Late in 2020 Emma Bateup, Rebecca Kingsford and I were hiking Mt Brown. Emma, sporting a sling following recent shoulder surgery, broached the idea of a mega bike mission linking up the three West Coast 'Great Walks' in five days.
Ignoring her at the time, I thought nothing more of it until February when she messaged asking me to join her on what was later to be called the 'Papa Ghosty Loop'. I already had plans to be in Nelson for my sister's wedding, so the only real reason for saying no was that it was hard, and that’s not an excuse. I replied 'hell yeah, sign me up'.
A distant couple months in the future, I assured myself I'd squeeze in some training, sometime. But the weeks slipped away and suddenly there was just a single week to go. I'd been off my bike with injury for a couple of weeks - my longest ride just 40km. Shit. I convinced Emma to change the itinerary from a five to a six day loop. Day 1 was sliced from a threatening 266km into two more manageable bites of 125km and 141km. She kindly agreed.
The Papa Ghosty route
Day One: Nelson to Murchison
I arrived at Emma’s house in Nelson for some repacking – dumping spare clothes, double ups of tools and executing a final pack of the bags.
Squeaky clean and ready to roll
By 10am we were off on the cycle paths towards Wakefield. Things started off easy, stopping after 25km at the Wakefield Bakery for a pie then after another 25km at Kohatu for an ice cream. Then things got a bit serious. Heading over the Hope Saddle towards Murchison, it dawned on me just how big this mission was going to be and how little training I had done. I was already slipping out the back door and this wasn’t even a big day. The closer we got to Murchison, the faster Emma rode – an emerging trend that I wasn’t too sold on. Finally Murchison appeared. It transpires we had booked accommodation with no bedding. We had elected to travel light without sleeping bags. So a bit of begging was required to score fresh linen and fluffy towels. Day 1, the easy day, was complete.
A lazy start earned us a cooked breakfast before hitting the road. We continued alongside the Buller River towards Inangahua Junction - all pretty uneventful apart from some wild goats that we got into a drag race with. Emma gassed it on the long boring straights, dragging me along. We stopped by the side of the rode at Inangahua Junction, finding shelter from the drizzle while we woofed lunch. Water bottles were kindly refilled at a nearby house before we marched on through the rural landscape towards Reefton.
Reefton was humming. We refuelled with hot chips for lunch, before going on a shopping spree in Reefton’s only sports shop - acquiring new buffs and some lights (because I may have forgotten mine!).
Hot chips and milkshakes fuelling this adventure
More long, empty straights and the occasional hill followed before we tackled the final climb into Blackball, racing the setting sun as we arrived at 'Formally The Blackball Hilton' for the night. As a bonus there was a pool competition that evening, so we were treated to a pub full of revelling locals as we ate dinner by the cosy fire.
1208 vertical meters
6hr 5min ride time
Food intake: Big breakfast, coffee, 1/4 block choc, 1/4 bag dinosaurs, OSM, 1/2 scone, 600ml coke, coffee shake, cheesy wheezy hot chips, brownie with ice cream, salami & tomato pasta, 400ml ginger beer, 3 x Tailwind bottles.
Day Three: Blackball to Berlins Campground (via the Paparoa Track)
The first of our exciting Great Walk days. We started out in the dark, grovelling up the gravel road towards the start of the Paparoa Track. We were passed on the way by multiple cars, which sucked a little, but the climb wasn’t too bad. Once on the track we swapped positions – it was time for me to lead on the single track in an attempt to slow Emma down so she could reserve enough energy to drag me along the road at the end of the day. If you haven’t ridden the Paparoa Track before, the first 10km is the least fun with a slow, janky climb up the hill to Ces Clark Hut. We arrived there tired, but were encouraged by other track users who knew Emma and knew what we were up to.
Emma in her happy place
Swing bridge number...?
Still smiling, just
After snacks we layered up before heading along the open ridgeline section towards Moonlight Tops Hut. The weather had kind of set in, and even though we didn’t have any proper rain, we didn’t score any views either. We were happy to get amongst the trees just after Moonlight and enjoy some faster flowing trail towards Pororari Hut. At one point along the ridge the sky cleared and we could even see down to the Pike River mine vents. Pity I was all bundled up at this point (four layers of Ground Effect clothing keeps you lovely and toasty in the alpine fug) and I couldn’t manage the camera with my gloves on. At the 44km mark we hit a wall. This was the slowest day of our trip, sore bums and tired legs left us feeling like crap. Emergency gels and bars were consumed.
At this point I was nervous about the enormity of the next two days. Maybe we needed a plan B in case we couldn't do the distances in a single day. I raised my concerns with Emma for her to shrug them off. We eventually dripped into Punakaiki, six hours after starting. Just in time for lunch.
After some significant refuelling, we set off for our next overnight stop - with a 14km detour to the Westport New World to stock up on food, and coke of course. The sun was disappearing as we started back up the Buller Gorge towards bed. Emma risking not using lights until the very last possible minute – even though I could hardly see at this point. Pulling into Berlins Campground at 7:15pm (11 hours since starting) was sweet, especially as we were greeted with a hot fire, warm showers, cosy beds and fish & chips along with local banter. They thought we were mad. I thought we were too.
Day Four: Berlins Campground to Little Wanganui (via the Old Ghost Road)
Our alarm went off way too early and Emma announced she was nervous about today. This just made me shit myself. I had been worried about this day since forever, I didn’t think Emma ever worried about ANYTHING!
It was a long way over the OGR and north through the Karamea Bluffs to Little Wanganui. We blitzed the 30km road section up the Buller to arrive at the base of OGR just after sunrise. A quick snack and removal of two of my four layers, it was time to start climbing once again. This gentle ascent is a hundred times better than the first Paparoa climb - did I tell you how much I hated that climb? But by the time we got to Ghost Lake Hut I was still knackered, again. My bum was sore (while still not as bad as expected thanks to my Chicane merino shorts from Ground Effect), and my legs had nothing left in them, just empty windmills spinning round. I texted my Mum telling her I was done, and quickly googled 'Car Hire, Westport'. Sadly you need a licence for this and mine was in my wallet back in Nelson.
'Views' on the OGR
Me, in a slightly dark place
As we mangled our way through the turns under the hut (watching the helicopter drop people's gear off, oh to be so fancy), I voiced to Emma that I wouldn’t be continuing after this, and that her Dad might have to come get me. I think we rode the next 10km in silence. This was not helped by the trail staff at the top of the Skyline Steps who, once finding out what we were doing, proceed to tell us how big the Karamea Bluffs are, and that we may want to stay the night at the Seddonville Pub instead "cos man that’s gonna be a climb" - thanks guys.
They then blew up a piece of the track with some TNT (which was sick), while I carried on, begrudgingly. Emma politely encouraged me up the Bone Yard and by the time we reached Specimen Point Hut we were friends again, and I was psyched to finish the day. The hikers lost their lollies when they heard the adventure we were up to. How? Why? Is it even possible? Are you mad? "We don’t know" was the answer to all of those.
Small celebrations at the end of the OGR
We popped out of the OGR and coasted the road down to the Seddonville Pub. I had chips and coke. Emma had an ice cream. We were then treated to the Friday night special of cheese and crackers before heading off in search of the dreaded bluffs.
The Karamea Bluffs are a 20km section of road that climbs like 1000m, and we tackled them at 7 o'clock at night after the OGR. Emma’s Dad rang her at one point. She informed him I was fading, fast, and it was highly likely he was going to spend his weekend driving down to get me. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he politely agreed to rescue me. To make my day a little worse, I slid out on a bridge that was getting upgraded just out of Little Wanganui, splitting open the wound on my knee that had kept me off the bike in the weeks leading up to this mad, mad mission. I pulled it together enough to limp my way the Little Wanganui Hotel for another round of excessively hot showers and more food. Emma was on her second ice cream sundae for the evening (and third ice cream for the day) by the time I put myself to bed – if I was going to continue I needed a BIG sleep.
Day Five: Little Wanganui to Collingwood (via the Heaphy)
I woke with a bit of weight off my shoulders - we were nearly done - only one more big day to go. My knee wasn’t too bad, after a DIY application of steri strips and a bandage. Neither my bum nor legs felt any worse than they had for the past two days, so I put to bed any thoughts of a pick up from Emma's Dad, and got back on my bike.
We headed off in the dark towards Karamea to the sounds of gun shots – it took us a while to realise it was May 1st – the first day of the duck shooting season. It was also the first day for mtbs on the Heaphy for the 2021 season, and we were hoping to be the first (we weren’t).
West Coast beach goodness
Heaphy Hut snack stop
Beware! Slippery when wet (Emma was ok).
While having snacks and eyeing up giant snail shells at the Heaphy Hut we were met by Lucas who had started on the trail at daylight – well before us. I had done Heaphy a few years ago and found it easy, but we had gone in the opposite direction, so I found it hard to remember exactly what the track was like. The uphill to James Mackay Hut was nice and gentle, just 10km too long for my liking, but we chugged on. Emma (being the Nelson celebrity/madman she is) caught up with lots of Takaka locals and other bikepacking strava mates.
Riding through the Goblin Forest I could see all the caves that I had missed on my last trip - I was once again enjoying the trails. Yasss. We were greeted at Gouland Downs by three beautiful, big, fat takahe. We took videos and watched them hoot as they pecked away around the hut.
Prying ourselves away from the wildlife entertainment, it was time for our final Heaphy climb up to Perry (DON’T DO IT PERRY) Saddle. Another Takahe met us at this hut too, as well as two eBikers who couldn’t understand what we were doing, but were super proud of what we had done.
Finally time for the fun – 16km of descent to the Browns Hut car park and the finish/start of the Heaphy. This required multiple stops for Darude Sandstorm hand shakes and more lollies. This hill is much more fun to descend than it is to climb, I can tell you that.
The Heaphy, tick.
The road out from here (to Collingwood) in my memory was flat, the eBikers had said it was rolling, but it definitely had hills. We were stoked to arrive at the Collingwood Motorcamp in daylight, just. After another round of lovely, incredibly long, hot showers, Emma ran off down the road to get ice cream while I 'cooked' our dehydrated dinners (there was a pub open but really we couldn’t be bothered at this point). Emma arrived back with not only two ice cream sundaes, but also hot chips and 3L of coke – what a girl. A feast of kings was consumed in the comfort of our room on a luxurious double bed.
TODAY'S THE DAY, the final day. The plan was to be on the road by 7am so we were back in Nelson earlish, as we both had some life admin to tick off. That didn’t happen - we slowly made our way out of town an hour late and only got as far as Takaka before we were detained for a full cooked breakfast mixed with morning tea. An hour later we were back on the road winding our way towards the Takaka Hill. If you haven’t seen this hill before, she’s kind of big. BUT it’s less steep and shorter because it was the last proper hill on the Papa Ghosty Loop.
Another 'unscheduled' bakery stop
At the base I removed all my layers and told Emma to wait for me at the top - no point in her suffering watching me suffer. I queued my EMO playlist and ground on. TBH it was nowhere near as hard as I thought it was going to be, and actually the hills closer to Nelson hurt a lot more. I got a weeeeee bit emotional on the climb. Not the grumpy/I’m sore/'stuff this' feeling I was suffering earlier in the trip, but more of a holy crap we have nearly done this, we have survived this huge awesome mission and soon its actually over, sort of feeling. Our holiday (even if it was a type 2 fun sort of holiday), was nearly over.
We reached the top in an hour ready to bomb the descent – tight, windy curves all the way to Motueka (well nearly) and our next meal stop. I felt like we must be nearly done, but no – still a solid 60km to go, and a few 'last hills'. I perched myself behind Emma and we trucked on towards the finish line. Sadly an ambulance went past us 5 times and didn’t realise I was the 'dead body' it needed to pick up!
At one stage I yelled "It’s taunting me." Emma, realising I was a bit fragile again, just giggled and said, "this is the last hill, you're ok". It wasn’t. I wasn't. I think Emma only sees hills as actual hills if she has to shift down a gear, but as a BGG (big gear grinder) she really doesn’t use gears at all. She even dropped me cruising along the cycle paths towards home, smashing 30km/hr without breaking a sweat. As I pulled into Emma’s driveway I couldn’t stop smiling. WE DID IT!
1476 vertical meters
5hr 31min ride time
Food intake: My last bottle of Tailwind, 1.2L coke, 2x coffee, big breakfast, cinnamon scroll, 1/2 burrito, iced coffee, cheese and crackers, beer, massaman curry & roti.
High fives and hugs were had, showers were taken before Robin Pieper arrived in time to save us from another selfie, instead getting a couple of photos of Emma and I with our bikes. Robin also brought us some celebration treats – a 2L tub of ice cream for Emma, and beer & cheese for me. She nailed it.
The End (post showers).
Obviously I couldn’t have done this mission without Tailwind NZ providing me with enough Tailwind hydration powder to last the trip (and crampfix which I didn’t need), and to Ground Effect for keeping me warm, dry and my bum comfy. I lived in my Chipolatas (gloves) and a single pair of Chicanes (shorts) lasted me the week without destroying my ass. Also huge thanks to Emma for the idea, the dragging, the perseverance and for being my idol.
Total riding stats: 850km, 11740 vertical meters, 48.5 hours.
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