The Old Ghost Roundabout

No sooner had I dried out all my gear from TWALK, it was chucked back in the bag again for another weekend away exploring the back blocks of New Zealand. Friday night after work was transition time, gear all packed, Stru came round and picked me and my bike up, then Isla jumped in on the other side of town and we headed north. We had a late arrival at Lyell campsite, set up the tent fairly efficiently and then hunkered down for some sleep before Saturday’s big day ahead of us.

We were up early, but then mucked around for a fair bit getting packed and ready, so it was around 8:20am when we hit the trail. The weather was forecast to be ok and it was a bit grey and overcast, with the rain set to arrive at around 6pm, so we needed to be done by then! Surprisingly the first two hours of riding to the first hut went by really quickly – maybe it was the history lesson I gave on the South Coast track in Fiordland after my post Godzone research? Anyway pretty much as soon as we arrived at the hut the rain came it, so it was time for the jackets to come out. With the cover of the trees it was only a matter of minutes before we were all overheating a bit, but as soon as we made our way out into the open it became apparent it was the right call.

Along the top section we had cold grey rainy skies with about 50m visibility so the views were not anything too impressive. The track condition however was very good, hardly muddy at all. This steep and narrow section again went by relatively quickly, this time because it was exposed to the weather, there was minimal views and we were best to keep on riding to keep warm. It wasn’t too long now and we reached Ghost Lake hut. Again, we were spared the sun and super impressive views, and we left with the beginning of the technical switch back section. There was some super tight little switchbacks in there, and although I enjoyed them I was pretty glad to reach the stairs, which signaled the start of the nice downhill section. The stairs were ok to negotiate with a Bike, I would not have like to have done it the otherway. They were a little bit slippery in the wet and there was actually some big steps in there for a short-ish person.

Switchbacks on the Old Ghost Road. Good old West coast weather haunting us.

After a quick break at the bottom of the stairs it was full speed to the next hut. It was a really fun, smooth downhill. At one point we encountered some smelly goats, but other than that hardly anyone else on the whole track. It was pretty cool to have it mostly to ourselves. Then just as we thought we might have been the only ones on the track, we arrived at Stern valley hut just as it started to rain a bit harder, and met a group of riders heading in our direction. We stopped here for a lunch break, recharged the batteries, and escaped from the rain for a little bit.

It was a bit cold once we got going but by the time we reached the boneyard, I had certainly warmed up nicely. I really enjoyed the climb up through the slip site, and it was actually probably the most scenic part for us on the whole trip – mostly just because we could actually see something! At the edge of the forest just before leaving the slip site there was a yelp, and quickly Stru stopped and turned around, thinking that Isla or myself that had hurt ourselves or something. He was meet with some blank looks! It must have been another goat. It was a relief to get to Solemn saddle as we knew it was mostly all down hill from there on, and what followed from there was an excellent downhill, heaps of fun, and fantastic sharp cornering practice.

Now being late-ish in the afternoon, we needed to keep the pace on along the next flat section, so we cruised along at a good clip. The slight downwards sloping gradient make for some more nice fun riding and it almost felt like the sun was going to make an appearance. This was short lived as almost as soon as the jackets came off they went back on. The joys of winter riding… The final hut on the trail was a short hop down the river valley from the old DoC hut, and now the rain was settling in. Stu and I had a brief stop for a look at the rapids, and the warm hut full of people and then we were on the move again.

By this time of the day, it was starting to get dark in the forest, it was just 16kms or so to get out and around 4:30pm. We continued to ride fast, but light was not on our side, and my feet which had stayed dry up until this point got saturated, just as everything else did. There was a lot of water on the track and the rain was consistent, so it meant we got very wet. It was a nice ride along the steep side of the river, this required some pretty intense concentration in some parts to make sure I didn’t slip of the edge of the track! Sunset was on its way and we just made it to the end in the dim but full light of day.

Our ride wasn’t over for the day quite yet, we had to get from the end of the track to the Seddonville Hotel and we did just that right on darkness! The Hotel was a perfect stop, complete with some bike cleaning facilities, a warm shower and nice bed to sleep in! We caught the weather forecast for Sunday, then headed into the almost deserted pub for a feed and some warmth beside the cold fueled fire. We speculated on the weather and figured that it hadn’t rained quite enough yet for there to be too much water in the Mackley river for us to cross the next day.

Unfortunately, as we recovered and made our way back to the room, Isla discovered some pain in her knee. She has been struggling to get over and ITB injury for almost a year, and it appears the 8+ hour ride we had just knocked off hadn’t improved the situation. She made the call to pull the pin, and call for a pick up. The rain on the roof overnight had me thinking maybe I should take the easy option out too.

The easy option however was not something that I could bring myself to do and Stru and I left the hotel just before 8am on our mission back to the car while Isla hung out in the warmth waiting for her ride back home. It was pretty hard getting going but 10 minutes in, the sun came out and it all started to feel worthwhile again. We headed out of town towards the start of the Charming Creek track. The Track followed an old railway and as a results the suspension had a good workout over the old sleepers. The riding was all reasonably pleasant and downhill so we made quick progress as we followed along quite a charming creek (so to speak), so much so that we thought that the river might almost be too uninteresting. No soon had our words left our mouths did the river drop and then go over a series of good sized waterfalls. The track even cut through a tunnel and crossed over a pretty cool bridge making this area pretty spectacular.

The bumpy trail through Charming Creek

Pretty cool Waterfall into Charming Creek

Only about an hour and a half since leaving Seddonville we were out on the main road doing some pretty solid road bashing to get to the road up to the Denniston plateau. We thought we were going reasonably fast along the road, when a police car when screaming past us! The road was wet but the sun was actually shining, making us pretty happy after a wet evening ride the night before. This didn’t last too long as almost like a warning a shower passed over us as we began the climb to the plateau. I wasn’t looking forward to this climb but after getting the teeth sunk in it started to grow on me to a point where I started to enjoy it. We had good views out to the coast and we could see our progress.

Up on the plateau we encountered a dull and desolate looking waste land, almost a bit like the town of Ferris we biked through in Wyoming last year. It was a really different place to anywhere I had been in NZ and I was almost a bit surprised I hadn’t made the effort to get there until now myself. There was a number of 4WD roads up there going in different directions and the signs were not all that clear, so we were pretty happy to have a map to figure it all out. As we continued further into the back blocks and further from civilisation our minds began to turn to the call we had made on going for the Mackley river crossing. Then almost if it was another sign, as we reached the summit/high point the rain started to fall again, so it was hoods up, and downhill fast.

It was a long way down, and sitting there in the back of our minds was “we have to get to the Mackley before its too high, otherwise it was going to be an even bigger ride out of there”…. so there was pretty much only stops every now and then to check the map. The first river crossing was easy, then the second a little deeper, and finally we reached the Mackley. It was a big wide river-just as we had read about- and it was fairly swift flowing and full. There was minimal banks on either side, but apart from the beech colouring it was pretty clear, and there wasn’t anything obvious to suggest that we should not be able to cross.

Deep river crossing with a bike is not the most safe or easy thing to do, so it was up onto the shoulders and into the river. Stru went first, being a bit bigger and taller, I followed to about knee deep, then paused. I waited for Stru to complete the crossing before I went any further. He crossed ok, but went up to his chest at one point which had me wondering how I was going to make it, I was glad that I had waited just incase I needed his help, or I could have dumped my bike to help him. So now it was my turn, I walked a bit further upstream so I could cross at an angle, walking slightly downstream and across, which went well for the most part until I was almost across. As I neared a little island the river got a little swifter at that point and super slippery underfoot. As I started to slip and slide, Stru came back out to help me by grabbing my bike, and we crossed that section together. His line across the final part was deeper, mine a little shallower, but somehow my shin got smashed into a rock and was bleeding a bit as a result. Wet and a little bedraggled, we had time for a pitstop, knowing we had cracked it.

It was another big climb out of the Mackley river, before things evened out a bit, still around 20kms of riding to go though. I started to fade a bit, all the adrenalin of getting to the river and across it had sort of dampened my enthusiasm to push hard, and maybe the now fairly consistent rain and jacket “hood up” position adopted full time. It was a matter now of knuckling down and pushing one foot in front of the other to the summit and then it was mostly all down hill from there. It was pretty exciting to get into relative civilisation again, although we had been on a pretty well formed track it felt like we had been miles from nowhere and right out in the back blocks, somewhere where you might spot a dinosaur charging across the road in from of you!

It was just a short ride along the main road to get back to the car, arriving bang on 2pm for a total ride time of 6 hours back to the car, and completing the Roundabout. A little sad not to have Isla with us for the final section of the loop but a pretty good solid two days of Mountain bike packing through some pretty cool terrain.

Categories: Adventure racing, Exploring, Mountain Biking

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