A ghost has awakened in the north-west corner of the South Island.
For the past nine years, a dramatic story has been unfolding in the staggeringly beautiful but remote and rugged Mokihinui-Lyell backcountry.
It is a mesmerising tale of hopes and dreams, pain and suffering; of strangers and friends, ancient maps and the ghosts of gold miners long passed.
Miners sought to connect lucrative Lyell goldfields with promising fields in the Mokihinui 130 years ago but the terrain proved too formidable for these hardiest of men and the route was never completed.
In 2007, a copy of the original 1886 reconnaissance survey found its way into the hands of Seddonville man Marion Boatwright, owner of the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge and a passionate adventurer. Boatwright recruited three others - Steve Stack, Phil Rossiter and Wayne Pratt - to his hopelessly mad dream of succeeding where the miners failed.
Every inch of the 85km dual-use mountainbiking and hiking trail is paved with the blood, sweat and tears of these four men. They have pestered officials, badgered experts, begged for funds and, in an unprecedented example of inspiration, galvanised 400 volunteers to donate 26,500 hours to the project.
Some volunteers stayed two days. Some stayed two months. Some, such as Art Corn and Dale Robertson - flew over from the US to 'go bush' for a month at a time, constructing the huts. Much volunteer time was spent in the backbreaking task of hand-building sections of track through fragile environments.
The core team worked tirelessly but worked smart. Keenly aware they had passion in abundance but that dreamers need enablers, they outfitted the team with expert assistance. Department of Conservation district manager Bob Dickson joined the team, as did trail design expert Hamish Seaton. The Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry Trust (MLBT) was established and a grant procured from the New Zealand Cycle Trail initiative.
Experienced excavator operator Bill Milligan settled into the job but this was not simply a matter of bringing in diggers and blasting the rocky sections. Obstacle after obstacle reared before the men. The Mokihinui South Branch had proved insurmountable to the gold miners. The new team were forced to re-route over the mountain tops. One single 6km section of track took almost a year to build. The track up to Bald Hill was on mudstone that threatened to engulf men and machines so had to be stabilised with submerged lengths of chopped beech.
Quietly, slowly, the team made headway through the tangle of supplejack and bush lawyer. Four huts and 16 bridges were built and dozens of interpretive panels erected as 85km of trail began to reluctantly reveal its rich history.
Last Sunday, The Old Ghost Road was officially declared open and MLBT chairman Phil Rossiter believes this signals the beginning of a new chapter.
"We believe The Old Ghost Road leads to an exciting new future for our corner of the Coast. We're rightly just as excited about the next era and the challenges and opportunities it holds as what's gone before."
UK company Essential Travel is already including The Old Ghost Road in the world's top 10 cycle trails and New Zealand mountainbiking legends the Kennett Brothers agree.
"From the day it opens, The Old Ghost Road will be considered the greatest multi-day mountainbike ride in New Zealand. [It will be] to cycling what the Milford Track is to walking."
Flanked to the north by the Heaphy Track and the famous limestone arches of the Oparara Valley, an extended cross-country cycling or hiking journey from Nelson to Westport is now a viable and enormously exciting possibility.
Riders get their first chance to test the trail on January 16 with The Old Ghost Road Enduro. Runners can challenge themselves in the first ultramarathon on March 12.
Sport Tasman CEO Nigel Muir will run the 85km to raise awareness around getting kids involved in the outdoors and hopes to be joined by eight youngsters for a 10km relay leg. Supporters can helicopter into Ghost Lake Hut to encourage their runner through the 55km mark.
Boatwright looks forward to hearing the stories of track travellers at the Rough and Tumble Lodge.
"Why did we succeed where gold lust failed? Why have so many people believed and given so much to this ridiculously audacious task? It's written there in shifted rock, driven nails and every winding turn. Grab your bike, your pack, your running shoes. She's your track now."
Old Ghost Road
Old Ghost Road Enduro and Ultramarathon
Heli-assisted 30km mountain bike enduro, January 16
85km off-road ultramarathon, March 12
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