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The Ghost of Charming Denniston

10 March 2016

By Dave Mitchell

Out of the swirling mist Jim appeared as if by magic, clad suspiciously in running kit, sneaking in a bit of ultra marathon training no doubt. To our amazement he instantly recognized a couple of MTB clones dripping from uphill sweat with bikes, helmets and riding glasses home to small droplets of low flying clouds. We would have struggled to recognize ourselves. We chatted about the hard core team of track builders this project had bought together over five years, his pleasure in going back and upgrading sections of the track and the amazing support from individuals all over NZ. A track building phenomena that has captured so many peoples imagination. The Pike River Mine memorial track was next up for discussion “give us the difficult sections, because that is what we are best at” said Jim. He was dead right there, looking at what they have collectively achieved. We headed off and disappeared at speed in opposite directions before our warm engines cooled down too much.

Under a steel grey sky the DOC camp at Lyell remained half asleep, as Ditte and I started up the old dray road towards the Lyell Saddle. We had been riding both ends of the track since the late eighties but never in our wild and wooly dreams thought they would be joined. But that day came and went in 2015. From the Lyell Saddle, resurfacing of the track is smoothing the way up onto the open ridge. The cloud enveloped us there, in silence, shrouding the view and coating the alpine plants in small shinny droplets of pure water. We rode the amazing balcony section, a miracle of track building flow and a work of art in the mist of time. Ghost Lake Hut arrived unannounced & empty. We were immediately impressed by the great selection of Park Tools wired to the hut, ready and waiting for an emergency bike repair to limp into view. Ghost Lake sat reflecting on its new found fame as we headed down the endless switchbacks and through the primeval stunted beech forest and below, then we rode more challenging switchbacks to the yellow capped series of Skyline Steps.

The steps provided a chance to reflect on and appreciate all that have come before it. The track down to Stern Hut roamed under a high canopy and we enjoyed it, just as much as lunch chatting to a group of trampers ensconced there. From the hut we climbed once more, up an open valley and past two alpine lakes, before entering a massive rock fall called the Bone Yard. With a fallen-mountain backdrop, mouse and house sized boulders prevailed. This giants bowling alley was the brain child of tectonic plate collision while cunningly allowing humans to track-build through the gaps. Solemn Saddle arrived gradually and the following descent was digested rapidly, flowing all the way down to Goat Hut on the banks of Goat Creek. We ate our cheese and banana sandwiches hungrily on the gated swing-bridge that spans the Mokihinui River South Branch. The gate excludes French powelliphanta snail eating opossums from subverting its Australian brethren on the western bank.

A magic carpet ride took us flying past Limestone Creek, The Resurgence and Mokihinui Hut to Specimen Point Hut. It's perched high above the Mokihinui river at the confluence of the south and north branches. Four mountain bikes resided in the conservatory and in the hut two of their owners relaxed, watching life and the river go by. This hut was one of master carpenter, Marion (Weasel) Boatwright creations, individual and with character that fitted its unique spot. Like the other huts along the trail, it comes fully equipped with pots, pans, plates, cutlery and the kitchen sink. So don't bring yours, just a cooker and a few good mates. We were still peddling in circles past the suicide slips, across the high-wire rock-face chasm-spanning hanging-swing-bridges. As the westward sun blinked through the trees we crossed Johnny Cake Creek with the end in sight and a rumbling in our bellies.

Earthquake slips killed James & D Russell on the 17th June 1929. Their two white crosses at the end of this magnificent trail have fallen to the ravages of time. A final downhill, then a metaled road swung us around the edge of our old friend the Mokihinui River, through regenerating forestry and cow country, to the almost abandoned town of Seddonville and its old school pub. The steam train no longer rolls into the station, the tracks pulled up when the gold, coal and timber ran out. Now white baiters come during the season in their droves. Fisherman, trampers, sightseers come to stay, but the new gold is thirsty and hungry mountain bikers. First the publican proudly shows us the covered bike stand. He doesn't lift a bushy eye brow at the state of our mud-splattered sweat-stained attire and shows us the door, to lucky number 6 motel room. This luxury of the motel/pub option allowed us to travel fast and light. A dozen Ghost riders were sipping handles of Seddonville Ale in anticipation of their pub-grub arriving as we put our order in the queue. Two long lean thirsty and hungry cyclist turn up as dusk descended. They had come from Punakaiki and were heading for a Ghost Road experience the very next day. They had struggled on the Charming Creek Rail Trail with panniers, so how they would fair on a grade 4 plus MTB track in the steep climbing direction is anyones guess? They were young and strong and no doubt would survive?

We slept like opossums high on 1080, woke and left early after a starry night, with a big day ahead, one even we would not have guessed at. A line of milked cows crossed the distant horizon fading in and out of the valley mist heading as we were to greener pastures. The Charming Creek Track was equally misty, its historic relics coming alive in the subtle light and shiny dampness. We made the most of an unpopulated track, but floundered in the pitch dark train tunnel just before the roaring waterfall. We swayed across the Charming Creek suspension bridge, with only downhill out to Ngakawau. The Stockton mine coal head marks the end of the trail. Its aerial bucket way was working stoically. Below it, coal wagons were being loaded with black gold, as we cruised past and onto tar. Delicious early morning sun warmed the back of our legs as we peddled south to Granity and the Drifters Cafe for a buttered cheese scone. Long endless straights stretched out to Waimangaroa. The local dairy providing a iced coffee hit. Opposite the shop, beautiful wood carvings on a monolithic scale stood immortal, for no apparent reason or resale, except that they could. They looked across at us as if we were mad, and we were. A sentiment Ditte would express later in the day.

We climbed an 8km ribbon of black tar, from sunshine into shadow. Denniston, when it arrived, was possessed by cloud and rumbling truck and trailer units taking coal down to the masses from a new mine below Mt Rochfort, a once proud and thriving coal mining town on a high plateau. It looked down wistfully at the comings and goings along the thin sliver of land that occupies the space between the sea, the foothills and the mountains, that ultimately stretch between Karamea and Haast Pass. On the wrong side of the railway track and at the bad end of town,we ate our buttered scones in silence. They were a stale disappointment with grounds for complaint. A cheerful miners road headed down the hill and forked. We took the straight-ahead branch onto an unmaintained 4WD track. A gradual climb to a junction marked the end of making nice. The terrain between us and our New Creek/Iron Bridge destination looked rugged and broken, characterised by sharp ridge tops and steep jungle clad gorges. Like a saw blade on steroids the track plummets from pylon topped summits to water graves below. Erosion along with flagging maintenance, has rendered much of the track surface into a bolder strewn and sketchy circus. A mecca for hard core 4WDs and skilled riders of motor bikes and quads.

Don't get me wrong, we totally enjoyed the downhills on our 2.4 tyres and 160mm full sussers, but the endless up-bits proved a bit of a grind at the sharp end of the day and after four big hill climbs. Did I mention the ride we did the day before? The final downhill arrived in its own good time, bottoming out at an old abandoned coal mine. Its mounds of fine coal dust on display. Long grass had completely surrounded an old tractor, a V twin compressor and a selection of abandoned mining paraphernalia. A rusty container stood nearby with its open door swinging in time to the pleasant breeze. The track then follows Pensini Creek out to the farming settlement of New Creek, on a horseshoe terrace above a horseshoe bend of the horse like Buller River. On remote New Creek Road a black V8 ute passed us with a wave and a cloud of dust, and then just before reaching the Iron Bridge on SH6 a police car cruised on by in the same direction. Lyell was just around the next corner with shelter and food supplies there waiting. We arrived accompanied by the long shadows that usually announce days end.

Yes we had laid to waste 180kms of trail, pillaged up and down 4500 meters of hillage and got back in one piece with no major bark missing. The weather had been kind and apart from a dodgy scone, we had been well fed and watered. Who could ask for more than a post epic rest day and a bloody big ice-cream?

The End.