the time we reached the ominious sounding "Boneyard" five minutes down the trail. This is the dark place that Mufasa warned of. Here the trail winds up the hillside, cutting between boulders and built on an unstable scree that is prone to landslides. This wouldn't be much of a problem if the area wasn't seismically active...which it is. Typical New Zealand.
A sign warns of the danger and recommends no stopping or loitering. 20 metres after this sign, Rossano's chain snapped, forcing us not only to stop but also to loiter while we fixed it. Other riders passed us as we did so. With the chain fixed we got out of the danger zone and overtook the others (Rossano and I share a slightly competitive spirit). The chain then snapped again. Luckily one of our new friends had a quick link to fix it. It would have been a difficult day without this, so thank you stranger!
Rolling once again, we were done with the climb and started the epic descent to the "possum bridge". As soon as I picked up some speed Pascoe woke up (climbing tends to bore him) and we had loads of fun whipping round the corners and contours before meandering through some huge boulders and loose gravely turns. From there the trail flows through the woods on a shallow gradient, just enough to allow you to pick up too much speed before the next corner or stream crossing.
The "possum bridge" has a spring loaded metal door in the middle to stop the possums on each side of the river making friends with each other. Having lived in Berlin I was at first outraged, having seen what dividing a community in this manner can do. There is actually a good reason for keeping the possum communities apart however. The woods are home to the giant land snail. These fist sized pulmonate gastropods are endangered and apparently absolutely delicious to possums. On the east side of the river, the possums feast on the snails but on the west side, the possums have not learned how tasty they are. If the eastern possums were to get to the other side they would teach the western possums to eat the snails.
From the bridge it was essentially plain sailing all the way to the end. There was still 30 km left but it was all fast paced through the woods, past a couple more huts and then one last section with "don't look" corners and bridges.
One last steep climb finished off our already weary legs and all of a sudden we were at the end of the trail...and getting bitten by sandflies again! We gave our bikes a rinse in the river and crawled on towards where the car was parked, stopping on the way for nachos and a beer.
The Old Ghost Road is a truly remarkable trail. 85 km of man made and maintained mountain bike trail through wild mountains far from civilisation is not easy or cheap to achieve. Hats off the volunteers and engineers involved in building and even more to the ones that maintain it. In the car on the way back to Christchurch I realised that it was the most epic ride I have ever done. Big thanks to Rossano for allowing it to happen!
*A note on gold. I don't actually own any gold, but I do have a soft spot for gold parts on my bike. Right now my stem and grip locks are a gold. Only the colour though, not actually gold.
Flat tyres: 0
Broken chains: 1
Near death experiences: Some
Golden nuggets found: 0
Giant land snails: 0
Sandfly bites: 8,256,214,21
Meals & Snacks
Big hills + many km + mountain bike = I need lots of food.
The challenge of bikepacking is taking enough food to fuel the entire trip, without weighing yourself down too much. This means taking as much dried food as possible, avoiding fruits and vegetables or any pre-cooked meals.
I wanted to keep things as light as possible so decided not to bring a stove. It turns out that it is entirely possible to have good food without cooking. Breakfast was oats, chia seeds and sugar that I left soaking overnight, and two hard boiled eggs (boiled at home before the trip). This is essentially the breakfast that I eat every day, except the porridge is normally warm and the eggs scrambled (and also warm).
While riding I had a supply of peanut butter and jam sandwiches and home made flapjacks. I can ride for hours, possibly even days on this combination.
Inspiration for dinner came earlier in the week when I was making a stir-fry and realised that udon noodles are already cooked and come in a vacuum sealed bag, perfect for bikepacking. I knew I would be taking an avocado (technically heavy but calorie dense) and the only thing missing would be protein, easily delivered with salami or chorizo. Taco seasoning was a last minute addition that I came to regret. Anyway, here is the recipe:
Udon noodles (1 packet)
Avocado with the possum nibbled section removed
1. Mix water and taco mix
2. Add noodles and mix
3. Add avocado and mix
4. Add chorizo
5. Enjoy. Sort of
Dessert was banana chips, nuts and dark chocolate.
Pascoe looked awesome for this trip. There is something about having a frame bag, headlight, spare tube and pump all mounted on the frame that makes a bike look like it is ready for some serious business.
The rucksack still ends up being heavy but getting as many items as possible onto the frame and not in the rucksack helps a great deal. My frame bag was carrying the first aid kit, spare oil and an avocado.
Bike: Scott Scale 29
Sandfly bites: Countless
Favourite burrito flavour: "I don't eat burrito"
Riding The Old Ghost Road was... "beautifully harder than I expected"