Old Ghost Road

30 April - 4 May 2023

On the Sunday I was up at 4am, had a quick breakfast, then off to meet Alison and Derek in Halswell at 5:40am only to be slowed by thick fog on the other side of Gebbies Pass, so was minutes late. The Harewood BP was our next meeting point, then we were on the road to Lyell. We were denied an energy snack when we stopped at Springs Junction as the café is no longer operating, though the village now has two petrol stations.  Murchison provided coffee and snacks, then it was back down the road through the Buller Gorge to Lyell and the start of the Old Ghost Track.

Car keys were placed in a transfer box, club gear divided among the group, and we were on the track just after 11am. Raymond led the way at a grand pace, with Darcy and me at the back with Sonja. I was wondering if this was the speed we would be maintaining, could I keep up, and where do I fit in in the line of walkers. My start is always slow, allowing my body to get into the rhythm. It was a lovely, wide benched track, soft under foot and with a steady 5º slope, with little deterioration since its construction in the 1860’s by gold miners, which is one of the reasons for the restoration of the track in the 2000’s.

At the start Darcy wondered aloud how far it was to the first hut. Without the benefit of reading-glasses when I read the map board, I suggested it was 13km but when we stopped at the Big Slips for a 2pm lunch, rather than a few km to go, Raymond informed me that it was actually 18km to the hut, so we had 7km to go. The slips were caused by the 1929 and 1968 earthquakes.

The track has distance markers every couple of kilometres to let track users know where they are. The terrain flattens out after the 12km mark, making the walking easier for the last bit. A couple of bikers going downhill passed us on our walk up. We arrived at Lyell Saddle Hut just after 4pm. The view from there looks north and towards the top of the south branch of the Mokihinui River. We had the hut to ourselves. The toilets at these huts are very posh.

Fire-lighting consisted of cutting a very large quantity of very small pieces of wood and burning those before the medium-sized wood even thought of going. But once going, the fire threw out a lot of heat. Darcy wanted us to have dinner early, before it got dark, so we were all finished for the day by 6.30pm.

Day 2 was the usual scenario—up just before dawn and away by 8am for the day’s 12km walk. The first part, uphill in bush, then onto the tops halfway between Bald Hill and Mt Montgomery. At 10am we stopped for a snack and a photo-shoot at the shelter, just out of the bush, near the track’s 25km mark. A group of Chinese there wanted their photo taken with us. We had about four groups of people pass us up to this point, going the other way, and then for the rest of the time we had the OGR to ourselves. From the shelter the track was crushed gravel, built for the bikes. It went along the side of the ridgeline, downhill to Ghost Lake Hut. We arrived just before noon.

A helicopter arrived at the hut at the same time. It came in a couple of times to drop off a few workers and gear for a new track to bypass the steep wooden Skyline Step section. The hut is above a cliff-face, with the small Ghost Lake below, to the north. We could see about 3km of our next day’s walk along the ridge-line and at night the lights of Murchison were visible. We had the hut to ourselves up till about 5pm, when two mountain-bike groups came in. They were going the same way as us. Up till this point we had good weather, but rain started near the end of the day.

Day 3 began with the usual 8am departure and the threat of rain. This was another short leg of 13km. Up to this point we had been travelling through mainly greywacke country but from Stern Valley and Goat Creek it became limestone country. We managed to get to the steps section and past the best part for taking photos, before constant rain set in for the rest of the day. With nowhere to shelter and a downhill track, it was just a steady walk on hard gravel to Stern Valley Hut beside Stern Creek. We arrived at the hut, about 11:30, wet through but warmish. This was another day where we spent half the day in and around the hut, drying out. Darcy told us more very descriptive stories of past happenings and finished off whistling a little tune. He did well on this walk for the grand old age of 83 years. He had already done the OGR twice before. One time each way.

Raymond found a book in the hut for me. At first glance it looked very Mills and Boon, but it was in fact a book of short stories by Sheridan Keith—a really good kiwi-life read. I had to take it to the next hut to finish it. It was Shallow are the Smiles at the Supermarket. I will have to find more of her books.

Day 4 was our longest walking day—25km with a short uphill section to the Soleman Saddle at the Boneyard section, where there had been a massive landslide from an earthquake. The rain started at the top of the saddle and stopped just before we arrived at Goat Creek Hut, where we had lunch and a brew, around noon. The walk to Mokihinui Forks was in reasonably dry, warm weather but we copped more heavy rain about 30 minutes before arriving at Specimen Hut—3.30pm. We stopped at Forks Hut for a snack, around 2:30. This area used to be farmland for the goldminers before the 1929 quake, when a major slip dammed the Mokihinui River, forming a lake for many years.

Day 5 was a 17km walk beside the Mokihinui River, with a climb just before the end. The Suicide Slip got its name from when, in days past, you had to hang onto a wire rope, to get across the slip, with next to nothing below you. We saw a few goldmining relics along the track at Seatonville, where most of the gold extracted was alluvial. Part of the old iron road bridge which once spanned the Mokihinui River remains in the river. The road, built in the 1880’s, went up Rough and Tumble Creek to Karamea. Mining ceased at Seatonville in the early 1900s and the bridge was damaged by the 1929 earthquake, collapsing a few weeks after the earthquake.

At the Seddonville pub, chatting to a couple of locals and the publican, we caught up with the local gossip. A wall of historic photos of the area included a lot of railway photos of Ww class locomotives, taking out coal and timber from the area, and also the river flood in July 1929 after the “Big Quake”—the Murchison earthquake of 1929.

So now when people ask me if I’ve done the Old Ghost Road track, I can say, “Yep”.

A very enjoyable trip with a great group: Sonja Risa (trip leader), Alison Maccoll, Raymond Ford, Darcy Mawson, Derek Gane and Mike O’Neill [MO]

Approaching the shelter

Ghost Lake Hut

Early on Day 3

Boneyard Lakes