Sunday, February 7, 2021

West Coast history and isolation

 The west coast of the South Island is an incredibly wild and isolated spot. It's wet and lush and the ocean swells crash onto beautiful sandy beaches. The rock formations shaped by the wind and the sea make for spectacularly scenic vistas. Which makes it a great spot for tourists to visit, but what about the locals?

Between the ocean and the mountains is only a narrow strip of arable land, so there is a dairy and sheep industry, but the main employment on the west coast has been coal mining. This is hard, dangerous work and there are still mine accidents and fatalities, the most recent one being the collapse of the Pike River mine near Blackball in 2010, when 29 lives were lost.

South of the Mokihinui, on the way to Westport, is the abandoned town of Denniston, perched on a rich coal seam plateau a few kilometres inland, and about 600 metres above sea level. To get the coal down to the rail line to Westport, an ingenious piece of engineering was created in the 1880s, an incline with a vertical drop of 510m that used the weight of an empty coal wagon to control the descent of a full one. Of course there were accidents, and fatalities, but surprisingly few given the working conditions and the lack of safety regulations like today.

My visit to Denniston coincided with a humid misty day, which gave the ruins and relics an appropriately moody atmosphere. Over 1600 people lived up there on the plateau at it's height, living in pretty challenging conditions, through cold wet winters and summers. It's worth a wander, here's some pictures.














After Denniston I headed down to Westport and back up to Lyell, where the sandflies were still biting, to go exploring up the Lyell Creek for an old hut. Once off The Old Ghost Road the track is unmaintained, but its stunningly beautiful forest to walk through, seeking out a relic of the old gold mining era.





From Lyell I headed back east, to better weather and a few days exploring the Marlborough Sounds. 

That's next....

Friday, February 5, 2021

Variety and beauty on The Old Ghost Road

After my week and a half of packrafting I headed to Blenheim to get my car serviced and a new Warrant of Fitness. Why Blenheim? Well my mates Rick and Barb in Renwick recommended a mechanic in Blenheim, and I needed somewhere like their place to offload all my gear whilst the car was getting its warrant. They were away in Marlborough Sounds, so I stayed at a hostel in Blenheim and checked the weather forecasts. It was stinking hot in Blenheim, the cold weather of a week ago all but forgotten.

The forecasts were looking awesome, in particular the west coast forecast was looking good for a few days. So I snuck on to the Old Ghost Road website and booked myself 4 nights on the track. Then all I needed was to book a car relocation and drive to Lyell, where I camped the night before setting out the next morning. Lyell campground is the site of an old gold mining village, though there's no sign of it now, only the information boards with old pictures of the place. It does have a healthy population of sandflies though!



The walk starts by crossing a bridge over the Lyell Creek and then follows a benched track which climbs steadily for five hours to Lyell Saddle Hut. This track is a section of road which was built in the early 1900s to join Lyell with goldfields on the Mokihinui, but it was never finished. It follows the contours around so the climb is gentle but continuous, a complete doddle on foot but quite a slog for the bikers.










There are quite a few relics of the mining history along the way, something the cyclists probably miss.




The Old Ghost Road is a private track, on DOC land, which opened in 2015 as a joint mountain bike and tramping route. There is a fixed rate of $150 to walk or cycle the track, which entitles you to up to 4 nights accommodation in the purpose built huts along the track. Huts with compost toilets, gas cookers, pots and pans, and all the crockery and cutlery required. All you need is food, a sleeping bag, and clothes. Nice to travel light, and not to have to take an emergency shelter just in case a hut is full.

I was the first person to arrive at Lyell Saddle Hut, nicely situated with a view down into the south branch of the Mokihinui River. The original road survey was to follow this valley down to the goldfields, but the earthquake in 1929 altered the valley considerably, and attempts to route the track down this valley proved to be too difficult. But more about that later.



A couple of walkers walking the opposite direction arrived. They helpfully informed me of the other little luxury all the huts contain: a bathhouse! Boil up some water and pour it in to the bucket provided, turn the tap on the small shower nozzle connected to the bucket, and a refreshing warm shower can be enjoyed. Bliss! It's just a trickle, but totally satisfactory after a hot day of tramping...

Later a group of six mountain bikers turned up, and finally a chap on an e-bike. The hut wasn't full, but it was a nice crowd to chat to through the evening.

The next morning I was last to leave, yeah I know, but I slowly overtook the group of six bikers who were enjoying the journey by stopping regularly to enjoy the views, and mostly walking up the hills. The track is a series of long switchbacks through verdant beech forest up to the alpine tops, where the views open up in all directions.








I stopped for a snack at the small shelter just above the bush line then continued along the gravel track which sidles under some rocky peaks and continues to sidle on a rather narrow track which I felt extremely comfortable walking, but wouldn't be too happy cycling. The views are stupendous, something a walker can appreciate more, as a cyclist would likely need to spend most of their time keeping an eye on the track.
























Ghost Lake Hut is only a half day walk, but it's in a stunning location and I never had any intention of skipping staying there just to get more miles on the clock. Besides, the weather was clear and sunny, making travel across the tops hot and thirsty work. A few cups of tea on the balcony chatting to the hut warden and the various incoming crew is how I spent the afternoon. Besides me, there was only one other tramper, the rest of the almost full hut were cyclists.





The next morning I was again last to leave. I tackled the steep switchbacks down one ridge and then it was a more gentle climb up the next ridge to Skyline Ridge. Halfway down Skyline Ridge, which requires even trampers to attend to their footwork, I met "The Grumpies" making their way slowly to Ghost Lake Hut, and on to Lyell Saddle that day as well. They were not happy about the hot weather and looked to be suffering, and it wasn't even midday and they still had a very long way to go. As they weren't at all keen to chat, I continued to scramble down the side of the ridge to the Skyline Steps.











Yes, this is a cycle path with steps. There was no other way off the ridge, so cyclists need to dismount and carry their bike down this section. Somewhat easier to do without the added encumbrance of a bike....


Once at the bottom of the steps the track enters a lovely fern lined forest and follows a stream all the way to Stern Valley Hut. I stopped for lunch along the way, but it wasn't easy to find a way down to the river for a swim. So I waited until I got to the Hut for that.









Being the first to arrive at the hut, again, I wandered down to the stream and had a bracing wash of both myself and my clothes, changed into my hut clothes and put everything out to dry. Sandflies were out, so I retreated to the hut for respite.

Later Tom, who we shall name "Pretty Boy", turned up. He had walked from Lyell Saddle, as had four other trampers who turned up over the next few hours. He had a chuckle when I asked if he'd met "The Grumpies", having also encountered those friendly folk before they had even made it to Ghost Lake. "The Marathoners", a delightful couple from Ashburton, were able to fill in the picture. Apparently Mrs Grumpy was awaiting surgery on her achilles, why someone would choose to walk 85km under those circumstances beats me!

There were also four people who arrived at the hut having walked the other way, from Seddonville. Some people choose to walk that way because then they are facing the cyclists, who usually cycle from Lyell because the altitude profile makes that direction easier. It's also easier to walk the same direction as the cyclists, and my experience of encountering cyclists on the trail was that they were polite and courteous and I never felt unsafe. But in the hot conditions the walk from Specimen Point meant walking down through The Boneyard in the late afternoon, with the sun's heat radiating off the rocks. Admittedly, the walk across the alpine zone from Lyell Hut had also taken it's toll on the later trampers to arrive, especially a rather loose couple we shall call "The Bohemians". They were camping.

Just on dark a much older couple staggered in. These two had been described by "The Rustler", who had more plastic bags in her backpack than seemed humanly possible, and her friend as being experienced trampers. They were exhausted after their walk from Specimen Point Hut, having taken close to 12 hours to do it! They fussed around cooking their dinner and then headed to bed. I put my earplugs in so I wouldn't have to deal with any snorers, but was woken regularly by the old girl turning her lamp on in order to shake her husband awake to stop his snores! Eye shades required next time.....Ah the joys of staying in communal huts.

The next morning, after suffering "The Rustler" getting ready go, I also headed off early, being keen to get through the Boneyard before the sun rose above the ridge. I got to walk up the Earnest Valley in the shade, past Lakes Grim and Cheerful, through the spooky rock formations of The Boneyard to Solemn Saddle. Great names hey?










From Solemn Saddle the track winds its way down to Goat Creek. This would be a super fun descent on a bicycle, even for me. I caught up with "Pretty Boy" at the Goat Creek Hut turnoff, where I popped in to check out the old DOC hut and Tom stopped for lunch. He caught up with me a little later, when I stopped for lunch, and we walked the rest of the day together.






We had a quick look in at Mokihinui Forks DOC hut, but it was stiflingly hot inside so we continued on for the next kilometre or so to Specimen Point Hut, perched high above the spectacular Mokihinui River. We were first ones there and aside from a threesome of mountain bikers passing through, we saw no-one else until "The Marathoners" arrived a few hours later. They had gone for a swim at Mokihinui Forks, we both just settled for a warm shower.




The evening was spent chatting and laughing about our great experiences on the track, and the people we met. The changing scenery on the route has been a real joy, as often NZ tramps don't vary much in terms of beech forested valleys and tussock and scree alpine ridges. Not that they aren't beautiful, just variations on a theme. Whereas this route the forests change, from dryer inland beech forests, to alpine zones, to wetter west coast mixed podocarp forests, plus some impressive river gorges.

Day Five, and again I left last, but caught up with "The Marathoners" and stopped to have a cup of coffee with them. Then I more or less walked with them the rest of the way, stopping for lunch on some rocks above the river just before the end of the track.























Soon after our lunch stop the track finishes at Rough and Tumble Lodge at Seddonville, where I picked up my car keys and joined the others in a celebratory beverage.

We said our goodbyes and I drove out to Gentle Annie's campsite at the river mouth. It's a beautiful spot to stay, whilst the weather obliges, but overnight it rained and there was low cloud the next morning, so I packed up and headed off to check out the local sights.

That's next.