11/03/2024 - The Old Ghost Road

The Old ghost road


Neither Kelly or I have much bikepacking experience, let alone through mountains higher than anything in England and Wales and miles away from the nearest civilisation; but New Zealand is famed for it's multi-day adventures. Tramping (or Hiking if you aren't a Kiwi) is big scene there, with several routes perfect for escaping to the backcountry carrying everything you need. The Old Ghost Road is one of a few routes which are open to mountain bikes as well. 85km of singletrack, one-way, from Lyell in the Upper Buller Gorge down to Seddonville just set back from the wild West Coast. It seemed daft to visit this incredible country with our bikes and not tackle a multi-day ride.

We were fortunate enough to spend five weeks road tripping around the South Island for our slightly belated (thanks Covid) honeymoon in December and January, and while the riding hit-list was mostly bike parks and shuttle days, we were both really keen for a bit of wilderness too. It didn't take much researching to stumble across the Old Ghost Road, mostly aimed at mountain bikes, this trail was only completed in 2015 and has well stocked huts to break the journey. This meant we only needed to carry food and clothes with us, helpful for keeping the hold luggage within the airline's limits and also not loading the bikes down with too much gear. We both opted for a handlebar bag and a rucksack; Kelly on her FlareMAX and me on my RocketMAX. Yes you can go bikepacking on an enduro bike!

We tackled the ride about half way through our trip, between Christmas and New Year, so we were well settled into holiday mode and comfortable on the bikes by this point having done plenty of varied riding already. Certainly more in those two weeks since arriving in NZ than we'd managed in the 3 months before the trip! We opted to take our time, and do the ride over 3 nights, so 3 and a half days riding. Leisurely pace for sure, but it still felt like we had a challenge ahead.

I'll admit to it being a fairly restless night before the first day. The weather forecast for later in the trip was sounding pretty serious, the kind of weather that would be sort of fun to endure for a day out when you're never too far away from your car or a warm pub. Not the sort of weather to be out in the proper wilderness for the first time. But we figured we'd crack on for the first day, and we could always turn back if the second day started off dangerous. A short, and very scenic, drive from our digs to the Lyell car park and we began assembling bikes and attaching bags. As I say, we aren't experienced with bikepackers, I'd done the Sandstone Way back in 2019 and really enjoyed it, but so much has happened since then that it feels a lifetime ago. Kel has done a couple of trips with panniers on her Escapade, but never a mountain bike ride with bags and overnight stops, so we'd adopted the attitude of “let's just jump in and have a thrash about”.


If you've ever been to New Zealand, you probably know about the Sandflies. Their bites are quite nasty and they are belligerent little buggers. Boy were they out in force in the Lyell car park! Not ideal for standing around faffing about with bag straps and bike setup, but the deet spray does work. Rental car keys nervously dropped in the safe box for the car relocation service, photos by the start arch and we set off. Immediately having to dismount to get through the gate and over the first suspension bridge. Day one was all uphill, and the dense bush made the air close and sweaty. The gradient was never steep though, and the trail is littered with interest. You'd never know it now if it wasn't for the odd scrap of rusting metal and slightly haunting old rotten boot at the side of the trail, but there was once a thriving town here. The 1860s gold rush had brought several people hoping to make a fortune to New Zealand, and the town that once stood here boasted a hotel, schools, post office and housing for several people employed at the gold mine. Once the hill had been mined of the majority of it's gold though, the mine closed and the town died almost instantly as everyone moved away in search of work. It amazed us how the native bush has almost entirely erased the evidence of settlement in a relatively short period of time.


The nature in NZ was one of our highlights of the whole trip in general, and the Weka became instant favourites. A cheeky, flightless bird about the size of a chicken, they are very inquisitive and will steal anything that vaguely resembles food the minute you turn your back. They know when you are watching them! While we sat and ate lunch, a particularly brave one tried to untie my shoelace.


Mentally we had prepared for a difficult day of climbing, but as we pulled up to Lyell Saddle Hut neither of us felt too tired, sore or demoralised. We were definitely glad to see the hut, but we arrived early enough to get settled in and soak up the incredible views. These kinds of hills in the UK have all been clear felled years ago for farming or shooting, so to see hills absolutely covered in dense trees was quite a difference to the usual views. Quiet too, other than our wooden hut and the slither of singletrack we'd been riding, there is no evidence of people at all. Drinking in the views in the evening light with Kaka, a native and increasingly rare parrot, flying past squawking overhead made a lovely relaxing end to a day.


On the morning of day two we awoke to the sound of rain on the roof, the forecast had been accurate. However we were relieved to see it didn't seem anywhere near as heavy or as windy as predicted, so we decided to layer up and crack on. The first part of the day was more climbing, and the gradient kicked up a notch or two making it hard to tell if the not particularly breathable waterproofs were helping or hindering. As we eventually emerged out of the tree line and onto open hillside, we realised how sheltered we'd been in the bush. It wasn't dangerously windy though so we pressed on to the top shelter. A basic shed providing respite from the elements. This whole next section of trail was littered with features, views, exposure and more. However we experienced almost none of it! Visibility was about 4 bike lengths at best, so we'd climbed for a day and half for no views at all! Frustrating, but there was an eerie vibe and definite sense of being out in the wild that was pretty special. We began to descend as rivers ran down the trail and visibility worsened further. Ghost Lake Hut was a welcome sight for a lunch break. Kettle on and a tactical base layer change to something dry was a reviver.


The section that followed was the gnarliest of the whole ride; Skyline Ridge. A good sprinkling of spice immediately after Ghost Lake Hut, before a difficult switchback climb with some tricky steps took us sharply uphill and into even thicker fog. Up until this point the riding on the Old Ghost Road had been fairly safe; fun singletrack, but nothing too hectic. Skyline Ridge was a sudden change of pace. Tight, steep and rocky with no margin for error and some seriously sharp hairpins. I suspect the exposure would have added an even harder dimension had we had any visibility beyond the edge of the trail too! I was managing to keep it together despite rain, gnar, fog and more bags than I'd like to have been carrying in such technical terrain, until I clipped my hand on the exposed bedrock at the side of the trail. It properly shook me, wobbling the bars and forcing me to stop right before a particularly narrow and committed rock garden. Toys came very close to leaving the pram, and I walked that next part with my tail somewhat between my legs. Discretion is the better part of valour, but I will admit to feeling a little frustrated having cleaned the rest of the ridge in the very challenging conditions.

The next section however was never going to be ridden. As the ridgeline comes to an abrupt end, the only way off the hill is down the Skyline Steps. 60 vertical metres of uneven, unrideable wooden steps through dense bush. I opted to hoist the bike onto the back wheel ahead of me, and cover the rear brake as it bumped down each step. Kel went for a bike at the side approach. Neither was easy, and descending the stairs required more concentration than we expected. Rain continued to pour.

Once we'd reached the bottom, after what felt like much longer than it actually took, we saw evidence of a new section of trail under construction which will bypass the steps and be rideable all the way. The day's poor weather, my 90% success rate at riding the Skyline Ridge and this new section of trail were all combining to suggest we'd have to come back to the Old Ghost Road again at some point to settle unfinished business.

While on the one hand I'd like to return to settle some scores, I would also very much like to go back to repeat the section which followed again. It was probably the highlight of the entire route. The roughly 10km of trail which followed the Skyline Steps was simply sublime. A few cranks to get moving and the flow kept coming in gallons, despite the equal amounts of surface water. Never too technical, never dull, the singletrack went on and on and on. We carved, flicked, flowed and giggled for what felt like forever. After each switchback corner there came yet more inviting trail through achingly pretty forest, it felt like it would never end. When it eventually did, we'd reached our hut for the night; just tired enough and ready to get dry, but with uncontainable grins following one of the longest and most fun descents either of us had ever enjoyed.


We entered Stern Valley Hut to find the log burner roaring and some cheery walkers drying their gear. A very welcome sight, as I don't think I've ever had a wetter day on a bike. Dry clothes on and all the wet kit hung up, we tucked into another surprisingly tasty dehydrated meal and supped a warming miniature bottle each. A tiny Whisky for me and a Port for Kel. Well earned. Each hut sleeps around a dozen or so people, and we whiled away the evening chatting with everyone, a varied group ranging from seasoned solo travellers to a young lad of 8 who was hiking the route with his mum, putting us all in our place! What was really refreshing was everyone's interest and understanding of our different methods of transport and ways to enjoy the wilderness. No conflict between walkers and bikers here, just a healthy mutual respect and shared appreciation for what a few days in such a remote and beautiful place does for you. I've met plenty of so called 'outdoor enthusiasts' who could take a lesson from not just this group, but from Kiwi's in general.


As with the previous night, we were sound asleep before 10pm, and slept like logs! The walkers had got up with the larks as they were in for a long day. From the profile of the route for the day ahead we knew we'd cover the distance fairly quickly, so had a more leisurely start and made the most of the morning sun. Loaded up again, we set off to steadily climb on pretty singletrack, grateful to have swapped waterproofs for sunglasses. It wasn't long before we reached the ominously named 'Boneyard', a switchback climb through a recently created eerie landscape brought into existence by seismic activity just a few years ago. The landscape in the UK simply doesn't change that quickly, and this was one of a few instances in our NZ trip we came across landscapes which had had such a significant and recent natural alteration. Quite a hard thing to grasp given the scale as well, I wouldn't have wanted to be in that valley when it happened, let alone pedalling slowly up the side of it! A warning sign indicated the risk was still very real; “No stopping or lingering for the next 1km” which happened to also be a pretty stiff climb with no shelter from the increasingly warm sun.


We stopped to admire the view once we'd passed that kilometre, it was very nice to see some hills after the previous day's grey-out, and a great sense of just how far from civilisation we were. The climb re-entered the trees and their shade was welcome, and it wasn't long until we hit Solemn Saddle and left the valley for the next one. What followed was another awesome, long descent littered with tight turns, water splashes and flowing, grippy singletrack. This eventually dropped us alongside the south branch of the Mokihinui River, which after the previous day's constant rain was in full spectacular flow. After crossing a large suspension bridge the trail followed the river through yet more, slightly different, forested scenery for several beautiful kilometres. Mostly flat, but slightly downhill meaning we could enjoy the sun rays beaming through the canopy. Very pleasant indeed.

The North and South branches of the Mokihinui meet at the appropriately named Mokihinui Forks, if we thought the South branch was lively, the forks were absolutely raging. Really spectacular stuff, some of the biggest rapids I've ever seen. It wasn't long until we rolled into the last hut of the trip, Specimen Point. This place was stunning and the large decking, despite being covered in everyone's drying clothes, had some incredible panoramic views over the river; which didn't appear to drop in level for several hours. I braved the Sandflies for a swift rinse in the lo-fi bush shower, a simple wooden shed with no roof and a bucket to fill. It would have been refreshing, but as we'd lost altitude and gotten closer to the river, the flies were out in force which meant funky dance moves and a very quick shower!


We caught up with the same people we'd shared the hut with the previous night, we'd gradually overtaken the walkers throughout the day, as the flatter gradient after meeting the river meant we covered ground much faster than their increasingly tired legs could. We spent another lovely evening discussing the day and occasionally zoning out to stare at the views. It was another early night, with talk of more rain to come from those who had walked out from the Seddonville end that day, and had seen more recent forecasts than we had.


Lo and behold, we awoke to the sound of more West Coast weather on the hut roof. It was warm though, and with only half a day's ride ahead of us we opted for just waterproof jackets rather than overtrousers as well. We regretted this minutes after setting off, as water flowed down the trail and sprayed back up at us by the gallon. Too late, we were already soaked but thankfully not cold. This section of trail clung to the steep sides of the valley with several suspension bridges and some pretty exposed parts. A few techy bits kept us on our toes, and the stream crossings were pretty sketchy with the amount of water around. The final sting in the tail was a 400m section marked 'steep climb' just as we neared the last couple of kilometres. Despite tired legs I wasn't letting this one get away, and the sign wasn't lying! A few minutes staring at my stem cap and it was done, all downhill to the finish line. Even the very last few hundred yards stayed true to the Old Ghost Road's habits of constantly changing scenery, we passed through different, younger trees on wriggly singletrack and suddenly burst into the car park and over the line.


Sensibly, we had booked into the Rough & Tumble Bush Lodge for the night, a touch of luxury which we very much enjoyed. The best shower of my life, one of the best pizzas of my life, a couple local beers and both asleep by 10pm on New Year's Eve! Rock n Roll. The family of the young lad and his mum had met them at the end of the trail, and were surprised to see them complete the trail on time. Not because of little legs, but because of the amber weather warning for rain which had been given out while we were all out in the mountains! That definitely added to the sense of accomplishment.

While planning for the Old Ghost Road, I had wondered if maybe we were taking our time with it a bit, should we have planned to do it over two nights rather than three? While we could have managed it in two, I'm glad we opted to take it at a more chilled pace. The weather was definitely an added challenge, and given our lack of riding over the few months before the trip, taking our time a bit meant we never had to dig too deep or fight the clock. It was a holiday after all, and bike rides should be fun whether they last an hour or several days!

Escaping the world for the wilderness was a real tonic. It felt very refreshing and reinvigorating as well as being heaps of fun. A holiday within a holiday, good for the soul.


Chatting with other riders who had done the Old Ghost Road before, lots of them had done it more than once, some more than twice. With so many routes and riding potential in the country, I'd wondered why they'd done it several times. It's only been open a few years, so they can't have left it too long before repeating it. Having done it though, I can totally see why. The constantly evolving views must be different every time and in every season. Even if we'd had the amazing views and perfect weather, I would be well up for doing it again; but given the fact we missed out on the 'top of the world' feeling, spine tingling exposure and I didn't quite clean all of Skyline Ridge, I absolutely have to back for another go.

The huts were all great, the people so friendly, the trail well maintained and the landscape simply breathtaking. If you find yourself in the Southern Hemisphere, get yourself to the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island and ride the Old Ghost Road.

We are already looking for similar adventures closer to home for the summer, any suggestions?

Happy trails,



Get all the Old Ghost Road info here…

Order your RocketMAX here…

Order your FlareMAX here…