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October 2014 Issue
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Bold road to nowhere

Photo: OGR Lyell Range

West Coaster Pete Lusk doesn’t buy into the Old Ghost Road sales pitch

The Old Ghost Road cycleway is a bold project, nobody can deny that. Nor could you deny it traverses an amazing wilderness. And yes, the views are stunning. But when it gets described as one of the 10 top mountain bike trails in the world, as it was by a UK mountain biking magazine, I take a big gulp.

The fact is, the OGR is only two thirds finished. You can only bike the ends and these are frequently blocked by slips and wind thrown beech forest. The 20km section in the middle is still a rough tramping track, where contradictory markers can easily lead you astray. On top of that, saplings have been sliced with a machete, so if you happened to slip and spike your chest on one you’d be dead before you could say Steve Irwin.

There’s another very difficult section of cycleway that’s beaten the track builders. It’s a steep sidle of the Lyell Range. The trust that is building the OGR claimed early on that it’d only be a matter of ‘widening a couple of goat tracks’. But a million dollars and one tonne of gelignite later, it remains unfinished. Not only that, but it is incredibly dangerous, being muddy and, in places, steep. The run-off is shockingly steep – it’s one slip and you’re dead.

Two other places on the cycleway are just as dangerous and even more difficult to fix. Shards of rock continually fall from fault zones where the trail crosses a cliff face in the Lyell Valley and another in the Mokihinui Gorge.

Yet the Trust’s brochure for the cycleway mentions none of these problems. On the contrary it presents the cycleway as if it’s already complete, where the only real hazard is the weather. The brochure also states that no one user-group has exclusive rights. But when you start the trail, a trust noticeboard informs you that trampers must give way to cyclists. And you’d better believe it because mountain bikers can be oblivious to trampers as they come roaring around corners.

Another claim on the brochure is that the OGR is a ‘grassroots effort by locals’. Nothing could be further from the truth. A quick glance at the brochure shows the main backers are a mining-friendly government, coal miner Solid Energy and Gough Group, which supplies the nearby Stockton Mine with Caterpillar bulldozers and giant diggers. The trust is chaired by Solid Energy’s sustainable development manager Phil Rossiter, backed by another former mine manager Ian Harvey. Why this heavy mining input? The government and the mining industry are keen to push this narrow-gauge road through the Mokihinui Forks Ecological Area, and ecological areas are not supposed to have roads. To me, it looks like the OGR is part of a strategy by the mining industry to open up our most precious conservation areas.

I’ve tramped the route of the OGR three times now and am amazed at the gall of the trust in making claims for which there is no substance. This subterfuge is best summed up by an experienced local tramping friend with the expression: “You can’t build a cycleway by spin alone.”

As far as money is concerned, a back-of-the-envelope summing up of the contributions from such sources as DOC, NZ Lotteries Commission, Solid Energy and Development West Coast, I reckon they’ve already spent $6million and will need at least $2million more. Then there’s the maintenance costs that go with wild terrain and even wilder weather. This could easily amount to $1million a year.

Getting back to the trust’s brochure, I couldn’t help notice their appeal to the mountain biking public to ‘be part of the unfolding legend’.

Time will tell if they manage to complete this much-touted cycleway or create just another legendary West Coast road-to-nowhere, overgrown and abandoned in the wilderness.