Ghost ex Machina

Words by Guy Wynn-Williams
Photos by Dom Blissett, Jamie Nicoll, Odin Woods, Richard Goldsbury and Tony Hutcheson

Since opening in 2015, the Old Ghost Road has rocketed to the top of every kiwi mountain biker's must do, or must do again list. 85km of crafted singletrack through pristine bush and wicked geology from the South Island’s Buller Gorge through to the West Coast - the OGR was built with 25,000 volunteer hours, $6.5 million of NZ Cycle Trail funding, community grants, sponsorship and donations… and a ton of local tenacity.

Last year around 10,000 riders and walkers completed the trip. It's so popular that when Cherie suggested a Ground Effect work junket back in September, the first Saturday night she could book the Ghost Lake Hut was in April this year. After a collective gasp of disbelief around the office, all 20 bunks in the main hut and the two sleepouts were duly booked and paid for. Family and our Ground Effect 'Revolutionary' sponsored riders were enlisted to join us, food and logistics sorted, and golden weather pre-ordered.

Our convoys from Christchurch and Nelson converged at the DOC campground in Lyell on Friday night. The horrendous rain of the preceding days had cleared. Jo and Anja provided cakes washed down with single malt, and Tristan warned of an epic sandfly assault in the morning.


Top to bottom: Sasha, Fraser and Nicole get the cream. Photos: Tony Hutcheson

Lashings of Yum granola and plunger coffee kicked off a leisurely start to the next day. Low cloud, mist and gorillas were parked over our part of the world, but we were grateful for the uncharacteristic absence of bitey things.


The reason for breakfast. Photos: Odin Woods


Jostling for pole position in the class photo. Photo: Dom Blissett

Smooth, wide and of a modest gradient, with occasional impressive drops - the reclaimed old dray road to the Lyell Saddle Hut provides a relaxed prologue to the trip. Chitchat was interspersed with endless photographic stops.


Scott and Anja spin out of Lyell. Photo Odin Woods


Jo 'all smiles' WW. Photo Tony Hutcheson


A rolling bike gathers no moss. Jo E proves the proverb. Photo Odin Woods


Tristan gets close to the edge. Photos Richard Goldsbury

There was a lot of digital camera amongst the troops. Richie, Tony and Odin handicap themselves with an extra 10 kilos (or more) of tripod, lenses and batteries - not that it shows in their climbing speed or agility on descent. The endless rounds of "let's try that shot just one more time" resulted in longer ride times than normal - but magic kodak moments.


Odin and Richie. Photos: Dom and Tony


A tangled web of Steve in orange. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


Damian and Richie fuel up for their next move. Photo Tony Hutcheson


The Dom and Richie overpass. Photo: Odin Woods


Tit for tat. Photo: Odin Woods


Sasha makes like Dr Zeus amongst the dracophyllums. Photo: Ricard Goldsbury

The track beyond Lyell Saddle Hut steepens a little and winds seductively through the jurassic bush to the final ridge before the Ghost Lake Hut. Light drizzle and a moody Scottish ambience supplanted the hoped-for big vistas.


Pukana Steve. Photo: Tony Hutcheson


Can't see the Jillian for the trees. Photo: Richard Goldsbury.


Damian advocates for enduro bike packing. Photo: Odin Woods


Odin and Dom hunt gorillas on the tops before dropping in on Ghost Lake Hut. Photo: Tony Hutcheson

By late afternoon the photographic stragglers joined the rest of us at the hut. The fire was crankin' - cheese, chips and Garage Project ales consumed. A feast of porcini risotto followed. It transpired that it was Tony's birthday - lucky we had single malt and chocolate to celebrate.


Portrait of a birthday boy. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


The Ghost Lake Trattoria. Photos: Tony Hutcheson and Dom Blissett


The lights of Murchison in the distance. Photo: Odin Woods

All hands were on deck at 6:30 in the morning. Motor drives captured the sunrise. Porridge was consumed with varying levels of reluctance before the train rolled out in stages. Next stop the infamous Ridgeline Steps and Stern Hut beyond.


Odin at sunrise. Photos: Richard Goldsbury


Richie returns the favour. Photo: Odin Woods

Tristan and Anja's friend Wayne from Helicopter Charter Karamea flew in for coffee at 8:30 and generously backloaded some excess camera gear out for us. It transpires there was a lighthearted wager to better the 6 hour 53 minute winning time in the Old Ghost Ultra running race. Tristan and Anja gave it a nudge the next day - riding the 'reverse' OGR in 6:49 and 6:56 respectively. Impressive.


Sasha eyes up her new motor. Photo: Richard Goldsbury

The last remnants of cloud fled the scene as we exited Ghost Lake. There were large helpings of fizz on the superb 800m descent - technical, a bit slippery in places and exposed in others. The trail guide advises to walk if you're not confident. Big grins and plenty of excited jibberish announced our arrival in the Stern Valley as we regrouped over a mid morning snack.


The train leaves the Ghost Lake station. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


The party (hat) continues. Jamie and Sasha dual down the Stern Ridge. Photo: Odin Woods


Guy imitates Rudolf at Easter. Photo: Tony Hutcheson


Tony out from behind his camera. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


The track swoops below Richie, past the helipad, to the Ridgleine Steps. Photo: Tony Hutcheson


Like something from Wizard of Oz. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


Richie pumps his tyres with helium. Photo: Tony Hutcheson


Anja always on the race line. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


Rich W and Heidi snake their way west. Photo: Odin Woods


Jamie and Richie rail another hairpin. Photo: Tony Hutcheson


Fraser and Finn do that father and son thing. Photo: Odin Woods


Scott with eyes only for the trail. Photo: Dom Blissett


Sasha puts the hammer down... Photo: Odin Woods


... as do Jamie and Tony. Photo: Richard Goldsbury

It's a long but not too taxing, nor too technical, ride out from the Stern Hut. The short climb past Grim Lake and through the Boneyard is the only significant uphill. We were chased by sandflies down the spectacular Mokihinui Gorge to the Rough and Tumble Lodge for cleansing beer and pizza and a restorative swim in the river.


A reflective moment at Grim Lake. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


Nicole grinds up and through the Bone Yard. Photo: Jamie Nicoll


Guy, Scott and Tony homeward bound. Photo: Dom Blissett


Anja and the mighty Mokihinui. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


Jo E and Nicole with the Mokihinui behind. Photo: Richard Goldsbury


Sasha (and Dom) chose to wheelie all the swing bridges on the way out. Photo: Tony Hutcheson

The conception and building of the Old Ghost Road is an extraordinary, almost unimaginable, achievement. Riding it is sublime. Repeating it already anticipated with impatience.


OGR class photo. Up high: Tristan and Odin.
Standing room only: Damian, Jo WW, Rich W, Jillian, Scott, Guy, Richie G, Finn & Steve.
Crouching tiger: Anja & Dom
Down low: Tony, Nicole, Sasha, Fraser, Jo E & Jamie.
MIA: Cherie, Ollie & Heidi.