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Anzac on the Old Ghost Road

11 May 2021

Words and Photos: Robin Pieper

With the Anzac long weekend looming and the OGR calling, hut spots serendipitously became available at Lyell Saddle and Stern Valley huts. A friend and I booked 4 spots, in the hope we’d find more friends. Unsurprisingly, the remaining two spots sold like hotcakes and we had an epic girls' crew lined up to take on OGR over the ANZAC long weekend. Then there was the age-old question, will the weather play ball? The forecasters thought it was likely to be pretty unsettled, and kept changing their minds. Conflicting forecasts mentioned -2 degree nights and rainy days. Surely not. What eventuated was actually pretty settled weather - well pretty settled RAIN. All you can do is laugh with the weather gods and somehow type 2 fun becomes type 1 fun.

In planning, we pondered a lot of problems.

  • How many snacks are too many ? (How long is a piece of string).
  • Is there such thing as too many oats? (There is).
  • How addicted are we to coffee really, and is it worth even the slightest chance of running out? (Definitely not).
  • How much gear can possibly fit in the SWAT tube on that Specialised!? (A lot).
  • How much of it did we use? (None – fortunate to have a mechanical free trip).

Tess Brown, Robin, Alice Sai Louie & Carol Kalnins all smiles on the start line.

Day One Lyell to Lyell Saddle

Suns out, guns out (even some sunglasses were out). T-shirt weather at this point. Hold the line caller… 5 minutes later we were all drenched to the skin. We wondered ‘is this shower bad enough to put raincoats on?’ Said ‘shower’ lasted most of the way to Lyell Saddle. We should indeed have donned raincoats at the first spits of rain.

The track up to Lyell Saddle

The gradient to Lyell Saddle is surprisingly agreeable, and there’s plenty of side creeks, slips, goats, and stories of the ghosts to keep things ticking along.

Classic West Coast moods at Lyell Saddle Hut

It was mystical looking over the saddle, watching the clouds play amongst the ridges. And a good spectator sport, because at any time the clouds might lift and rays of sun peak through for an amazing view – but you had to be vigilant to not miss the moment.

Rainy evening reading fodder

My favourite part of rainy trips is that there is literally nowhere else to be. So there was no guilt as I cuddled up in my sleeping bag with a big cup of tea and a gem from the hut library 'Spirit to the Stone'. This book makes for excellent company and immersed me in the history of the area and building of the OGR – stories worthy of legend and folklore.

Evening blue sky at Lyell Saddle and picture perfect cabin accommodation

At this point I was VERY optimistic about the weather conditions for the days ahead. Turns out I’ve been wrong before, and was wrong again.

Day Two Lyell Saddle To Stern Valley

The morning dawned misty and drizzly, leaving us to ascend into the clouds.

Heavens Door

Trying to get a peak in at Heavens Door. Ironically, all was left to the imagination of the magical world beyond the door…

Equally stunning view at the Tombstone

Genuinely unforced selfie along the tops on the way to Ghost Lake

For what we lacked in views, we made up in banter and soft jelly lollies. With the luxury of cell reception at the top shelter, I chanced a look at the weather forecast, in the hope that perhaps we could let the front pass over us. With 7-10mm/hour rain forecasted until dark, that idea was short lived. By the time we made Ghost Lake, we were starting to use phrases such as ‘proper rain’ and ‘freezing’. Lucky the lovely hut warden had the kettle on a roaring fire, and there’s not much hot coffee and quesadillas for lunch can’t fix.

The wildlife of the Old Ghost

It never took too long for a robin to find us at our snackstops. This guy was kind enough to pose while I snapped his portrait. Less exciting were the multitude of possums and goats, BUT a massive thanks to the Lyell Mokihinui Backcountry Trust for their mahi with trapping throughout the whole area.

Skyline ridge stoke

Toes and fingers warmed up with a direct correlation to the concentration required for the Ghost Lake downhill, and we dropped below the clouds for a moment's respite from the rain. It was beautiful to catch glimpses of the ever changing view, and fully appreciate that we were indeed riding bikes through some of NZ’s finest backcountry, with the finest company.

Mokihinui River Gorge

Day Three Stern Valley to Seddonville

The Mokihinui Gorge is probably my favourite spot on the entire Ghost Road, even beating the tops on a good day. I’m a river girl at heart (possibly why I’m a sucker for wet bike adventures), and to be surrounded by forest and an untamed river just makes my heart sing. The 17km of track through the gorge is simply stunning and the final change in landscape ecology on the Lyell – Seddonville journey.

Magic rising from the river as the sun came out to say hi

Before zipping down the Gorge we made one final effort at Specimen Point to lighten our packs of the remaining food (more coffee and quesadillas). Someone had the cheek to offer porridge for lunch - but with no takers. We dined out on a brief patch of sunshine, knowing this was the final stop of the trip.

Still a full quota of smiles at the finish line

After having a reasonably crash free trip (actually I can only speak for myself here), I had a near-serious slip on one of the bridges within 500m of the Rough and Tumble Lodge. Finish line fever was real, and we arrived in Seddonville a happy, wet and muddy group of gals.

Celebrations included a dip in the river with NO SANDFLIES (perks of rain), an outdoor bush shower at the Rough and Tumble, followed by cider and chips. A near perfect conclusion to a wicked trip.

The moral of this story is to never pass up an Old Ghost Road opportunity. Weather only adds to the experience, and as Olaf the wise Norwegian once said ‘There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.’ That accepted, good company is the other essential ingredient in the type 2 -> type 1 fun conversion equation. Thanks team for a lovely trip.