Spectre of Old Ghost looms large

ON TRACK: The high level route across the previously untouched Lyell Range attracted the ire of conservationists.
ON TRACK: The high level route across the previously untouched Lyell Range attracted the ire of conservationists.

The longest trail carved through conservation land in this country for decades, the 80km-long Old Ghost Road (OGR) is a mountainbike and tramping track connecting the Lyell Historic Area (off State Highway 6 up the Buller Gorge) to Seddonville on the northern West Coast.

Gerard Hindmarsh took a look at some of the impressive work, along with some of the controversies, to date.

 Without a doubt, the Old Ghost Road has been a massive undertaking.


Roughly equivalent in length to the Heaphy Track, it's been two-and-a-half years in the making with another year to go.

Not taking into account the massive volunteer contribution, quantified succinctly as 205 locals giving 12,500 hours of time, the finished cost is expected to come in around $4.5 million, with approximately $3.5m spent to date.

Starting along the Old Dray Road from the Lyell Historic Area campground, it's 17km of outdoor mining museum along the beech-lined, benched track to Lyell Saddle Hut (11 bunks - altitude 885m), the first of four new huts built along the route.

FACELIFT: Halfway along the route, Goat Creek Hut will be upgraded to its original specifications and be left for trampers as a free backcountry hut
FACELIFT: Halfway along the route, Goat Creek Hut will be upgraded to its original specifications and be left for trampers as a free backcountry hut

All the materials for these came from Solid Energy at a cost of around $347,000. Cycle Trail funding is for track formation, not huts, so additional sponsors were needed for these amenities.

It took me a minute to figure out that the mouse traps screwed vertically to the end of every bunk were there not to catch climbing mice but conveniently display your hut ticket, only available on-line from the Old Ghost Road website.

This night-specified booking system so far only applies to this Lyell Saddle Hut along the OGR, but this is likely to change "at some later date".

From Lyell Saddle the track climbs gently through another 6km of mountain beech and dracopyllum (neinei) forest before breaking out onto the splendid tussock slopes of the Lyell Range.

While both ends of the OGR (around 47km in total) have seen considerable human endeavour including the putting in of dray roads and bridges (indeed four mining settlements once existed along these inroads), this middle section has been carved through untouched wilderness.

It's not the first time it's been eyed up though; an 1870s map reveals a reconnaissance survey for a Lyell to Mokihinui Road to connect the two promising goldfields.

Ghost Lake Hut sits atop a crag overlooking an idyllic and previously unnamed mountain tarn. Unspoilt views stretch around in all directions from this New Zealand only sub-alpine mountainbike track.

Rocky Tor (1456m) now has a one metre-plus wide track gouged around its imposing summit, thanks to small but liberally applied doses of gelignite - "rock solvent" the track-making crews affectionately call it around here.

The track loses over 800m of altitude in the next 9km to reach the north branch of Stern Creek and the new hut which has already necessitated rock protection to stop floods eroding any more of the bank in front of it. I

It may be 84 years since the big Murchison quake devastated this wilderness, but this earthquake country is still spooky to traverse.

The open meadows are still littered with debris and jagged house-sized rocks which got flung down from the surrounding mountaintops.

At some unnamed twin lakes, the newly marked track switches back into climb mode to reach the saddle that leads over to Goat Creek. DOC's four-bunk Goat Creek Hut was the first ever in New Zealand to have its materials bundled up and air-dropped in by fixed wing aircraft.

Much of the bundles broke and the hut today still reflects how the original builders were forced to cobble together the broken timbers as best they could. An upgrade to original NZFS Hut specifications is planned. This hut will stay in

DOC ownership and remain free to the public as a backcountry hut.

The massive podocarp forest of matai, rimu and kahikatea in the Ecological Area along the South Branch of Mokihinui River makes for enchanted walking. Many trees have 1m-plus diameter trunks, some exceed 1.5m.

At one point the track weaves around the "Resurgence" - a sizeable opalescent spring just off the river. Eventually the valley opens out into the massive open area around the forks.

Forget wasps, here there has been a late summer population explosion of bumblebees, seemingly as numerous as the sandflies.

This majestically expansive forks area was once a farm, hence the blackberry, gorse, and thistle that got away here. Sitting on an elevated toe of land overlooking it all is Forks Hut, enlarged from a six to 10-bunk hut as part of the OGR project. This public hut is now part of the OGR network "under a management agreement with DOC".

In mid-2012, DOC authorised the cutting down of the towering kahikatea tree that once so triumphantly marked this hut, citing safety concerns with the tree's three-metre proximity to the rebuild and potential wind-throw boughs overhanging it.

That felling proved a lightning rod, attracting the ire of conservationists, local iwi, even an old venison hunter who spent years in this area, culminating in a "tangi" for the tree being held on the site over the weekend of April 6/7 (2013), which was attended by 20 people.

Veteran conservation campaigner Pete Lusk of Westport said the felling of the kahikatea was symbolic of what the John Key government was trying to do: "Everything is for tourism now and nothing is for conservation."

The Mokihinui is West Coast's third largest river. At the Forks, it gathers all its water to begin its determined charge down the gorge, pausing in huge elongated and opalescent pools along the way.

It was the scrambling required around the three Suicide Slips brought down during and since the 1929 quake that made the Mokihinui so hard to traverse. Now those slips are bridged with impressive suspension bridges bolted to the bedrock.

A boulder-strewn side creek further down the gorge has also been is also been bridged.

The route, which crosses a large swathe of previously pristine wilderness and part of the the South Mokihinui Ecological Area, was accepted as part of the New Zealand Cycleway (later Cycle Trail) Project, a 2009 joint National/Greens initiative pushed by PM/Tourism Minister John Key.

Initially intended as a continuous concrete strip the full length of the country, the reality of developing such a direct route meant this thoroughly impractical idea soon got modified in favour of developing "promising individual links through scenic areas". Key dubbed these "Great Rides", alluding to our Great Walks system of tramping and hiking tracks.

The eight-person Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust (MLBT) is the charitable community trust constructing the OGR under an agreement with DOC. It's an ambitious project for its members, mostly local businesspeople from both ends of the track.

Their efforts go back to 2006, their initial search phase funded by Meridian Energy which wanted to build a high dam on the Mokihinui River and supported the investigation of recreation opportunities in the area as part of their mitigation process.

The MLBT presented its ideas to the public at the Westport Motor Hotel in July 2008, later applying to the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) for approval and funding under the Cycleway Scheme - $2.15m of which the trust got granted. Development West Coast threw in another $750,000, along with Buller District Council $250,000, Gough Group 43,000, and Walking Access Aotearoa $41,500.

Without the doubt, the project solicited huge local and national support, as evidenced by volunteer labour and the significant regional funding.

But late last year, as the work progressed, some conservationists started crying foul, dubbing the project "The Ghastly", citing excessive tree felling and slope debris, along with degraded mountain landscapes.

They questioned the trust's arrangement with MED, which they claimed had over-ridden DOC's Conservation Management Strategy (CMS) for the area.

This concern was originally aired by the West Coast Conservation Board chairperson in 2011, comments that were later rescinded.

But DOC's West Coast managers stayed staunch supporters of the OGR, saying the track was all contained within the Kawatiri Place conservation block, a 68,000ha chunk left out of Kahurangi National Park pending assessment of its hydro potential, first initiated by the Ministry of Works (MOW) back in the 1970s, which Meridian Energy later reactivated.

Said DOC's Westport area manager Bob Dickson: "Our priorities now are not only to encourage people into the backcountry but generate income for remote communities." It's all in line with the new DOC logo, "Conservation for Prosperity".

"Control where the water goes," early trackbuilders used to say. Lay down a corduroy of cut vegetation, cover with water-table diggings and round off with gravel.

No inclines much over 4 degrees, so people and horses can keep a good steady pace.

Most satisfying to build, even if today methods have changed somewhat. Three blasts on an air horn warn of another imminent blast. Boom!

The Mokihinui valley rattles and shakes, then returns to a numb sort of silence.

The last person I meet in this wilderness is Bill Milligan of Westport, in hardhat and carrying a big jerry tin of petrol. He is foreman of the trackbuilder crew putting the last touches to the revamped track down the true left bank of the Mokihinui.

At age 65 and due to retire from a lifetime of such work, this is his last job, and definitely his most satisfying: "Biggest sandpit I've ever worked in, this has been really something to go out on.

Whether they come on foot or cycle, New Zealanders will love this bit of backcountry."

No doubt they will, but similar future projects through Conservation Land may well be subject to more monitoring. A Federated Mountain Clubs "Position Paper" on the OGR, written by Patrick Holland in July 2013, sums up by acknowledging that the new track "does make more accessible some beautiful and historic backcountry", but adds that the role of CMSs in the brave new world of "Conservation for Prosperity" will need clarifying.


Latest update is that it's taken three weather-thwarted attempts to finalise the final "marked route" through the last few kilometres of wilderness that will join up the two completed sections of the track in from each end.

But despite final delays, which includes clearing up a significant rock fall hazard across the revamped track up the Mokihinui River, New Zealand's latest multi-use track will certainly be open as a through route sometime this spring.

But mountainbikers beware. Although 59km of the trail in total from both ends has been upgraded to intermediate mountainbiker standards (Grade 4), the steep and often forested 21km-long middle section between Ghost Lake and Goat Creek will for a while be kept just a tramping track.

Its eventual upgrade to advanced grade MTB standard will require more funding with the target completion date 2015.