New Zealand post 28: THE OLD GHOST ROAD
The alarm blasts through my deepest sleep at 05h00 am. My first thought is that I set it erroneously on repeat for yesterday’s bus ride. It takes a while for memory to seep up through my foggy mind, but then it comes to me – we are on a mission! I push the bedding aside, flick the switch on the kettle and switch on the oats that’s been soaking overnight. We gather the bare minimum of food and clothing we’ll need for 2 days plus our sleeping bags and put all the rest aside to stay at the motel until tomorrow night. We dress in our warmest gear, cram down the oats and wheel our bikes outside to our shuttle, which arrives at 06h00, as arranged, to take us to the start of The Old Ghost Road. This is a famed 85km mountain bike trail from Lyall to Sedonville. We are doing it over 2 days, spending 1 night in a mountain hut on route.
We would not have elected to start so early, but there are 2 young bucks from Australia using the same shuttle. They plan to ride it in one day and want to get away early, so we go along with it.
We are on the bikes by 07h30 and having looked asconse at my heavy, fully rigid, semi-laden touring bike (and no doubt, at me), Adrian, the bike store owner and shuttle dude, reckons it’ll take us roughly 8 hours to complete the 30km climb up to the Ghost Lake Hut. We’ve got all day, so no sweat. We’re just going to savour the experience.
We take our time on the lush, winding forest trail, pausing for numerous photos. After a few km I see a numbered wooden box with Old Ghost Road stamped on top. I assume it’s an emergency box for hikers – maybe first aid, that sort of thing. How nice, I think. But then I see another and another. They are placed every 30m or so and I stop to look more closely. Not nice at all! They are animal traps and I am horrified to find a little creature protruding out. I do understand the need to control these alien mammals, which are breeding out of control and don’t have any natural enemies to keep their populations down, but is it really necessary to place the traps directly on the trail? When riding slowly uphill, I can see directly into the boxes and about 1/3 house little bodies.
It’s most macabre and very upsetting and a definite negative distraction from the awesome trail and the stunning natural setting. I do my best not to look, but find my eyes inexorably drawn to each box and I am relieved every time it’s empty…
We stop for an early lunch after 18 km at the Lyall Saddle hut. The views are spectacular and a few long-beaked brown birds are cheeky and persistent in their quest to gain crumbs ( I forget their name, but they are like a cross between a chicken and a partridge). I retrieve a sandwich and a muffin from my fork bag and leave it open, while I enjoy the vista in the sunshine on the deck. We are blessed with a perfect 2-day weather window – blue skies with scattered clouds, no wind, no rain. It’s still freezing cold under the forest canopy though and despite the fact that we are climbing constantly we are certainly not warm.
We reach the Ghost Lake hut and check the time – 13h30. We still feel great and are keen to push on the 13 km to the next hut, but our booking is for this one and we are unsure of the status of the next few huts. There happens to be a hut monitor on site and he checks for us, but no luck, both that and the next hut are fully booked. Ah well, there are worse places to be stuck for an afternoon. Apparently this is the best hut and indeed, the setting is sublime and the view, expansive and spectacular!
We unpack our meager rations – 4 hot chocolate sachets, enough ground coffee for 1 cup each at breakfast, 6 small sugar sachets, 1 very small bottle of milk only 2/3 full, a ziplock bag with just enough oats and raisins for breakfast, 2 freeze- dried dinners, 1/2 a small plastic milk bottle of decanted red wine, 2 apples, a bag of chips and the remaining sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunch. Now where is my 2nd chocolate muffin? I know I had it in my fork bag. I search every possible place. That bastard bird! I should never have left the bag open at lunch!!
We are now regretting our megre rations. If we’d known we’d get here so early and that the cabin was so well stocked with everything we’d need for cooking, we would’ve brought fresh food and cooked up a storm. As it is, we settle for hot chocolate made from double sachets without any milk. It’s quite delicious!
We don’t really feel like we need or deserve it, but since we have so much time on our hands, we decide to boil up a huge pot of water and haul it outside to the bucket shower. It’s a mission worth undertaking for sure and we feel fresh as daisies afterwards.
When we return from the shower we see 4 high-end, unladen bikes parked outside. Must be 1-dayers, we surmise, stopping for a quick break before continuing to the end. We enter the hut and the sight that greets us is quite confusing – 4 guys sitting at the table drinking beer, with 2 six packs of beer and a number of huge slabs of chocolate before them. There’s a large cardboard box in the kitchen, containing all manner of lavish supplies! How did that get here? ” I towed it up on a little trailer”, says one guy, knocking back a swig of beer. “Don’t talk kak!” says I,
” seriously, did someone drop it off for you?” He proceeds to show me a video of them and their bikes being airlifted by chopper to the start of the trail. The helicopter then came on to drop off all their gear and supplies. So that’s what the helipads are for! And here I was thinking they were for emergency purposes!!
Now our carefully calculated rations look really pathetic! Later some hikers arrive and they too are laden with an extensive larder including an array of fresh vegetables. We are feeling like the poor cousins and are rather sorry for ourselves, as delicious-looking meals are conjured up around us. We are relieved when another bunch of bikers arrive with their freeze-dried fare and we sit together on one side and share stories and flavors – fish pie, roast chicken, teriyaki chicken, spaghetti bolignaisse, beef stroganoff – they basically all taste the same and I only get through about 1/3 of mine before I ditch it, taking solace in my 1/3 mug of red wine. That bird has my dessert…
We can’t claim to be hungry though, just pitifully under-prepared in the face of all the comparative extravagance around us. We tell ourselves that we are purists and this helps.
Another biker, Alex, who we met briefly earlier this morning at the start, comes over to chat. ” Are you on the Surly?” she asks, “yep”, ” Respect! What time you leaving tomorrow? I’d like to watch you ride down the switchbacks on that!” Now she’s got me nervous.
What awaits me out of sight around the corner? Steve did ask me if I’d like to rent a lightweight full sus for this ride, but I declined. I’ve been on my trusty steed for 4 weeks already and she’s served me well, fully-laden, over some seriously rough terrain. Seemed like the right thing to do to finish on her. Now I’m not so sure…
There is no lighting in the hut, but it stays light until around 22h00, when we all start preparing for bed. There’s the usual coming and going and rustling and packing and coughing and spitting and tossing and turning, but it quietness down eventually, except for one of the chopper dudes, who rustles with plastic bag after plastic bag and faffs and fusses for absolute ages, entirely oblivious of the racket he is making in the otherwise silent hut. FFS DUDE! I say inside my head. The froetelling continues interminably. I sit up and peer from my bunk into his cubicle opposite, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? I mumble under my breath (desperate to say it out loud). Steve is snoozing blissfully. I remind myself once again of my quest for equanimity, lie back down and breathe – in, out, in, out. Eventually all calms down and I drift off into what ends up being a really good sleep on a really comfy mattress. My dry bag, stuffed with all my kit, makes a really perfect pillow and I awake at 06h00 to a really spectacular day with the mist drifting gently across the mountains. I am amped for part 2 of this adventure!
We have exactly enough coffee and milk for 1 perfect cup each and I savour mine in silence, admiring the view as the rest of the hut sleeps on. There is someone sitting outside, wrapped in his sleeping bag, doing the same. No reception no phone, no facebook, no e-mail, no WhatsApp, no distractions, just me, each delicious mouthful of hot, aromatic brew and the view. I feel supremely content.
When Steve surfaces, I put on the pre-soaked oats to cook and start to pack up ( as quietly as possible). Slowly, slowly, the rest of the hut starts to stir and eventually there’s enough subdued action that I feel it’s ok to stuff my clothes back into their noisy plastic bag. Once we’ve had our coffee and oats, there’s little point in sticking around to witness the sumptuous breakfasts that are unfolding, so we say our goodbyes and are the first to hit the trail at 08h00. No doubt chopper boys will come flying past us at some point…
I have a slight feeling of angst in the pit of my stomach as we pedal off, Alex’s words still ringing in my ears.
The first descent is steep and rocky, but rideable with great care, the climb that follows is a relief, the trail that reveals itself as we come round the corner, is daunting! Stretches of gnarly, deeply rutted, rocky track linked by sharp, narrow switchbacks. I walk some sections and ride the rest with one shoe unclipped, using my foot to steady myself on and push off the numerous rocks, roots and stumps. My bike is a bucking bronco, bouncing all over the place and totally unpredictable. Yes, no doubt, this would definitely be greater fun on a more fit for purpose machine! I bumble my way down what seems like forever and worry that if all 55km are like this, we may well take the 9 or 10 hours that Adrian predicted! After about 3 km of serious concentration, we emerge onto a flat opening on the ridge and the most breathtaking views reward us for our exertions. Curtis, Carter and Rod ( our fellow freeze-drieds), come up from behind and Steve & I get a rare shot of the 2 of us together. A bit further on we reach The Skyline Stairs – 60m of narrow, steep, winding stairs that we slowly, painstakingly, guide our bikes down. Oh to be able to hoist my bike onto my shoulder or whip it up onto it’s back wheel, but that’s not possible. I need to put both feet onto each step, pump both brakes and ease the bike down, step by step. At times it’s so steep, I feel I may topple forwards and go plummeting head over heels. “Just take your time. Slowly, slowly. One step at a time…” Steve soothingly coaches from behind.
Like all things, this too comes to an end and now, to my relieved delight, the real Fun begins. The remaining 50 km are all imminently rideable with an exhilarating mix of flowing, forested, downhill single track, a long, exposed, gravelly climb through “The Bone Yard” and a series of sharp ups and winding downs, over numerous swing bridges, one of which – a particularly long one, swings so wildly, it has us riding drunk and me toppling over onto the widely spaced safety wires – terrifying, especially as it’s a dizzying distance to the river below! I gingerly unpick myself from the railings, careful not to drop my bike and we both dismount and totter unsteadily across. I approach subsequent bridges with some mistrust thereafter, but there’s only one more rogue swinger and the rest are all firmly anchored.
We stop for lunch at Specimen Point hut , but though the view from the deck overlooking the river is great, the midges are back on the attack, so we retreat indoors, where it’s lovely and warm and polish off our now slightly soggy sarmies. ” Damn, if we’d known there’d be such great facilities on route, we could’ve made a hot beverage!” Steve laments.
The huts are all remarkably well stocked with pots, pans, crockery, cutlery, plungers, kettles, self- igniting gas hobs, biodegradable cleaning soap and cloths, etc. The composting toilets are scrupulously clean and equipped with paper, the mattresses are firm and generous and there’s plenty of firewood provided. Everyone takes all their trash away with them and cleans up after themselves- ever considerate of those still to come. Whatsmore, there’s an entire industry built around this trail alone, which is booked up year-round. I can’t help reflecting once again, that given our situation back home, for a whole host of reasons, this setup could simply never work. Such a pity, as we have an abundance of stunning natural resources and really, really need the economic boost such initiatives could provide. Maybe one day…
We have 17km to go from lunch to the end. It’s now 13h15. We savour every remaining moment and are glad, but sad, when we reach Seddonville at 14h15.
We call Adrian to let him know we’re in, then settle down to wait over a well-deserved pizza and a couple of beers (ginger for Steve).
We don’t see chopper boys or Alex again, but we say goodbye to our fellow freeze-dried companions, who get in shortly after us. They luckily are staying at the famed Rough & Tumble Lodge for the night, but sadly we were unable to get a booking, so instead we arranged a 2-way shuttle.
Adrian is mightily impressed. He was not expecting a call until around 18h00. ” You guys done really well. You smoked it!” he says, looking at me somewhat differently,
” I’ve had guys on $20 000 bikes complaining about how difficult the trail was and taking twice as long!” I shrug, I am used to being underestimated.
Steve and I both agree this was one of the best rides of our lives and we highly recommend it to any serious mountain biker! You should do it sooner rather than later though, as the “Health & Safety” brigade are fast getting their claws into this one and soon it will be considerably dumbed down.
Already there are a large number of poles erected along the trail in readiness for the stringing up of safety railings and we came upon workers drilling and blasting along a particularly exposed section. We think this is a shame. Not only is it a blight on the landscape, ruining the incredible vistas, but it detracts from the integrity of the trail, leading to a false sense of security and the assumption that if there’s no barrier, there’s no risk. After all, half the fun is the inherent danger!!
If you’re interested, have a look at the link below: