If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. In the case of Old Ghost Road, where gold lust failed, modern vision prevailed, albeit more than a century later.
In mid-December 2015, thanks to more than one hundred thousand hours of work, and support from government, individuals and groups such as Trail Fund NZ, the much-anticipated 85km mountain biking and tramping track is set to open.
“It’s strange to think that a project which begun so long for one purpose could be completed more than 130 years later by a group with an entirely different agenda,” says Rhys Bowen, a former volunteer who now works full time managing volunteer building and maintenance.
Located in the Buller district, the Old Ghost Road was inspired by – and based upon – the unfulfilled 19th century vision of linking the lucrative gold fields at Lyell (on the Buller River) with promising new ones on the Mokohinui River. However, the Lyell and Glasgow Ranges proved too much to tackle for the miners – but not for those whose purpose was to enjoy the views from those very mountaintops.
The beginning of the (literally)long road to completing the age-old project started in 2007, when local Ron Humphries came into possession of an original copy of the 1886 reconnaissance survey for the road. He quickly teamed up with local lodge owner Marion Boatwright, environmental practitioner Phil Rossiter and local helicopter pilot Wayne Pratt. After one scouting mission, they were sold.
“What I saw in these three fellows was the essential blend of child-like wonder and manly can-do,” said Marion. “Here was a team that could dream something, make it happen, and have a damn good time doing it. Nine years and 85 kilometres later I’d say I was right!”
However, at that point they knew there was a long road ahead. While the old track had been carved 18 kilometres up the Lyell gorge, all that work had been left to die as gold fever subsided and the 1929 Murchison earthquake buried huge sections of the track formation. In 1968, the Inangahua quake tried to erase the rest.
To carry forward with the project, they would need funding, and to get funding, they needed an official organisation – thus the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust was formed and the real building began.
However, funding alone would never have been sufficient, but the original five pioneers’ enthusiasm to revive the old road was infectious enough to instigate the next nine years of trail building, including more than 26,000 volunteer hours from New Zealanders and foreigners alike.
“To manage the sheer number of people who wanted to help and the effort and hours involved, we had to coordinate work, safety and shelter carefully,” says Rhys. “That pattern of hut building in advance of the track crews would prove to be an essential backbone of the project’s success. Crews functioned much better if they could return to a warm and dry abode each night, with their only commute being from hut to the workface.”
With hut building, the project’s volunteer ethic really came into its own. Wayne would fly in all of the tools and materials needed for construction, plus a three-man team, a month’s worth of food, and the secret ingredient - one month’s worth of beer. Ironically, the team was all-American - Marion and two long time mates from North Carolina – Art Corn and Dale Robertson.
The actual track building was quite gruelling work – one six-kilometre section, from the Lyell Saddle to the open tussock, took the crew almost a year to build and other sections needed to be built completely by hand, without impacting the fragile alpine ecosystem. But, no matter what the challenge, the army of volunteers’ desire to see this incredible road completed met it head on.
Building the Old Ghost Road took more than volunteer hut and track builders – excavators, trail designers, coordinators, funding applicants and funding bodies all played a part in this extraordinary mission.
“No single person has all the skills. Without any one of the many individuals doing their part, this dream might have died a folly,” says Marion.
Rhys, who only came on board as a volunteer about 22 months ago, couldn’t bring himself to leave and looks forward to seeing the opening in December – when people from around the country and the world can access the exquisite adventure he and so many others helped create.
“It’s the most incredible project I’ve ever had the opportunity to be involved in. The elements and the physical nature of the work are exceptionally challenging, at times walking two hours a day to get to/from work, being outside all day at 1000m above sea level, living out of a hut for up to three weeks at a time, and working in some pretty atrocious weather. But I wouldn't change a thing!”