Old Ghost Road: Out and Back

An Indecent Proposal: a lot like 25 year-old Marinda

Remember when you were young and answered questions without really thinking through your answers? Like when your friend said “we’re out of Coke, do you want Marinda with your Southern Comfort instead?” and you replied “yeah, sure.” Last November my friend Karl asked me if I wanted to ride the Old Ghost Road, out in one day and back the next. “Yeah, sure” I said without hesitating. I no longer have the excuse of youth, so I don’t know why I answered so nonchalantly, especially because I’d never ridden the Old Ghost Road but knew it’s meant to be a 2 to 4 day ride, each way. Regardless, a week later we parked up at Lyell, ready for a two-day Old Ghost Road out-and-back mission. I should have remembered, 25 years later, that I can’t stomach Marinda.

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Prep

Despite my casual, quick agreement to Karl’s proposal, our ride preparation was mostly good. However, I had thought the Old Ghost Road was only 80km as a round trip. (I first discovered that it’s actually 85km in each direction when Karl corrected my “only 10km to go!” celebratory shout at the 70km mark). I had also thought there was about 2500 metres of climbing in each direction, which was about right... and spread over ‘80km’ this sounded hard, but not too bad. As we intended to get from Lyell to Seddonville in one day, we didn’t need racks, bedding or cooking equipment. Taking only backpacks, with just enough food and clothing, appealed to me as I’m used to a carrying a big 8kg pack when guiding mountain bike trips. Call me old-fashioned, but the idea of loading up my bike with bags doesn’t fill my heart with joy. Karl and I have ridden together a lot so we knew each other’s fitness well. I’d booked the Rough and Tumble Lodge at the Seddonville terminus of the track; importantly, our beds and dinner were sorted.

Neither of us had much experience riding this trail. Karl had ridden the first climb — what I considered from my research to be the bulk of the significant climbing — earlier in September, but he had hit snow not long after the Lyell Saddle hut and turned back after about 800 metres of elevation gain and bit of snow-pushing. He described that first climb as “pretty easy steady climbing on a good fast surface.” That all seemed pretty promising to me. Get much of the elevation gain done with relative ease, I thought. Yet the rest of the trail was unknown to us. I’d looked at the elevation profile and summarised the whole route the night before our trip: “there’s a big 1200m climb, then a big descent, then sort of a bit more climbing, then a descent, then 40km of flat beside some streams and rivers at the end – that last half sounds easy, which is good because we might be tired by then and a cruise along a river to finish will be nice…”

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One direction

Leaving Tasman at around 7am after eating breakfast, we drove to Murchison where we stopped for a second (big cooked) breakfast. Because I’m generally terrified of running out of fuel and I ‘never’ have trouble digesting while riding this seemed like a good idea. I didn’t regret it in terms of digesting a lot of food, but it did mean that we didn’t actually set off on our bikes from Lyell until just after 10am.

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More than an hour into the pleasantly graded and shaded first climb, I decided to remove my backpack in order to find out what had been stabbing me ever since we’d set off in what, I guessed, was my liver. The offending instrument was the little bottle of whisky I brought as an intended celebratory nightcap at Seddonville (later on at Seddonville I forgot about it, so it went unused: whisky-fail). Once I shifted the offending bottle, the new-found comfort was glorious. Onwards we rode until another stop to refill water bottles at one of the many streams along the climb. After a quick stop at Lyell hut and a chat to some riders doing various portions of the OGR that day, we headed onwards and upwards towards Heaven’s Door. The climbing remained pretty easy going in terms of grade and surface. We made good yet unhurried progress. After three hours of climbing we reached the big open section with majestic mountain tops and were, for all intents and purposes, at the top of the ride, with all the major climbing done. This spot is where everyone’s most scenic photos are taken.

It’s easy to see how people stall here on the sometimes-loose rock while grovelling up the occasional narrow-pinch climbs, tumbling down some ungodly vertical drop onto tussock and, less softly, big rocks. Ye Shall All Heed the Carl Patton MTB Back-Country Code (a code I’ve just invented): when approaching such pinch-climbs, which are more than an hour’s helicopter ride from hospital — “if in doubt, dismount.” Predictably, I tried to ride all of them, doubt cast aside in favour of pride, until my internal monologue announced: “these pinch efforts are burning through way more energy than they’re worth you moron – get off and push!”

After a notably fast and loose rocky descent, Ghost Lake hut appeared suddenly; it is the most spectacular stopping point (and probably where I would stop for the night on my next OGR expedition). After refilling our bottles and a quick chat to some hikers, we got straight into the quite tight-cornered and very gravelly descent, followed by the infamous steps (which are, of course, much steeper than any photos show), then a short but rugged climb (hotter than I expected and I blew through some energy parcels determined to clean the climb – I’m obviously a slow learner.) We could see the track snaking away downhill into the distance but didn’t stop to take any photos and now, writing this, I barely remember losing most of the elevation we’d gained from Lyell down to Stern Valley hut.

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“All flat from here, I think?” I commented to Karl after another water bottle fill. A quick map check corrected me: “oh, wait, I forgot there’s something called ‘The Boneyard’ to get over then down the other side, then it’s flat.” Easy. Except ‘The Boneyard’ wasn’t easy. It was very hot and, being a field of rocks with no tall flora to speak of, there was no shelter from the sun. Ouch. Still, we were soon down the other side and clocking off the kms along Goat Creek. Except, it wasn’t THAT easy going either. I guess the slightly bumpy surface, or my tiring legs, were to blame. Then the track got fast and swoopy and fun. Karl picked up a big stick in the rear wheel, broke a couple of spokes and punched a hole in his carbon rim. He swore the forest down, or so he told me because I’d carried on blissfully unaware (until about five minutes down the track when, realising he was no longer behind me, I turned around). I bet you can imagine how easily one can get lost in one’s thoughts out there, flowing in the wilderness. In any case, it didn’t take long to tape the broken spokes together and carry on. A rest and a quick dip (more of a ‘wade’ really) in the Goat Creek and we were back on our seats, six and half hours in, when it occurred to me and I shouted: “it’s not that far in distance, but aside from the first three hours, there’s not that many easy kilometres on this track, are there Karl?” “That’s it, that’s what it is” returned Karl; then I’m pretty sure we shared a silent realisation that this was turning out to be every bit as hard as we’d feared, maybe even a touch more.

Thankfully, not long after that we encountered an all-too-brief section of ‘easy kms’ with stunningly beautiful scenery from a dense but bright green moss-lined smooth, slightly-descending track. “This! We need more of this to get to Seddonville!” I shouted up ahead. Karl enthusiastically agreed, adding some affirmative expletives “no ####### #### man!”. Now, with the impressive Mohikinui river beside us, and the 80km mark passed, the final section of the trail featured a short but very unwelcome climb.  I’ll admit that I pushed my bike up the entire incline: “I’m stretching out the front of my hips and saving my pedalling muscles for tomorrow…” was my call attempting to convince Karl and, if I’m honest, myself. A bit of pushing gave us the chance to appreciate the beautiful ‘God-light-rays’ filtering through the trees. With the end palpably near, we had a chance to feel good about ‘getting it done’ or maybe even ‘knocking the bastard off’.

Then, nine hours since starting, we were out, at the Rough and Tumble Lodge. Of course, it’s not rough at all. It’s quite flash, with excellent rooms, great beds, hot showers (plus an optional private outdoor hot shower, which I availed myself of in the morning) and a hearty, quality dinner prepared by friendly hosts waiting for us. Yes. Good decision to stay here. After dinner, Karl said something unexpected: “I’m not sure about getting back tomorrow, eh. For one thing, my arse is quite sore. I’ll sleep on it and let’s make a call in the morning.” I was surprised because Karl is pretty tough and doesn’t like to give up. I was in two minds too because, of course, I knew it would be harder to get back, but I wanted to finish what we’d started, and my arse was fine. It was time to rest and sleep.

We’re doing it wrong…

Getting back WAS hard; much harder than the ‘in’ journey. Part of the reason for this was because, despite an excellent sleep and nourishing breakfast, our legs started the day already tired. Another part of the reason was because getting up to Ghost Lake hut from the steps onwards is plain, tough work. Yet apart from carrying bikes up the actual steps themselves, which would be godawful with a heavily loaded bike, it wasn’t as tough as I thought it might be. I guess It’s all about managing expectations.

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Speaking of expectations, I was anticipating the best descents on day one to become the toughest climbs on day two, and the toughest climbs to become the best descents too. However, a few descents I barely registered on day one became significant climbs that most definitely registered on the way back: coming down ‘The Boneyard’ was way better, but the climb up to it was about four times longer and hotter than I remembered the corresponding descent the day before. (Mathematically speaking, I suppose it probably was four times longer in time than the downwards direction.) Aside from all that ‘history in reverse’ aspect, there were two things that dominated our experiences back to Lyell: my stomach and Karl’s ‘baboon arse’ (as described by Karl’s wife the next morning back at home).

My stomach: basically, I shouldn’t have had a massive meant-to-serve-two soup, comprised almost entirely of undercooked beans, right before the toughest climb of the two days. It was some 800m elevation and three hours up from Stern Valley, past Ghost Lake Hut to top out at Heaven’s Door. It took a couple of hours for my guts and, consequently, my legs to come right, just in time to refill the bottles (thank God!) at Ghost Lake hut and get across the tops in beautiful early evening light.  

Karl’s ‘baboon arse:’ wearing the same shorts he’d worn the previous day, with my shorts from the previous day over top as a second comfort layer, Karl was happy enough when his bum hit the seat for the first time in the morning. But by the time we reached Ghost Lake hut, some 9 hours later, things were not so rosy, or possibly all too rosy… as a quote from Karl himself at Ghost Lake hut final descent down to Lyell explains: “my arse is red-raw. On a scale of 1-10, I am at an eight right now. I can’t sit on the seat at all. When I do, it feels like the skin is being ripped off the muscle. But…all I need to do is get past Heaven’s Door and I’ll be OK because it’s all downhill from there and I won’t need to sit after that…” So very cruelly, a good half an hour after passing Heaven’s Door and thinking it was all downhill to Lyell, an unexpected and unremembered flat section in the descent appeared. 10 minutes of seated pedalling for me was 10 minutes of standing and leaning off to the side for Karl: “Oh f###, I can’t sit at all…And look, if you’re going to write about this, put an alias down for me, don’t let people know it was me.” (Sorry mate, it works much better with a name attached to the ‘baboon arse.’) That last descent into Lyell was the best descent we’d had over the past 20 hours of riding and there were genuine hollers of joy and sliding in pine needles before bursting out at the Lyell campground and the waiting car. Done. Dusted. Sorted.

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Over dinner that evening we discussed the rumour Karl had heard where some riders had ridden the OGR out and back in one day. That seemed a bit ridiculous to me. But, on the other hand, maybe it was plausible for super-fit athletes out there. Karl’s position was conflicted: “Nah, I don’t care if you’re Nathan Fa’avae or Richard Ussher. I mean, OK, maybe if they started at 5:00am... I suppose it is possible, but no I don’t want to believe it…no way…”.  Either way, if I’m asked whether I want to out-and-back the Old Ghost Road in one day, I won’t need to think about my answer… (it’s no, the answer is definitely no!). And you can keep your Marinda too.


Images & Words: Sven Martin & Carl Patton

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