West Coast's Old Ghost Road forging region's new identity
The Old Ghost Road, New Zealand's longest back country cycle trail, is helping forge a new identity for the West Coast with its founders hoping the region will soon overtake Fiordland as the premier wilderness destination. JOANNE CARROLL reports.
Phil Rossiter has one foot in the old West Coast and one in the new.
By day he works as the sustainable development manager for coal company Solid Energy, but after hours the keen mountainbiker spends much of his time overseeing New Zealand's newest and longest back country cycle trail, the Old Ghost Road.
Created by the Mokihinui-Lyell Back Country Trust, which Rossiter chairs, the Old Ghost Road has had more than 2500 people experience the track in the two months since it opened in December. That's half what they were expecting to get in the first few years.
"It's definitely made more of a splash than expected," says Rossiter who has lived and breathed the track for the past eight years.
"It's a really cool opportunity for the region and I hope it becomes front and centre of our identity. Moving our future away from the things we've depended on previously – coal, forestry, gold. It's a pretty cool place to go when you look at what we've got right from the Heaphy Track at the top, then The Old Ghost Road and the new Pike 29 track down to the West Coast Wilderness Trail. In a couple of years time we're going to be knocking Fiordland off its pedestal as the place to visit with the most outstanding tracks," he says.
The $6.5 million, 85-kilometre Old Ghost Road trail runs along the old dray trail used by miners with the former gold mining town of Lyell at one end and the spectacular Mokihinui River gorge at the other, traversing five ghost towns, native bush, open tops and hidden valleys.
Rossiter said the trail had already benefited the West Coast economy, which has been hard hit in recent years with the slump in coal mining, with Buller seeing an increase in tourist numbers and people starting up businesses like shuttle services to cater for trail users.
"We've been absolutely blown away by both the number of people visiting and the feedback. It's humbling and really encouraging. We've seen significant international traffic coming here just to do the Old Ghost Road," he said.
The inaugural Old Ghost Ultra running race is being held on Saturday with 65 competitors enrolled.
Rossiter said the inspiration for the event came when he completed the route in one day a few years ago with a friend while it was still being built.
"It's 85km, and 2600m of accumulative climbing so its a big distance and a big ask. It's amazing country. You go through very intense emotions over a long day pushing yourself and when you do that in the backdrop of an incredible landscape it sets up for a special day."
The trail was born out of an old goldmining map from the 1800s.
"An old map fell into the hands of one of our founding members that showed a surveyed route right through that country that the old miners were trying to put through to connect two gold fields. We thought it would be interesting to see how much of it was there and it just sort of snowballed over the years into a world class mountain biking track," he said.
The Old Ghost Road cycleway is part of the New Zealand Cycle Trail initiated by Prime Minister John Key in 2009, with 61 per cent of the cost met by the Government. The rest was made up of $850,000 from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, $1.25m from Development West Coast, $347,000 from Solid Energy, $250,000 from Buller District Council and $102,000 in public donations.
The not-for-profit trust gets some help and contributions from the Department of Conservation and the Buller District Council but relies heavily on public donations to maintain the track which is estimated to cost $300,000 a year.
"We have had just a very humbling response. There's an ongoing contribution page helping us to maintain it. People are amazing and understanding and supportive of keeping New Zealand's longest back country trail ship-shape so we're constantly getting donations. It's public conservation land, access is free, you pay a fee to book huts. The sustainability of the Old Ghost Road relies on people making a value judgement and enjoying the experience and wanting to see it survive and willing to contribute towards that."
For biking we're pretty clear we don't want people to underestimate it. It's suitable for experienced riders, people who are fit and know how to handle a bike. There's a million ways to pick it apart with groups of friends and helicopters if you can't take on the whole thing. For walking it's pretty obtainable for most it's just about being realistic about the time you want to take.
A small group of locals had joined forces to oppose the track. One of its key complaints was DOC's felling of an old kahikatea tree, aged between 300 and 500 years old. It was growing alongside Mokihinui Forks Hut and deemed a safety risk when the hut was enlarged and refurbished, in case it fell and crushed the hut.
Rossiter said the trust engaged with "some really passionate people" to resolve the dispute.
"We learned a lot from that process. There's always going to be a range of opinions around the merits of it or otherwise. People can judge it for what it is. We're very comfortable with what we've done and it's created some wonderful opportunities not just for the West Coast but for New Zealand in terms of what overseas folk look to New Zealand for," he said.
The trust had started predator control programmes including stoat trapping and blue duck observation.
"One could argue if you don't get in there and you don't see these areas, what are they worth? But then you could argue it's better knowing they are being left to themselves. We are starting predator control efforts so we think we are better off being there to protect native fauna against the rampant threat of stoats, rats and possums," he said.
Rossiter says he's just one of an "amazing group who has poured their heart and soul into it".
"It's a labour of love but it's the greatest thing I've ever been involved in. We had 450 odd volunteers from all over the world, some for a day some for many months. That is just a heroic part of the Old Ghost Road, it wouldn't have happened without them. We valued the volunteer contribution at about $1.5 million. So the true cost of building the Old Ghost Road is far in excess of what it cost that's for sure. Only made possible volunteer efforts and amazing supporters," he said.
At the height of construction, the trust employed 21 people, some of whom had been made redundant from the mines.
"Seven days a week for years we had a construction presence here so it's been a really neat employment scheme. We have grown some amazing skills, we have some of New Zealand's best trail builders in our ranks now and it's a really great skill to have here on the West Coast with so many tracks that need to be maintained," he said.
Jim McIlraith, who is competing in the Old Ghost Ultra on Saturday, helped build the track as part of a construction crew since 2011.
"I was employed by the trust but kept working even when they didn't have the funding for us to get paid to do the job. It was a once in a lifetime experience to be involved in. It captures the spirit of all that is the West Coast. An amazing group of people came together and created something quite extraordinary," he said.
In the beginning, the team followed 18km of a "dilapidated road the old timers built in the 1800s".
"We camped under tarps and tents for four months 900m above sea level. The conditions were really challenging but beautiful nonetheless. It's quintessential West Coast warts and all. We got some of the most beautiful working days you could imagine but on the flip side we worked through phenomenally heavy rain literally up to our knees in mud and driving snow," he said.
He hoped the team, which had gained impressive track-building skills using machinery on steep slopes and explosives when required, would get to work on the new Pike 29 walk which will run from Blackball to Punakaiki when it opens in 2018.
Buller mayor Garry Howard walked the Old Ghost Road in December, a tramp most can achieve in five days.
"What a wonderful experience. I decided to end a two year drought from tramping. My longest walk had been from the council office to grab something for lunch. My lack of fitness was a concern when looking at five day, 85km tramp that had a 1200m elevation gain over the first two days," he said.
"You don't need to be super fit to enjoy such a tramp. Our group's average age was 64 and it can be a walk in the park with the correct pack."
He stayed in some of the four new huts and eight "summer sleepouts" along the challenging route.
"From the first few metres travelling across the swing bridge I was struck by the beauty of the track. Up on the Lyell Range we look down into the valleys and appreciate the magnificent beech forests below."
He said the beer and pizza at Rough and Tumble lodge in Seddonville "capped off the best tramp ever".
Lodge owner Marion Boatwright is also a trustee.
He has been rushed off his feet since the track opened in December running the lodge which acts as a welcome centre for bikers and trampers at the Seddonville end of the track.
"We are taking on extra staff and have decided to stay open year round where we used to shut for the winter. We don't know how many people will do the Old Ghost Road in winter but we want to be around to find out. Our business is sustainable for the first time and its future is secured for a long time," he said.
"There are some people who think I wanted the track to open to make money for my business. I don't give a flying flip about money," he said.