Old Ghost Road

13-17 July 2019

Ten trampers in two fully loaded cars headed away at noon on the Friday for a Saturday start. All stayed the night at Reefton and in the morning drove to Lyell, walking by 9:30am. The wide track in luxuriant forest winds gently up, past former mining settlements such as Gibbstown and Eight Mile.

The signs boards along the way tell of the early history. One tells of more recent—1929 and 1968--earthquake destruction and the enormous task of restoring a track across the resulting slips. Along the whole track, steel wire fences guard the narrow sections and steep drop-offs.

The predicted rain held-off and by mid-afternoon all our team was at Lyell Saddle Hut. Its eleven bunks matched our numbers, as a lone Auckland tramper was also along for the trek. The front runners had got the fire going, and cups of tea and soup cooked on hut gas burners kept us happy till dinner time when various groupings— 4 +2 +2 +1 +1— started cooking dinner. That night the rain fell and the wind blew, shaking the hut on its exposed ridge-top perch.

Sunday: The weather forecast promised rain, easing by noon, so we sat around having a late breakfast and early lunch and setting off for Ghost Lake Hut at noon. In forest the cold wind was subdued and when we reached the open tops at about 1300m we scurried along a rocky track in light rain and on to a new shelter for a quick snack-stop. The large Ghost Lake Hut was a welcome sight, surrounded by snow. The picnic table on the sun-deck had an even, 10cm layer of snow. Nearby Ghost Lake was hidden in the mist.

Monday: It snowed over-night so there was up to 20cm of snow in places. The morning was clear enough for us to see Ghost Lake. The track to Stern Valley Hut drops 800m. It starts in forest, then passes Ghost Lake and descends using zig-zags in low forest. In a rare photo-opportunity we all gathered at a super viewpoint for a group photo with snow all around and a good down-valley view. Snow on the trees made for a magical scene and there was more to come as light flurries fell as we walked onto a ridge, then down a very impressive, steep stairway. Stern Creek rises in limestone country and has many tributaries so it’s no surprise that it was quite a sizeable course of brown water. If it was in Canterbury, you’d call it a river. The day’s leg was a short one. so we had most of the afternoon to kill. Reading the Old Ghost Road creation story described in the book, Spirit to the Stone, placed in all the huts, was one activity. Monday, hair-wash-day was a task that Wendy took on. Bill went for a walk on the almost-sunny afternoon. Kerry charged his phone. John, Vesna and Milomir had brought reading matter with them. Our few rainless hours were replaced by steady rain, late afternoon and all night. To read the book and support the Old Ghost Road, go to OGR book

Tuesday: All were away by 8am for this 25km, mostly downhill, leg; even the slow-starting Morrie Thousand. This was our wettest day and we crossed some serious side-streams feeding into the mighty Mokihinui River. We passed small lakes and then walked the zig-zag through a bouldery rubble heap called the ‘Boneyard’, left by the Murchison quake. The ‘Boneyard’ was once part of the western end of the Matiri Range. Signs suggest you don’t linger amongst these big blocks. The track runs alongside the Mokihinui South Branch for a way and then crosses at the big bridge with a door in the middle. Another 6km got us to the Forks where the two Mokihinui branches merge and head down a gorge, this day, looking brown and awesome as it belted along. Another 3km and we were at Specimen Point Hut, glad to have a large hut to dry our clothes and spread out in.

Wednesday: Rain and wind persisted overnight and the day was showery. This was a 17km leg to the road- end so we were away before 8am for a scheduled pickup at 2:15. The rain and keenness pushed us along to match the river’s speed, so we arrived around noon, giving us plenty of time to have lunch and take our boots off. Along the way we passed the site of the town of Seatonville with only a sign indicating where it stood. Lack of cellular reception prevented us from calling the shuttle, but we managed to get a message to the shuttle business and got away at 1:15. A good shower of rain arrived at the same time as we scurried out from the shelter. We made a stop at Waimangaroa to try their highly recommended pies, but this Wednesday was not a pie day in the off-season. Back at Lyell by 3:15, we packed our cars in light rain and headed east.

The 83km Old Ghost Road, even in bad weather is a great adventure, with impressive forest, interesting rock outcrops, super scenery, very well-engineered tracks, bridges and retaining fences, and the huts and signboards are a cut above the usual. The Old Ghost Road is steeped in history. We were impressed by the masterful design and planning of this great Westland asset, and many of us are likely to do it again in better weather to get the views we missed. For Vesna, this trip was a repeat.

Break in the cloud between Ghost Lake and Stern Valley. Photo courtesy of Kerry Moore.

We were: Dorota Giejsztowt, Milomir & Vesna Mojsilovic, Bill & Wendy Templeton, Norman Burden, John Robinson. Yvette So, Chris Leaver, Kerry Moore. (KM)