Mick Abbott cycles parts of the Old Ghost Rd and discovers history is not just something that has happened, it’s being made right here and now
Somewhere I’d been told of an old horse trail cut up the side of a West Coast river that was potentially bike-able. Rides over Harpers Pass, and up the likes of the Hunter, Hopkins and Taipo had us hooked on the thrills of riding old horse and stock routes. Single track was the best. So late last century, after a couple of nights camped at Gentle Annie, Garry and I headed up the Mokihinui Gorge.
The two crosses at the start of the track brought us to attention. They remember James Russell and D Russell of the Canterbury Infantry who were killed in the valley when in the 1929 Murchison Earthquake smashed up this area.
And then it was into the riding that despite the frequent stops to carry our bikes around slips and over windfalls was, like the gorge, awesome.
This summer I headed back, having heard that this old mining route is being fully restored into the Old Ghost Rd tramping and mountain bike track by a group of locals.
Already the 20km Mokihinui Gorge section is obstacle free, as is the route along the flats beyond the gorge, and the riding is spectacular. The perfectly benched track and rolling gradient just keeps you pedalling.
But it’s the precipitous drops you’re speeding alongside that take you’re breathe away – at times the continuous exposure feels like a never-ending escape scene from The Hobbit.
Ultimately, though, it’s not the verticality of the bluffs that mesmerises but rather the wildness of the Mokihinui River. Uncrossable, it alternates between massive rapids, deep pools and treacherous eddies as it boils its way down to the ocean, the colour of a deep jade-like green.
The new hut near the top of the gorge is a design I’ve not come across before. There’s an outer veranda, with bunks and whole walls that are made only of insect mesh, so the breeze, birdcalls, and sound of the river, swirl all around you. Then there’s an inner section that’s fully sealable in case the southerly is barrelling through. Nearby there’s a couple of smaller cabins for anyone wanting a little more privacy and space.
When it’s complete the track will deliver several days of unparalleled riding through stunning West Coast forest – from Lyell and the Buller River in the south through to Seddonville.
The work of the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust has been phenomenal. Many volunteer hours have been given to reopen the trail that is now part of Nga Haerenga – the National Cycle Trail.
Called the Old Ghost Road it commemorates the efforts of early miners and farmers to open up the large river plains hidden at the back of the gorge. As the trust says, ‘it’s almost as if the engineers from the 1870’s knew we were coming. The spirits of the old miners and track builders are inescapable. No less than five ghost towns populate the route. The Old Ghost Road is quite literally an 80km-long outdoor museum’.
However, it’s not just a history of dates and sights that’s found here. There’s something about the experience of cycling along the trail that brings back to life the craft and knowledge the track builders had in creating its undulating gradient, that once took horses and now mountain bikers the most efficient way up this rugged gorge.
It’s like the trust is bringing back to life the efforts of these pioneers for a new generation to enjoy.
But the trail doesn’t just commemorate its mining heritage. Between my first and most recent trips into the gorge, the river was destined to be dammed for hydro-electric power – with consents given for an 85m dam that would result in a 14km-long lake being formed, flooding the Mokihinui Gorge and forest.
Forest and Bird, Whitewater NZ and the West Coast Environmental Network Trust ran national campaigns to protest this. But what was especially critical to Meridian pulling the plug on the project was Al Morrison’s resolute diplomacy. As director general of DOC, he ensured the department appealed to the Environment Court the granting of consents, while all the time working with Meridian to get them to see that flooding wild rivers in our conservation lands is no longer acceptable.
It’s easy to think the only history in our backcountry is in the past, and that somehow our only job now is to appreciate it. But history is something to be made. Fast forward 100 years from now, and you can be sure people exploring the Mokihinui Gorge won’t just be remembering the efforts of these early miners and their families. What will also be celebrated are the remarkable endeavours of the trustees, conservationists and many volunteers whose work protected and brought to life what is undoubtedly the greatest mountain bike ride in the country.