Visiting ghosts of the past

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

On the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand in the Kahurangi National Park, a ghost has been brought back to life. A long-forgotten gold miners’ road has been revived as a mountain biking and tramping trail. The 85km-long Old Ghost Road traverses majestic native forest, open tussock tops, river flats and remote valleys. It passes by the remnants of four once-bustling settlements, now gone, reclaimed by the merciless West Coast bush. Alina Suchanski laced up her tramping boots to check out this amazing trail.

[caption id="attachment_1305" align="alignright" width="300"] Petrina and Alina at the start of the track[/caption]

Connecting the old dray road at Lyell (Upper Buller Gorge) in the south to the mighty Mokihinui River at Seddonville in the north, the Old Ghost Road track takes the hiker through the gold mining history of New Zealand. The gold rush days of the 1860s brought hundreds of gold prospectors hoping to strike it rich fast. Storekeepers and hoteliers followed closely behind, and towns quickly

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 13 minutes

On the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand in the Kahurangi National Park, a ghost has been brought back to life. A long-forgotten gold miners’ road has been revived as a mountain biking and tramping trail. The 85km-long Old Ghost Road traverses majestic native forest, open tussock tops, river flats and remote valleys. It passes by the remnants of four once-bustling settlements, now gone, reclaimed by the merciless West Coast bush. Alina Suchanski laced up her tramping boots to check out this amazing trail.

Petrina and Alina at the start of the track

Connecting the old dray road at Lyell (Upper Buller Gorge) in the south to the mighty Mokihinui River at Seddonville in the north, the Old Ghost Road track takes the hiker through the gold mining history of New Zealand. The gold rush days of the 1860s brought hundreds of gold prospectors hoping to strike it rich fast. Storekeepers and hoteliers followed closely behind, and towns quickly sprung up in their wake like mushrooms after rain. Once the gold was exhausted, the mines closed down and the people abandoned the area. Today all that remains are a few relics covered in mosses and lichens.

The 1929 magnitude 7.3 Murchison earthquake and the 1968 magnitude 7.1 Inangahua earthquake caused two major slips that buried large parts of the old dray road under tons of rubble.

That the public can walk and cycle through this road is a credit to the volunteer-run Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust, who, through a mammoth effort, restored the old road and built new sections to join its two ends together.

I flew to Nelson to meet my friend Petrina and we drove to Lyell, where we left her car at the start of the track. It’s hard to believe that Lyell was once a prosperous town. It boomed during the tail end of the gold rush in the 1880s, reaching 1000 citizens at its peak. Nowadays, it’s a Department of Conservation (DOC) camping ground.

Shouldering our packs, we crossed the swing bridge over the Lyell Creek and started a gentle, steady climb through the beech forest. The track goes through an old gold mining area dotted by signs explaining its history. After an hour and a half, we arrived at Irishman’s Creek, where gold-bearing quartz discovered in 1869 led to the establishment of alpine reefs and mines. Zala Town, named after the founder of the Alpine Quartz Mine, Antonio Zala, started as a handful of miner huts and lasted for nearly 30 years.

Old shoes and kettle

A little later, we reached the site of the once-thriving Gibbs Town (1887-1912) which boasted miners’ cottages, a post office, the Belfast Hotel, and a public school catering for up to 50 pupils. All that’s left today is a pair of old shoes, rusty wheels and pulleys, and an old kettle.

What surprised us was a prolific birdlife that made our walk through this amazing forest shrouded in history even more interesting and enjoyable. Flocks of kākāriki (yellow-crowned parakeets) chattered in the forest canopy, pīwakawaka (fantails) tweeted fluttering around us, kererū (wood pigeons) swooshed above our heads, and in the distance, we heard the lovely melodies of tui and korimako (bellbirds). Though we saw a multitude of birds, we only met two women who cycled past us on their mountain bikes.

After more than six hours and 18 kilometres of walking, cold and tired, we reached the Lyell Saddle Hut (10 bunks). Two bikes were leaning against it. We had a sleepout booked, so we went to drop off our packs before going to the main hut for a long-awaited hot drink. The hut was everything the sleepout was not – warm, cosy, light and spacious, with a stunning view of the mountains. The two cyclists, a Kiwi and a Canadian, had been there for several hours. They had the fire going and hot water in the kettle. I decided on the spot to collect my belongings from the cabin and move to the hut. Petrina followed.

The fully insulated, double glazed hut remained warm all night. After breakfast of porridge and tea, we were on our way again. Ahead of us: 12 km of climbing a series of large switchbacks up to the highest point on the track. This is the newest part of the track as the old road only got as far as the Lyell Saddle (885 metres above sea level).

Weka

When we stopped for a snack a weka came out of the bushes and paced curiously around us looking for a free meal. We had to watch all our belongings in the presence of this feathered thief.

One of the highlights was walking through a forest of mountain neinei (dracophyllum traversii). The name dracophyllum, meaning dragon-leaf, refers to their strange, almost prehistoric appearance. As we continued climbing, the forest behind was replaced by stunted alpine vegetation, grasses and eventually bare rock.

The higher we went, the colder and wetter it became and visibility deteriorated. An eerie mist hung around our pathway. With my boots and socks wet from the snow on the ground, I was running out of energy when suddenly we arrived at a brand new shelter that wasn’t even marked on the map. Although not much bigger than a bus stop, it was a lifesaver, allowing us to have a rest away from the elements.

We resumed our journey on the track that sidles along the eastern slope of Mt Montgomery (1332 metres) and continues towards Rocky Tor (1456 metres), however, this steep-sided peak was obscured by the clouds.

Alina at the Heaven’s Door

Bent under the weight of my pack I nearly missed one of the points of interest on our way. Heaven’s Door is a small saddle north of Rocky Tor, a gap between two rock walls that in better weather would reveal majestic views of the surrounding country, but on that day was filled by an ethereal haze.

We arrived at the Ghost Lake Hut at 1pm in light drizzle. As soon as we sat down to take off our boots, the real West Coast rain started. We were very lucky – wandering among precipitous mountains in this weather with poor visibility would’ve been life-threatening.

The Ghost Lake Hut (18 bunks) sits at 1200 metres above sea level overlooking a small lake that gives the hut its name. It’s much bigger than the Lyell Saddle Hut, but we had it to ourselves and had plenty of time to cook a scrumptious meal to the accompaniment of rain drumming on the roof.

It rained hard all night. I got up before eight after ten hours’ sleep. To my delight, the rain eased to drizzle, and I could see the mountains in overlapping chains emerging from the fog. When it stopped raining, we left to continue our journey. The precarious position of the hut became apparent only when we were some distance away and looking back, saw it perched on the very edge of a cliff.

Long stairway down from Skyline Ridge

It was cold. Rice-sized grains of hail were bouncing off our raincoats and up off the ground. But soon the sun came out, and we walked along the Skyline Ridge with amazing mountain vistas all around. Large boulders scattered on top of the ridge added to the grandeur of the scene. At the northern end we could see a steep winding staircase descending to the upper reaches of Stern Creek. Heading down along the creek, we watched with awe the brown frothy torrent washing over giant boulders. It was another short hiking day and despite a late start, we arrived at the Stern Valley just after 4pm to find the 10-bunk hut empty, our only companions – three kea flying high above the trees. Soon we had the fire roaring making the hut warm and cosy.

We woke up to a frosty morning with clear sky and set off early on day four of our adventure, the longest so far, with 25km to cover. Walking along Goat Creek, we spotted a mother goat with two kids. The vegetation was very different here. We noticed lots of small totara trees with no fully grown specimen in sight. This was due to a massive slip that had destroyed the whole mountainside. The rubble was colonised by akeake (olearia) bushes, also known as tree daisy, and not much else. Lake Grim and Lake Cheerful sit in the valley below.

Later we walked through a beautiful mixed forest of podocarps and beech trees with a section of very tall miro trees, followed by even taller kahikatea (white pine) trees. The birdlife was amazing with brown creepers, pippets, riflemen, weka and silver eyes in attendance. Our destination for the day was the Specimen Point Hut. And after two nights on our own, we finally had some company: Sisters Brenna and Keely from Montana, USA, cycled up from the north end of the track, and two builders, a father and son team, were also staying at the hut. The men were working on an extension to the hut, enlarging the living area and building a deck with a stunning view of the Mōkihinui River Gorge and surrounding mountains. It was lovely chatting to the other hut occupants by candlelight.

The next morning, we walked along the river to the end of the track, crossing many bridges over side creeks. The forest was different again with lots of rimu and kahikatea trees. We saw northern rata entwined in a tight embrace with giant rimu trees. Sometimes it was hard to tell which was the host and which the invader. We came across some gold mining artefacts and an old railway track – signs of mining settlements that once stood there. The Mōkihinui River surprised me with its size and beauty, and I was pleased to hear that the locals had won their battle to stop a dam being built on the river.

We ended our trip in Seddonville where Petrina’s car, relocated by a local company, was waiting for us.

In the book Spirit to the Stone, author, trust member and volunteer Marion Boatwright describes the obstacles, challenges, and highs and lows members and supporters of the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust had to overcome to bring this project to completion for the public to enjoy, creating a huge asset not only for the West Coast but also for the rest of Aotearoa/New Zealand.

 

Photos: Alina Suchanski

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