Taking the Old Ghost Road in the making (M)
8-12 December 2013
When the Mokihinui river was in danger of being dammed a few years ago, some of us first thought about a tramp to pay homage to it, starting from Lyell, site of a former goldmining town close to the Buller. Had we done so back in early 2010, our trip would have been mainly off-track, following the south branch of the Mokihinui to Mokihinui forks. In early December 2013, thanks to the hard work of the Old Ghost Road trust (www.oldghostroad.org.nz), volunteers, DOC, and government and other funding, we had the Old Ghost Road (OGR) to follow. At either end, it gave us a benched track designed for cycle use; in the middle, it gave us a DOC-marked route that currently only trampers can use.
On day 1, we headed off shortly after 1pm, in sometimes heavy rain. First, a brief visit to the Lyell cemetery (some of the old ghosts, but not on the Old Ghost Road itself). Then up to the track itself and 16km of very gradual ascent over a golden carpet of beech leaves, occasional remnants of mining activity and signs to what had been small towns lasting long enough to have a school. The sound of the Lyell was below us, full with rain from the previous day. I had wondered if we would have to turn back if the side-streams were also too full, but once we had easily crossed Irishman’s creek, knew we would reach Lyell Saddle hut without a problem. And so we did, around 6pm, happy to shed drenched gear, wet boots, and light the woodburner with some of the copious wood left over from the site-clearing. Like all four OGR huts, Lyell Saddle hut is thoughtfully designed for both practical comfort and outlook. It has a wonderful vista (though you don’t want to look immediately down slope to the left, where all the debris from the clearing and cutting still remains).
Day 2 we started leisurely, hoping that the mist that had come in would clear. We left around 10, when it seemed to have thinned, and there was even a blue patch as we went up through neinei and beech, on a wide track that takes long loops to ascend. Good for cyclists; not so satisfying for trampers. The rain came in and out. Two of the side streams across the track were among the first sources of the south branch of the Mokihinui. We were lucky as we came out onto the tops to see a complex bush and stream country beneath us. We were unlucky then for the visibility to generally close in, so that there was no point scrambling off track to enjoy the sweeping views promised from Rocky Tor. Nonetheless, there were alpine daisies to enjoy, and as we walked on the eastern side of the ridge, good views of the Newton River basin.
We were eating lunch when a cyclist came up the track. Were we the TTC group he asked. Yes. Well. Or rather, not well. He had stopped at Lyell Saddle hut to find it smoky… a log in the ashbucket had flamed when he took the bucket outside. We were mortified. Thanked our lucky stars that he had come along, on his way to put in voluntary work handcutting the trail from Ghost Lake hut, our next destination. Colin had thought the log and ashes cold when he cleaned out the fire box. A salutary lesson for us all. We expected a real scolding from ‘Weasel’ when we got to Ghost Lake hut about 2pm, but Marion Boatwright, one of the OGRT founders who’s done much of the hard yakker for this track welcomed us warmly. Two of us joined the 6 volunteers grubbing out grasses for the track heading away from Ghost Lake, Tom refreshing himself afterwards with a swim across the lake. A beautiful setting, with kea and, through the night, frogs.
Day 3 took us away from the sometimes tiring rhythm of a track designed for cyclists into route territory. Down and across a saddle, up to tops again, with great views of heavily earthquake-slipped country, as well as farmland to the south east. Lovely pink rock on top, and plentiful white orchids. Fun zigzagging through the bush along a long ridge, with lunch at the top of an old slip, enjoying the views. Then down to a branch of Stern Creek, and diagonal layers of rock uplifted on the opposite side. Two deepish crossings, and Stern Creek hut around 3.30pm after a 7.5 hour day. Two DOC goat hunters were in the hut, good company.
Day 4 saw us away at 7.30am, knowing we had some rough ground to cover, and keen to cross the Mokihinui south branch so that we would not find ourselves holed up if forecast rain came early. Good travel to start with, through scrub – and lawyer – and around one of two lakes (named on the OGR site as ‘Cheerful’ and ‘Grim’), enjoying the birdlife which was good all through this trip but particularly good here. We climbed up through rock, then through damp forest – expecting to pass over ‘Solemn Saddle’ (another OGR moniker?). The blue sky we could see through the trees would tantalise, as instead we stayed on the eastern side, and slidled (stet!) through mush and over and around logs and branches and slippy rock. An opening through trees around some greasy rock gave us a great view of the twin lakes, and the high sides of the valley we’d come through, and a welcome break from the constant judgement of the solidity of what lay ahead. Then more slidling... though finally we crossed over to the west, at one stage a rata in flower beneath us, and then – around noon we were out onto a bouldery field high above Goat Creek. It had taken us around 2 hours to come about a kilometre and a half. Over lunch we asked ourselves how that could be turned into a track for cyclists, and what maintenance would be needed to keep that track open - a question that had occurred the previous day, but not as sharply!
Then – down through scratchy scrub and lawyer, another zigzagging route, across Goat Creek, onto meadows where we met two of the crew about to start work on this end using explosives, not the hand-tools being used from Ghost Lake Hut end. We heard the helicopters bringing in two huts for the contract workers as we moved down Goat Creek valley – at first starting on a nice benched track, and then, oh joy! Another bout of slidling… we were therefore glad to come onto the cycle track a kilometre or so away from where Goat Creek runs into the Mokihinui.
And glad too when the builders putting the first bridge across the Mokihinui south branch offered to whizz us across in a bosun’s chair. Great fun! And wonderful to cross its smooth rounded boulders, often pink, white, flecked, to the water, wash away some of the dirt from the slidles, and have a drink of some of the purest water I’ve tasted.
Then we faced a 7-8 km walk to Mokihinui Forks Hut, with the story of the track building around us from time to time – pipes, fuel; 2 motorcycles… The trackbuilding had taken over the hut when we got there, only 3 beds left; a notice on the door apologising for any inconvenience, so with some muttering off we headed for Specimen Point Hut, an hour away. But it was a lovely early evening light (on the way to the forks hut there had been good views of the 1000 acre plateau); and we were walking mostly above the river, as it charged through rapids and flowed powerfully between. We reached the hut, tired but very happy, after a 12 hour day, 27 kms.
Day 5 saw us start leisurely again, wending our way down alongside the great river, grateful for the bridges across gullies and some of the side streams that now made for an easy and highly enjoyable 6 hour walk down rather than the high clambering up and around that would have been needed before. Lunch at Seatonville, another vanished town. The rain came in just as some of us reached the track end; Colin had gone ahead and organised transport with the Seddonville hotel, and we were happy to not have to walk 4 kms to the Seddonville holiday park, formerly the school. Whitebait patties with chips and salad at the hotel after a good shower, and the ghosts of the students with us as we slept… on the way out we stopped at the mouth of the Mohikinui to pay a final homage
The OGR Trust (Lyell-Mokihinui Trust Ed.) talks of the track as a ‘great walk’, and probably this is how it will (have to be) maintained… it is a highly enjoyable trip, with lots of variety. As trampers, we felt fortunate to experience it before it has been fully prepared for cyclists. To experience it in the making also made us think about the nature and costs of track building as well the pleasure we could take from being in absorbing country, and then alongside such a beautiful river.
- Party members
- Colin Cook, Ken Fraser, Anne Opie, Tom White, Cathy Wylie (leader and scribe)..