History  Spirit to the Stone, Building the Old Ghost Road

A track that seemed impossible, that was left un-done even by the miners of old, is reborn as the Old Ghost Road

Spirit to the Stone, Building the Old Ghost Road By Marion Boatwright, Bennett & Slater, Wellington, 2016 (second edition). Softcover, 128 pages, $35. Available from www. store.oldghostroad.org.nz.

‘Our tale begins with a stranger, a lost map born of gold lust, and a knock on a heavy wooden door.’ So begins the story of the Old Ghost Road, told by instigator Marion Boatwright, about the remarkable efforts to create New Zealand’s longest dual mountain biking and tramping track.

The stranger was Ron Humphries. The map was a historic document showing an old road planned by goldminers in the 1880s to connect mining sites at Lyell and Seddonville, through the rugged hinterland of the Mokihinui catchment, at the northern end of the West Coast. The miners managed to build both ends of the road, but never connected the two. And the door was the entrance to Boatwright’s Rough and Tumble Lodge.

American-born Boatwright (known as Weasel) and his Kiwi partner Susan Cook bought land at Seddonville near the Mokihinui River, and in 2005 set about building the lodge. They dreamed of attracting adventurous travellers from around the world, but in 2007 instead found a hydro dam proposal from Meridian Energy for the river on their boundary. It threatened them with closure for years.

So when Humphries and his map turned up, Boatwright was captured by the idea of creating a track along the old road route, which would provide a welcome distraction from the hydro-dam fiasco. He teamed up with bushman Steve Stack ‘Stacky’ and set off to find out what was left of the old route to Lyell Saddle. Support came from DOC manager Bob Dickson. ‘Restoring the formation revealed the artistry of the original effort from the 1880s. The way the track wound its way into and out of the side ravines was mesmerising.’

Beyond, however, in the South Branch of the Mokihinui, the terrain proved to be a nightmare: ‘The catchment was tortured, the route untenable.’ Enter Phil Rossiter, who suggested making the trail suitable for mountain bikes, and helicopter pilot Wayne Pratt (a veteran of the Hump Ridge Track development), who proposed taking the trail high above the valley, over the Lyell Range.

From a modest crew of keen locals who formed the Lyell–Mokihinui Backcountry Trust, the idea expanded into a major project, with funding and support from the New Zealand Cycle Trail Fund, DOC and local authorities. Controversy surfaced, not least the issue of the hydro dam and Meridian funding (who offered dollars to re-route the old trail in the Mokihinui gorge above the proposed hydro lake). As Boatwright wryly observes, ‘Our relationship with Meridian was giving us a bad name in circles we should have found easy allies’ and some conservationists were concerned about very visible scarring caused by the track work, and the felling of a centuries-old kahikatea near one of the huts. But in the end public opposition to the dam won the day.

No matter what you think about those issues, the story of building the track is one of undeniable guts, determination and backbreaking effort. Completing the project – including building four new huts and 16 bridges – took seven years, $6.5 million, 26,500 hours of paid and voluntary labour, as well as a lastminute crowd-funding appeal to get it over the line. The grand opening came in December 2015. Some 2500 people tackled the trail in its first two months, with mountain bike guru Jonathan Kennett rating it world class.

Boatwright is a skilled storyteller, and Spirit to the Stone reads exactly like you’re sitting next to him beside the fire in Ghost Lake Hut. Few New Zealand books tell the story of track building, and this one is a great yarn.

Wilderlife