Hiking the Old Ghost Road: New Zealand Backcountry

It was so quiet I could hear every creak in the cabin from the wind outside. Then the rain came knocking, striking the roof like a thousand tiny hammers wielded by clumsy hands. At sunset a white mist replaced the gale creeping over our hut and the nearby alpine lake. Now I understood how this hiking trail got its name—welcome to the Old Ghost Road.

A chuckle behind me broke my trance. “What?” “Nothing,” my partner Gabe replied, watching me look out the window. We had this wilderness cabin to ourselves, a candlelit freeze-dried dinner for two in a hut for 12. “Just this… right here is the exact opposite of your life in New York…” I couldn’t disagree. The most hiking I’d done in the last five years was up the stairs to my fifth floor walk-up apartment in New York. The closest I came to backpacking: lugging an over zealous amount of groceries up those same steps. Yet somehow we were on day two of a five day, 85 km trek across the uninterrupted ranges of New Zealand backcountry.  If you’ve ever considered a multi-day hike, let this help motivate your first step. If I did it, so can you.

The Old Ghost Road, New Zealand’s newest and now longest continuous backcountry trail officially opened in 2015. Open to both trampers and mountain bikers as part of NZ’s Cycle Trail, it winds from Lyell to Seddonville along the Lyell and Glasgow ranges near Westport on the South Island’s west coast. A $6.5 million NZD undertaking, the trail is run by a not-for-profit trust and was built largely by volunteer man power. Over eight years 450 volunteers joined the ranks from all over the world, contributing approximately one fourth of the trail’s costs. The rest was sourced from public donations, government grants, and surrounding businesses—a true local feat that hopes to put this district back on the tourist map.

It’s founding sounds like a legend. One night in 2007, American transplant Marion “Weasel” Boatwright received a very welcome visitor to his Rough and Tumble bush lodge near the trail’s end in Seddonville. In a scene reminiscent of Lord of the Rings movie magic a neighbor knocked on his door, bringing with him a tattered map. This relic depicted a 1886 gold miner’s trail that was never completed to connect the town of Mokihinui in the north with the Lyell settlement in the south. Two centuries later the remains of the trail had been long lost to the New Zealand bush. That night sparked the beginning of an eight year challenge to complete the legacy of their 19th century countrymen. By its end they too became pioneers of one of the world’s premier backcountry trails.

A testament to New Zealander’s ingenuity and grit, the founding team of four spent years independently hiking (or heli flying) into the wilderness in true bushman style to survey the area. Years persuading investors, the government’s Department of Conservation (DOC), and hand building a track across unforgiving terrain.

Tombstone Rock near Rocky Tor. | Day 2

On Day 1, at the 12 km mark, we crossed the “Big Slips”—two massive rock slides caused (and exacerbated by) earthquakes in 1929 and 1968 and part of the reason why miners abandoned the area—and I began to understand the challenges the track builders overcame to bring this trail to life. Then came Day 2, as we broke through cloud forests to alpine tussocks atop the Lyell Range and reached a jaw-dropping section named Rocky Tor (the highest at 1456 meters). The trail winds around exposed cliffside through pure rock. In a fantasy epic this Tolkienesque landscape would be home to rock giants or Greek gods, their raucous battles hurtling stones filling the sky with shale and thunder. I also imagine that’s what it sounded like when the building team conquered this section, slowly blasting granite meter by meter to push forward.

They built swing bridges across river ravines that would make French high-wire artist Philippe Petit sweat. They cleared felled trees from undergrowth so thick they must have felt like sunken ships. Those logs then became boardwalks over protected wetlands, transformed into steps across lakes of mud, and through mossy forests that I wish Dr. Seuss could witness. Each day on the trail is unique. They’ve even named landmarks along the way adding to the treasure map feeling: Heaven’s Door, Rocky Tor, the Boneyard, Hanging Judge, Skyline Steps, Suicide Slips, Solemn Saddle, the Resurgence. Half the fun was trying to guess from the name what trail beast we were about to meet each day.

A tattered copy of Spirit to the Stone left at the hut. | Day 2

Founder Marion Boatwright candidly describes the creation of the Old Ghost Road in his book Spirit to the Stone. If you try this trail (and clearly I hope you do) do your future self a favor—buy the book in Westport on your way and read it during your nights in the hut. It’s a light read and worth its pack weight, I promise. Reading Boatwright’s book will change your experience on the trail. Lucky for us someone left a tattered copy in the second hut (Ghost Lake) and someone we met en route on the trail implored us to read it. Miraculously we had the hut to ourselves that night, so I read the story aloud as the sun sank. It’s a bewitching thing, reading a book in the place it’s set, where the characters of the story walked and slept and built before us. That was my favorite moment in six months traveling New Zealand—a roaring fire and rainy windows, meeting the amazing people who brought this trail to life as the fading light painted the surrounding mountains monochrome tones of grey into the distance.

View from Ghost Lake Hut on a rainy sunset. | Day 2

Marion, a carpenter by trade, single-handedly built the first hut on the track (Lyell Saddle) and he and his small team built each of the subsequent huts as the trail progressed. They would heli to the hut location with supplies, set up camp and build until the job was done… in a manner of weeks. Each new hut enabled the track building crews to continue their work; a haven amidst the notoriously unpredictable weather. He tells of sleepless nights bracing tent pegs against the wind and the feeling of utter defeat after mastering one geological obstacle (like endless kms of mud) only to have Mother Nature send another (stubborn granite or soggy mudstone). No wonder Marion jokes that whiskey was a close friend on the trail. Their inspiration and perseverance, literally moving mountains to reach their goal, is one of the best entrepreneurial stories I’ve ever heard. Somehow they found ways to keep spirits up. One of the trail’s founders, Phil Rossiter, summed up a common mantra: “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” Remember this the next time your pack starts feeling heavy, your legs sting, the dirt bests your boots. Think of the people who built the track you’re complaining on. For any travel experience understanding the human history of a place changes the way you see it.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” 

On our fourth and last night on the trail we had dinner with the trail manager, Rhys, who happened to be at the hut on one of his “on” weeks of trail maintenance. The kind of guy who might be in his 30s but looks 22, he struck me as someone who’s happiest on the trail, modestly self sufficient. He started as a trail building volunteer years ago and never left. In the semi darkness over instant mashed potatoes we asked him about his time here and the public’s rave reviews to the trail opening. “I’ve never had a job where I’ve been so appreciated… it’s  kinda embarrassing,” he replied, as humble as he was soft spoken.

Until, we happened on the topic of hut etiquette. The backcountry code is: leave things better than you found them. Yet somehow some visitors treat a hut like they would a five star resort with maid service. Even in his non-accusatory way you can tell Rhys had met many of these visitors even in the trail’s infancy. Muddy footprints dried in a cartoon detective’s trail across the floor, dirty dishes, the disappearance of a week’s firewood ration in a day, forgotten or (worse) discarded rubbish. The huts on the Old Ghost Road feel like you’re staying in someone’s backwoods home, and they deserve to be treated that way.

A cozy fire at Lyell Hut. | Day 1

While primitive, they have full gas stovetop burners, cooking and kitchen utensils, even BBQs for the summer months and outdoor showers (four sided wood paneled creations like the ones you’d see at a tropical resort with a stainless steel bucket plus a welded-on water spout). Fill it with boiled water from the stove and away you go. They even provide biodegradable soap. The huts just feel more comfortable than the other DOC backcountry huts we’ve visited. It’s the little touches: the kitchen shelving made out of recycled wood, the tea kettles and coffee plungers in the kitchen, the subtle feeling that these were built to be lived in, not scalable; custom, not cookie cutter. You can sense the care taken to ensure each hut amplifies the best of its surroundings—the Ghost Lake Hut sits atop an alpine ridge with large windows facing the glowing South Island sunset. The Lyell Hut is a cozy cabin in the woods. Stern Valley Hut takes shelter in a river valley with an enclosed, bug-proof front porch entryway. For Specimen Point Hut they’ve found the best view in the Mokihinui Gorge.

You wouldn’t leave litter strewn across this beautiful space if it were a friend’s home, so why do that to Rhys or any other hard working trail builder? Chatting with someone so genuine who dedicates his time to making this trail an incredible experience for its visitors strengthened my resolve to be a conscious backcountry guest. This trail instills much needed respect, not only for the surrounding nature, but the people behind the world’s tramping tracks. 

After pushing through 25 km on our fourth day (the longest section of track) all I wanted when we made it to the last hut was a hot tea, warm fire, and to enjoy the stillness of late afternoon on the deck. The Specimen Point Hut sits on a hill facing the path of the setting sun as it meets a bend in the Mokihinui river then straightens westward, splitting the steep sides of the gorge in a perfect V. Minutes away from my kettle boiling, enter Judy: the most energetic, stylish, hiking, travel junkie Kiwi of an almost 80 year old you ever did see. Behind her came her husband Bill and friend Jenny, the three of them having just hiked 17 km in from the opposite direction for an overnight at the hut.

A bubble gun of enthusiasm, Judy soon knew our life story, although theirs is much more interesting. She and Bill are experienced trampers and travelers. They’d once spent 18 months exploring just the NZ South Island. Farmers by trade, upon retirement at age 59 they left New Zealand for 4.5 years to backpack around Africa and South America. “We drank a lot of gin in Africa,” she laughed. When we ran out of money, “we’d go work in England, then piss off again.” Staying in hostels was their favorite. You get to “talk to other travelers, share stories, learn where to go, where not to, it was fantastic!” They were currently planning a trip to Nepal with as much hiking as possible. When she stepped out for a minute her friend Jenny said with a knowing smile: “Judy, she’s still enthusiastic as.” Her joy was infectious. We spent the night teaching each other card games sharing bites of fun size snickers by candle light.

I hope in 50 years time I am still telling stories about this hike on the Old Ghost Road, the people who built it and the ones we met, with half of Judy’s joie de vivre. She’s the perfect example of how we often hike to escape people or travel to remote places to “get away,” yet it’s the people you meet in these wild spaces that you remember most. As is the case on the Old Ghost Road.

Exterior, Specimen Point Hut. | Day 4

How To:

Get there For trail info and bookings visit https://oldghostroad.org.nz/. If you’re in the area, stop by the Gold Road HQ building in Westport. The track is best hiked south to north from Lyell to Seddonville. It starts at the Lyell campground (SH6) in the Upper Buller Gorge (a 50 minute drive from Westport, two hours from Nelson, and four from Christchurch). The trail finishes to the north four km from Seddonville (a 45 min drive from Westport on SH67, 3.5 hours from Nelson, and five from Christchurch). The trail website offers many transport options with local companies—the easiest is to leave your car at the Lyell campground and arrange a shuttle from Seddonville back to Lyell once you’ve finished the hike. Or, leave your car in Seddonville at the trail end parking lot near the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge and arrange a shuttle to Lyell early on your first day, then finish the hike back at your car.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.50.14 AM
Old Ghost Road terrain profile. 85 km over 5 days, 4 nights.

When to go The track is open year-round but best conditions run from Spring through Fall (October/November through April/May). The trail can still be hiked in winter by expert trampers but check track conditions as it can be snowy past the alpine level. The trail is open to both mountain bikers and hikers—I highly recommend hiking unless you are an expert mountain biker. Some sections are so steep we saw most bikers miserably pushing their bikes anyway. The track is best done slowly and hiking allows you to see the sights and truly enjoy the terrain. Allow the full five days, four nights for the hike, but if you can’t make the time, they even often heli options to start above alpine level or transport bags.

Why this one I’d choose this hike over any of the famous NZ Great Walks any day. The terrain in this region is truly one of a kind, quintessentially New Zealand, and each of the five days is unique. All huts are fully stocked with cooking supplies and utensils year-round, meaning you need to carry much less. This trail is also lesser known. Most visitors are still from New Zealand, and it will be easier to book than some of the overcrowded Great Walks. Why pay the same nightly price (or more for trails like Milford!) when you can have a true Kiwi experience away from the other tourists.

Must dos Read the Spirit to the Stone book about the trail’s creation. Finish your hike in Seddonville and allow enough time for a pint and pizza at the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge at the trail end (built by Marion one of the co-founders). Don’t forget to bring toilet paper on the trail (this is the only thing not provided in the huts). If you have time, combine this hike with the nearby Abel Tasman Great Walk for the best of beach and bush terrain.

Happy trails!
xo SJ

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