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Travel, videos and music written, filmed and photographed by Ben Howe.

Old Ghost Road Ride: Suggestions & Preparation

The Old Ghost Road is an 85km single track mountain bike trail and walking path in the upper South Island of New Zealand. It begins at Lyell - near the town of Murchison - and it ends on the West Coast at the small settlement of Seddonville. The Old Ghost Road traverses mountains, deep river gorges, dense forest and rough backcountry. It is remote, exposed, with alpine sections above the treeline. On a clear day, there are incredible views in every direction. The steep, jagged rocks and golden tussocky peaks are spectacular. 

The Old Ghost Road is so named because segments of the trail were former gold mining towns, now abandoned to nature. On the first day, as you ride up the hill from Lyell, there are fragments of these previous settlements. They include schools, hotels and communities that sprung up around the gold rush of the late 1800s. While there isn’t much left to see of these towns (a few walls, metal implements, a graveyard), it is fascinating to think that what is now a wilderness area was once well populated. 

Below is a video I made of the ride.

The engineering and construction of the trail itself is extraordinary. Given the isolation of the area - helicopter being the only quick way in - development and making it navigable for bikes must have taken a massive effort. Many sections of the trail cut along cliffs or mountainsides, sometimes above large rivers. Other portions descend zig-zag across abrupt and seemingly unstable gradients. The creators of this trail - the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust - were very determined, deserving high praise for realising this vision. Given the wild and brutal weather of the West Coast, ongoing maintenance must be a real challenge. 

The Old Ghost Road the longest single track biking trail in New Zealand. Except for a couple of high points, there is no cell phone reception. Roads and other access are nowhere nearby. For anyone who drops off the side of a mountain, breaks something, or encounters some mishap, getting out would prove a challenge. 

Stern Valley Hut, where I stayed on my second night

The Old Ghost Road had been a trail I had been thinking about riding for a couple of years - actually, from before it was even completed. The trail appealed because it was remote and you got up into the mountains. Having walked the nearby Heaphy track, many years ago, I knew the scenery would be magnificent. The idea of doing something similar - but on a bike - seemed like a fresh and different thing to do. 

However, I’ve never been a serious mountain biker, my experience being quite limited. It sounds impressive to say I’ve ridden the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” in Bolivia, but in fact, that road wasn’t perilous. It was more a downhill cruise. On the same South American trip, I did a little easy biking in Peru. Nice, but again, all downhill and mostly gravel road. Back home, a few summers ago, a group of us completed the family-friendly and completely flat Otago Rail Trail. This ride is more a cafe and coffee crawl. But before the Old Ghost Road, it was the only multi-day trip I had done. Aside from those rides, I have occasionally tootled around a few moderate trails here in Wellington. That is the extent of my riding experience. 

I don’t yet have the fancy gear - my bike cost $500 and is front suspension only. It’s 29” wheels weren’t ideal for a trail like the Old Ghost Road. Aside from a helmet and a few necessities, I don’t have too many of the extras. All the other bikers I met on the trail had full suspension fat and knobbly tired high-tech expensive bikes. I’d be happy also to ride one of these, but I had promised myself I’d only spend the money after showing commitment, for example, by completing a trip such as The Old Ghost Road.

Mokihinui Forks Hut

PREPARATION FOR THE OLD GHOST ROAD

Read a detailed description of the ride, transport and more here.

Because I wanted to take my time - taking photos, filming and exploring along the way - I decided to spend three nights (three and a half days) in the huts on the trail. There was also the small matter of not being fit or young. I could do with losing a few pounds too. 

Most people do the ride in two nights (two and a half days) and some masochists in one night (two days). A story was circulating among riders on the trail about a guy who rode to there and back in a day...apparently stopping at the Seddonvile general store and pub to buy a muesli bar. 

Had I not been messing about with cameras along the way, I think I could have managed it in three days. But then, what’s the rush? I still enjoyed the buzz of zipping through the downhill sections, but then also had time to scout the alluring side paths, rivers and hills. 

I’d be lying if I said that before departing I wasn’t a bit nervous. Questions that haunted me included: was I fit enough? What should I take? Was my equipment up to it? Were my riding skills up to it? What would happen if I crashed? What would all the other pro-bikers think of my shoddy set up?

The Old Ghost Road website understandably does it’s best to ward off second-rate riders like myself. The last thing they want is a flood of novices or families out for a picnic requiring helicopter rescue. They warn of steep drops; football sized rocks (to ride over) and “Grade Five” (the highest level of biking difficulty) sections of the trail. So I was well aware I needed to up my game a little. 

I tried to do a little training, riding my bike to work in Wellington central, then back up the hill to Brooklyn (and an ascent of perhaps 300-400 meters). On the weekends I went for a few rides around the hills. In the end, I wasn’t entirely unprepared, but I also wasn’t a super fit expert either.

Below is a video of me preparing to ride the trail in Wellington. I ride up the Brooklyn hill and through the slopes down to the South Coast. 

On top of this stress were the anxious decisions regarding what to take, what not to take, and how to carry it on the bike. Regardless, I knew I would travel with more than the average rider as I had a lot of camera gear. I agonised about all this for weeks. In the end, my camera gear consisted of the following 

Panasonic Lumix GH5
Panasonic 12-34mm f2.8 II lens
DJI Phantom Spark Drone
GoPro Hero 6
Yoobee Tripod
ND filter
4 x Panasonic Batteries
4 x GoPro batteries
3 x 64gig Panasonic memory cards
3 x GoPro memory cards
3 x DJI Spark batteries
GoPro chesty
Microphone
Various GoPro fittings for helmet and handlebars.
Goal Zero Venture 70 powerpack
Charging cables for GH5, GoPro & drone
iPhone (to control the drone)

gear.jpg

At the last minute, I made a panic decision to include a Panasonic 50mm f1.4mm extra lens, which I didn’t end up using even once. 

My first concern was running out of battery power for the trip, as none of the huts (as far as I knew) had electricity. As it turned out, I had enough and the main item draining my powerpack was the iPhone.

The second concern was camera memory space. The Panasonic GH5 cards are expensive ($200-$300), and the big files can chew through space. For the GoPro and drone I seemed to lose one card (it was blank), but in the end, I didn’t need it. That said, the card I had in the GoPro was faulty and damaged several of the video files (so consequently a few segments are missing from the video I made).

WHAT I DID END UP TAKING ON THE OLD GHOST ROAD

In addition to the above camera gear, this is my list of what I intended to pack.

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Although I had more luggage than I would have liked, aside from the unnecessary camera lens I mentioned above, there weren’t too many things I could have left behind. It was quite warm, so I didn’t need the down jacket, and if I had a lighter sleeping bag that would also have been good. Likewise, no rain meant the raincoat was unnecessary. But that said, the week after my ride a cold front hit the South Island, and there was significant snow down to about 700-800 meters, and lots of rain, so I could easily have needed them. You never know in the mountains, so you have to take that stuff. 

There were a few bike parts I took but didn’t need, including 2 x inner tubes and one derailleur hanger. But on a different day, I might have required them, so I still had to take them. 

The only thing I didn’t take (although it was on my list) and regretted it, was insect repellent. Up in the mountains (Lyell Hut, Ghost Lake Hut), sandflies weren’t a problem, but at lower elevations they were ferocious. While flying the drone at Mokihinui forks, I got savaged. 

Read a detailed description of the ride, transportation and more here.

The View from Lyell Saddle Hut

Stars, Lyell Saddle Hut

The trail at the top of the ridge above Lyell Saddle Hut

Ghost Lake Hut