Walking the “Ghost”

“And so it was, that later, as the miller told his tale. That her face,at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.”

Mountain bikers often speak in hushed tones when talking about riding the Old Ghost Trail, and it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I agreed to walk its lofty peaks and exposed ridges. We were full of confidence having recently completed the St James Walkway and were chuffed when we were able to find space in the huts of this very popular trail. Just getting to the Ghost can be a bit of an achievement, but, after a restful night at the eclectic Bazil’s Backpackers, we jumped aboard an Intercity bus bound for Nelson and were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road at Lyll.

Lyll used to be a happening place in the 1800’s when gold was discovered there and a small town consisting predominately of bars and whorehouses sprung up to “service” the mining population. Sadly, those glory days are long gone, and Lyll can now only boast a substantial DoC campsite and what seems like the biggest concentration of sandflies on the West Coast of Aotearoa. Erecting the tent in a drizzle whilst being attacked by a swarm of hungry sandflies, can test the patience of the most hardy tramper, and it came as no surprise that we achieved a personal best time in putting up the tent, such was our keenness to evade the bloodsucking fuckers. Thankfully, the Mokihinui River Conservation Trust that overseas the trail had sought fit to erect a sandfly resistant shelter to which we thankfully retreated, armed with two litres of red wine, some crisps and provisions for dinner. We read the brochure on the challenge awaiting us tomorrow whilst ensuring we imbibed enough of the vin rouge as to make sleep in our tiny tent inevitable.

The “Ghost” is an 85 kilometre sub-alpine trail which we had decided to do in 4 nights and 5 days. The advantage of walking what is essentially a mountain bike trail became immediately obvious when we commenced the 500 meters of vertical elevation to the first hut at Lyll Saddle – the track was of a good quality and the gradient was pretty kind. Being on the West Coast, the threat of precipitation was ever-present and as we ascended to the saddle, a deep mist settled over the area creating a supernatural atmosphere. Onwards and upwards we climbed through mature beech forest, where the odd relic from the gold mining era still lay abandoned. Finally we reached the saddle and the Lyll Saddle Hut, a 12-bunk hut where a group of 5 from Tauranga had already ensconced themselves. Thankfully they had lit the fire and the place was toasty and we were soon out of our wet clothes. Later a couple from Steamboat, Colorado turned up who were actually biking the trail (and loving it) and a fun night was had by all.

The following day was “only” a 13 kilometer jaunt to the eerily-titled Ghost Lake Hut. However, there was another climb to approximately 1350 meters above sea level and some travel along exposed alpine tops to negotiate. Thankfully, we were greeted with sensational weather and we set off promptly, eager to make the most of our good fortune. The views can only be described as amazing. The trail burst out of the beech forest and sidles across tussock tops where there is a 360 degree view of massive mountains and crags such as Rocky Tor and Heavens Door. Along the way we came across a maintenance crew who were drilling holes onto the rock base of the trail to be able to set explosive charges to ultimately create a better service for all users. Onwards and upwards we walked, gawping at the views and thankful we were not on a mountain bike where one wrong move could spell peril. We arrived at Ghost Lake Hut to find a more spacious and modern hut and one most often used by cyclists who would look to ride the Ghost in two days.

Day three was also a short “jaunt”, involving a 700m vertical descent to Stern Valley hut. We were treated to a magnificent sunrise before our departure from Ghost Lake Hut and we were soon dropping like a stone courtesy of the “Skyline Steps”. Once again I was grateful I was not on a bike! We arrived at Stern Valley Hut and immediately decided to make use of their unique “bush” showers. Basically you heat a pot of water, climb the steps in your bush shower, add your hot water to the cool water in the bucket, turn on the faucet and jump around trying to get wet and clean while sandflies feast on your exposed flesh. Exhilarating!

Day 4 dawned with the promise of some inclement weather and, since we had 22 km to tramp we wasted little time in getting on the trail. There was a small saddle to climb which we managed to achieve in relative dryness, but during our descent through “The Boneyard” and “The Hanging Judge” the rain set in and for the final 8km was reasonably torrential. I despaired at finding any dry wood to start a fire with but luck smiled on us in the form of Robin, a hunter/motorcycle enthusiast who had spent the entire morning amassing an impressive firewood stack inside the hut that he had cut with a lightweight saw that he clearly carried for such occasions. Robin has houses in Motueka, New Orleans and Ireland and loved racing classic super bikes when he wasn’t hunting deer in the back blocks of NZ, so not a bad guy to have a yarn with whilst drying out in front of the fire.

It was a substantial 25 km stint on the final day which had the added excitement of the Ghost Ultra, where 300 certifiably insane athletes attempt to RUN the entire 85 km length of the trail in ONE DAY! We waved these nutters on their way before setting off about 9.30 am. It was a bit of a slog as there was a lot of surface water on the track after yesterday’s deluge but there were distractions such as Suicide Bridge 1,2 and 3 and the sight of the mighty Mokihinui River as it thundered through the gorge. We made great time, buoyed by the twin incentives of beer and pizza and, before long were ensconced in the Rough & Tumble Lodge making up for lost time by scoffing pizza and inhaling an IPA from a local brewer. Kath then conned the owner of the Seddonville hotel into coming to pick us up, saving us another 4km slog up the main road.

There are many attributes that make the Old Ghost Trail a special experience and a pleasure to walk, and some part of it is the private ownership of the trail. Unfettered by DoC’s archaic constitution and lack of funding, they pour their resources into maintaining a quality trail backed up by excellent facilities. Total cost to complete the trail is $150 per person. An absolute bargain, in my opinion, to walk one of the finest trails in Aotearoa.

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