West Coast's Old Ghost Road forging region's new identity

West Coast Film

The West Coast's Old Ghost Road is New Zealand's longest back country mountain bike and tramping track.

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.

The West Coast's Old Ghost Road is New Zealand's longest back country mountain bike and tramping track

The West Coast's Old Ghost Road is New Zealand's longest back country mountain bike and tramping track

​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. 

Spectacular Old Ghost Road cycleway good for Nelson and West Coast
Old miners route revived for cyclists
Refugees set for Old Ghost Road marathon

Phil Rossiter, left, chairman of the trust that built the Old Ghost Road trail, riding the trail.

Phil Rossiter, left, chairman of the trust that built the Old Ghost Road trail, riding the trail.

"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. 

Tracks and boardwalks snake through spectacular country on the Old Ghost Road Trail.

Tracks and boardwalks snake through spectacular country on the Old Ghost Road Trail.

"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. 

Ad Feedback

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.

The view from the tops on the Old Ghost Road.

The view from the tops on the Old Ghost Road.

"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. 

Mountainbikers cross a suspension bridge on the Old Ghost Road Trail.

Mountainbikers cross a suspension bridge on the Old Ghost Road Trail.

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."

Biking the Old Ghost Road Trail in winter.

Biking the Old Ghost Road Trail in winter.

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. 

Jim McIlraith, part of the Old Ghost Road construction crew since 2011, called the work "a once in a lifetime experience".

Jim McIlraith, part of the Old Ghost Road construction crew since 2011, called the work "a once in a lifetime experience".

"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. 

Winter construction work on the Old Ghost Road Trail.

Winter construction work on the Old Ghost Road Trail.

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. 

 - Stuff


Ad Feedback
special offers

Time's running out to enrol to vote

Eastern Courier reporter Imogen Neale.

Eastern Courier reporters explain in English and Mandarin people have until tomorrow, September 22, to enrol to cast a ballot.

How often do hospital staff wash their hands?

The national compliance rate for hand hygiene is considered appropriate at 80 per cent by the Health Quality & Safety ...

Waitemata DHB's June audit reveals which staff are best and worst at hand hygiene.

Aussie 'fuel mule' to the rescue

A "fuel mule" Qantas 747 refuels a Jetstar A320 in the dead of night at Auckland Airport.

Qantas flies in veteran 747 and an A330 to help refuel stricken jets at Auckland Airport.

Hobby becomes business

Rattles start at $12 and toys like the dinosaur can go up to $42.

Tracy Nicholls' home business began five years ago. Now it's up for a Network NZ Business Award.


Craft brewery 'swansong'

Whistling Sisters co-founders Bede Roe, left, and Russel Scott.

Man behind Ombra and Belgian Beer Cafe Leuven to open new rooftop bar and brewery.

Heading to trial

Wellington Police found cash hidden in a wall cavity during raids in Porirua and Tawa on April 11, 2017. (File photo)

Lawyer says covert drug operation was believed to be the biggest yet for the Wellington region.

Avoiding an Election Day red card

All Black Israel Dagg, left, was forced to delete an Election Day tweet where he declared his support for the National ...

Desperate to tweet how you voted on Election Day? Resist the urge until 7pm.

4WD rolls on flat sand at Kapiti

The damaged four-wheel-drive SUV that rolled on Paraparaumu Beach this week.

4WD dented and damaged after coming a cropper on Kapiti beach


Crash victim a post-quake battler

Eileen Pearce in her New Brighton home. After four years fighting for a rebuild, she settled with Tower Insurance, but ...

Eileen Pearce, 86, spent the last years of her life fighting her insurance company over her Christchurch home rebuild.

Business 'finished'

Grace Development 2008 Ltd's Troy Lange had a contract to work on Christchurch Hospital's new acute services building ...

Firm working on Christchurch Hospital's acute services building had contract cancelled with 2 days notice.

Kayak joyride costs tourists

Three English tourists stole a kayak from a Franz Josef company on Tuesday and took it across Lake Mapourika in South ...

Trio did not wear lifejackets nor clothing "fit for conditions" - and police were waiting.

Embracing the walk-run video

Having coffee with friends has become an acceptable activity to do in activewear.

As election week heats up, Maddison Northcott slows down to a PM-inspired walk-run.


Moorby's Top 5 this weekend

The Waikato Cherry Tree Festival will be held on September 23 and 24.

It's election weekend but there's an array of other events on if politics isn't your thing.

Library fix approved

Councillors approved $635,000 to earthquake strengthen the Hamilton Central Library. Another $87,000 will be used to add ...

Hamilton's central library will be brought up to earthquake standards.

Mayor calls for hold on school

Taupo Mayor David Trewavas is asking for a hold to be put on the school going into the small community (File).

Taupō Mayor calls time after concerns raised about new charter school.

Yes, we should save Waterworld

Councillors unanimously approved the spending to replace failing parts of 40-year-old Waterworld.

Future of city's premier swimming facility secured despite a host of problems.


Frustrating build-up for cricket season

Tom Bruce will miss Taranaki's Chapple Cup tournament.

Cricket season rapidly approaching.

Dud cheques land woman in dock

Writing a series of dud cheques has landed a  New Plymouth woman with 19 court convictions. (File Photo).

This woman wrote cheques she knew she couldn't cash.

Shoplifter stole under staff's noses

The Bunnings store in New Plymouth was targeted twice by a shoplifter, who brazenly walked out with thousands of dollars ...

A shoplifter's booty included a fireplace, clothesline, chainsaw, tools and plumbing gear.

The 'hero' in the beauty aisle

Shane White's training kicked into action as soon as he got to the man who collapsed in the beauty aisle.

Ian Foreman collapsed in a New Plymouth supermarket only for the produce manager to save his life.


Another feather in artist's cap

13092017 Photo: MURRAY WILSON/STUFF		
Artist Joe Mcmenamin has worked with Lytton St School kids making a large, ...

Artist brightening up Manawatū streets with mural artwork.

One killed in crash

Ambulance leaving scene of a fatal crash on state highway 1 near Foxton.

Road reopened after state highway crash that killed one driver.

The perils of Government

From left, National candidate Adrienne Pierce, Money Free Party candidate Scott Andrew and Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway ...

OPINION: National's candidate was ganged-up on and faced tough questions.

Saddle Rd smoothed out

The Manawatu Gorge closed on April after several slips.

Motorists say the maintenance work on the Saddle Rd has improved its condition


Straight to the pointe

Gillian Francis takes a class of students at the Nelson Dance Academy.

Forty years of running one of Nelson's best known dance school has seen Gillian Francis teach thousands of boys and girls how to dance and perform.

School's Link fears


Sonya Hockley, Auckland Point School principal outside the Haven Rd ...

Auckland Point School principal worried the Southern Link will stop local kids attending.

'What's a candidate?' video

Birchwood School students from left Jacob 8, Talei 9, Mia 8, talk to Stuff about their thoughts on the election and politics.

They can't legally vote until 2029, but they still have strong views on the election.

Who are you voting for?

Who are you voting for?

How are you voting on Saturday? Have your say in our election poll.


Netballer not ready to call time yet

What it's all about. Former team mates, Bridget Gane and Tokomaru rival Tash Ford, share a laugh in the heat of battle ...

You can't put a price on loyalty.

Miners knocked back

Judge Pope, of Canvastown, is pleased the gold mine resource consent has been turned down.

Proposed mine in the heart of a historic gold rush town expected to make its US owners $7m a year is turned down.

When one door closes..

Business owners Holly Bonnington, right, and Kay Nicholls (centre) at the Sneaky Beach Cafe in Havelock.

The Sneaky Beach Cafe opened this week in Havelock, much to the excitement of locals.

'Taylor-made' for trees

The first planting event in 2014 saw  Marlborough Landscape Group members, from left, Helen Ballinger, Ralph Ballinger ...

 It began as an idea to enhance the river and has branched out into something much bigger.

South Canterbury

Flow-on concerns

David Hurst, from A J Engineering in Washdyke, is concerned about the impact of the water levy.

Businesses concerned about impact of Labour's water levy, spokesman says concerns unjustified.

New Mackenzie CEO

New Mackenzie council chief executive Suzette van

A current staff member will take on the top job at the Mackenzie District Council.

Men's health focus of campaign

Jonty Penney from Timaru is participating in the Distinguished Gentleman's Ride to raise funds for men,s health.

Two Timaru men are taking the health message on the road.

'He's a hero,' neighbour says

The remains of the Waipopo property on Wednesday afternoon.

Waipopo man who rescued wife from fire would have used 'every bit of strength'.


Fears community heart will be lost

Queenstown Arts Centre coordinator Andie King said an art gallery, community groups and workshop spaces should be ...

The council says the location could provide "a combined Council office and a community heart."

Riley Baker memorial to stay?

Dunedin photographer Riley Baker with his partner, Amy McPherson. He died in hospital from injuries after a tourist ...

Mayor tells Dunedin crash victim's family his ashes can stay put, but NZTA says that's not confirmed.

Taylor taking on players half his age

George Taylor plays a shot during the Southland Town vs Country match last season.

Sixty-two-year-old Southland tennis ace George Taylor will be up against players half his age as he prepares for the Seniors World Team Championships in Miami.

Search for missing man

Missing Dunedin man Stephen Lowe.

More than 30 ground searchers, three search dogs and an aerial search have failed to find any further sign of missing Dunedin man Stephen Lowe


Pound in clear

An animal group and the Invercargill City Council are at odds about how a dog was treated. (File photo)

Ministry for Primary Industries clears the Invercargill City Council over captive bolt use.

Crash on Tay St

Several police cars blocking the the Tay St-Queens Dr intersection after an accident involving a motor cycle in Invercargill.

Police have arrested a motorcyclist who failed to stop for Police and crashed into a car in Invercargill this morning.

Turei fronts to city students

Metiria Turei speaks to Aurora College students in Invercargill.

Even on the brink of a knife-edge election, Metiria Turei doesn't regret telling her benefit story.

Youth organisations make appeal

Sam Balloch was one of dozens of volunteers seeking signatures for a petition to keep Number 10 One Stop Shop and ...

Number 10 Youth One Stop Shop and the Invercargill Secondary Schools Network are gathering support for their petition to remain at their current location.

Ad Feedback