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Top of the South

Top of the South


Almost two months since I reckoned I would report on a recent mountain biking trip in this blog, I am only now getting around to it.

I am getting to it now because we are sitting in our little caravan in a tiny but excellent campground while the weather goes from bad to really bad.

Glen and I had talked about getting down here ‘some time soon’, but that is a very vague timeframe. The bike trip was the inspiration we needed to get out the door, and as soon as I got home we booked a ferry and hit the road back down here. 

Back to the bike trip: that thing about non-specific timeframes needs revisiting first. Thirteen years ago a trail was opened that roughly follows a route through the mountains imagined by gold miners in the 1800s. It is called the Old Ghost Road, and it is a bucket list ride for any keen mountain biker. In fact, such a bucket lister that I rode some of it before it was finished, and could tell back then that it was going to be something special. It opened, and I said yup, I will ride that ‘some time soon’. Then for over a decade, stuff got in the way. Things I thought were more important at the time, but weren’t. Work stuff, other great rides elsewhere, illness, house building. Just hadn’t got around to it. 

I met up with with a friend from Queensland who mentioned he was organising an upcoming junket to do some riding around the top of the South Island that would include The Old Ghost Road. I jumped on board.

The way John organized this trip made it very easy. He provided transport, and hooked up accommodation. 

I met the gang in Wellington the day before we were to make the Cook Strait crossing. John and Kim from Queensland, Matt from Sydney, Paul from Melbourne, Robert from Germany, and Ian and J.B. from Taupo. Dave is another Queenslander who turned up a day later. John had hired a vintage Toyota Hiace and a trailer for the bikes and bags, which made things simple for me. Get myself to Wellington and ditch my own van at a mate’s place, then relax and ride.

As a bonus, we had time to get a ride in at Makara Peak in Wellington before going south.

I have ridden a bit around Wellington but to my everlasting shame had never made it to Makara, even though it has been in development for something like 25 years. Well, I have now, and it won’t be the last time. It was amazing, and we only dipped a toe in the Makara offering.

In what Strava claimed was only a hair over 27km, we climbed (and therefore descended) a healthy 815m. All of that was on what felt like lovingly handcrafted singletrack, and most of that in regenerating native forest, accompanied by a variety of birds everywhere we ventured.


The trail builders of Makara hew their routes out of difficult terrain - there is a lot of solid rock to be hacked through. Pedalling out of the main carpark we climbed the sublime Koru trail. It really is a work of art - a climbing trail that is actually fun is a rarity around my way, more on that topic later. A highlight is a pretty decent swingbridge over a yawning canyon - cool.

Once we had reached the summit of the park (which felt like the summit of Wellington) we were treated to massive views, an info station mounted on outsize bike chain, and even a couple of charging stations for e-bikes. I didn’t stick a fork in them to find out, but they looked legit. Who would cart a charger up there to re-energise for a ride back downhill was not clear, but I guess somebody must.

We took a very entertaining intermediate level run back to where we started, then climbed the thing again via a slightly more taxing route. A few of us took a loop around the high point then we jumped on a flow trail back to town. We finished on what some of us reckoned was one of the best bits of trail in our entire trip: it is called Starfish, and ticks a lot of boxes. 

The trip to Nelson took most of the next day, but we still had time to hook up with Mick, a local contact who showed us how to get to Codgers, the MTB park closest to town. He led us up another surprisingly pleasant climb to a couple of what Nelson riders consider basic trails. A good way to get oriented, figure out where we were in relation to the riding, and get a taste of the dry and rocky terrain. Back in Rotorua we have a few rocks in the forest, and we can count them all without having to use our toes. Down here rocks are everywhere, some are attached firmly to the planet, many are not. In a mellow 18km we still managed an overall up-and-down totalling 726m - that would rank as a big ride back home. Down here at the ride’s high point we got a great outlook over town, but also had to crane our necks to look at the peaks behind us, allegedly full of more trails.

There are a mind-boggling selection of riding options down this way, and a couple of days was nowhere near enough to ride even a small fraction of them. We headed out to Cable Bay Adventure Park the following morning. After signing on at a very nicely set up hub we hooked up with Mick again and crammed 741m of up-and-down into a scant 13km of distance.


We only tackled trails that are tame by local standards, but provided plenty of challenges for me, thank you very much. The first downhill run we ride was called Broken Gnome, and according to my GPS dropped 210m in less than a kilometre. If I wasn’t following a local I might have chickened out in a few spots but I was already starting to trust the available traction as long as I could stay on the rocks that were firmly anchored. It was steep, but fun. The rest of that ride is a blur, but followed that theme. Grovel up, close foo-foo valve, stay off front brake, unless.

The ride was followed by a local beer at the excellent trailhead cafe, and a panini. The pies looked good too. Dave had two. 


I have been hearing about a ride near Nelson called the Coppermine, or the Coppermine Loop, for what seems like forever. I was hoping to fit it in while we were stooging around the region. I didn’t expect anybody to suggest doing it late in the afternoon of the Cable Bay day, but that is what happened. 

A small posse formed and we headed out at about 4pm. The ride starts with a climb that covers about 20 kilometres at a railroad grade, because that’s what it is. 150 years ago a crew mined Chromite high in the hills behind Nelson, and they used a simple tram line to send the ore down to a depot in town. Horses would pull the empty wagons up to nearly 900m above town, they would be filled with ore and return using gravity, with a brakeman controlling the pace. 

We performed a similar routine, only without horses. And we used gravity to descend via a much steeper route into a different valley. 

The descent into Maitai Valley is half an hour of maximum fun. The trail is dual-use, with signs everywhere saying watch out for walkers. The descent features dozens of beautifully bermed corners which are begging to be railed, walkers be damned. There are also lots of rocks.

We got back to the motel in the dark, a really big day complete. 


Our next destination was Kaiteriteri, a short drive from Nelson to the jumping off point to Abel Tasman National Park. A beautiful spot crawling with tourists and day-trippers, but also hiding a very cool little mountain bike park. Small in area, but with plenty of elevation, it is worth a visit if you are down that way.

We started early the next day to get to the Wairoa Gorge Mountain Bike Park. A visit to this place was another compelling reason to join this junket. It was created, in large part, by a good mate of ours who died way too early. Dodzy was a force of nature, and when he connected by chance with a very wealthy guy with an interest in mountain biking a short-lived phenomenon was born. It’s a whole other story, but Wairoa was one of the projects executed by the company formed to develop trails on land the guy owned around the planet. He moved on from mountain biking, and now Wairoa is owned by New Zealand and leased to the Nelson Mountain Bike Club. 


It is probably the most exclusive MTB park on the planet. The shuttle-only way of accessing the 70+ kilometres of hand-built trails is maxed out at 27 people - the day we visited there were 18. Two nine-person truckloads of people in a massive slice of forested mountain is pretty much nobody - we felt like we had the place to ourselves. The shuttle is long, and gets riders to about 1200m. The descent is MUCH longer - at the pace I could manage each run took over half an hour. The trails are graded, and then routes have been created using a numerical system to let riders figure out a way down that suits their skill set. 

A few of us who rode together dropped four times, and two hours of riding downhill on fresh trails takes more energy than you might think. 

There are three options at Wairoa for accommodation, we were in the largest, and very nice chalet near the base of the gorge, two other huts higher up look really good too. If you have a gang keen for a weekend away, a day at the gorge is worth a look.

Bet nobody ever thought of shooting this photo before eh?

We tackled the Old Ghost Road as a two-day trip, staying for a night at Ghost Lake hut. There are four huts managed by the Lyell-Mohikinui Back Country Trust which can be booked at the official Old Ghost Road website. There are also two DoC huts, which are first-come, first-served. The LMBC huts are top-notch, and have kitchen facilities with everything you might need except ingredients, firebox heaters with wood provided, basic showers, toilets - they are well-insulated and have great locations. 

The first day for us was a climb…27 kilometres of climbing to Ghost lake. There is a brief respite halfway up, at Lyell Saddle. We dropped in to the Lyell hut for a snack and a sit-down on the sunny deck, with a huge view over the ranges to the north. A gang of excitable women had chosen Lyell as their first stop on a five-day walk, and they were all either laughing or yelling at each other at once. Their were more of them en route, so we were kind of glad to be staying further along the trail. 


The highlight of the ride, for me anyway, was maybe the section before Ghost Lake where the trail reaches its highest point at 1344m. Well above the treeline, it sidles along the faces of a ridge, with massive views. We were lucky have two bluebird days and the outlook from those heights will always be a strong memory of the first day’s ride.

A short drop into the trees brought us to Ghost Lake hut, perched on a ridge and overlooking the town of Murchison, where that morning we were buying extra trail food, eating pies, and drinking coffee. 

I had the foresight to cram a can of beer into my over-loaded pack, and I was relieved to find it hadn’t been pierced by anything along the way. I inhaled it on the deck of the hut, feeling extremely fortunate and grateful for everything about the day. It was already cold, and pretty soon it was freezing - literally: when I ventured outside at about 2am for a pee there was ice on the ground. 


John had organized a helicopter-drop of food and sleeping bags, the food was freeze-dried and with the addition of boiling water turned into something edible. The sleeping bag was absolutely perfect.

Our second day was hard to fault. There is a short section of trail before the incredibly steep and awkward staircase that I would ride on a normal day, but given the consequences of getting it wrong and the remote location, I walked it. 

At the base of the stairs was a work platform with a few bits of machinery and a helipad, and we could see a new trail is well underway which may avoid the stairs altogether. That would be a great improvement, especially if you were doing the trail in the opposite direction to the usual south-to-north option. We met a cheerful couple doing the north-to-south version, and the woman was on a big e-bike with a spare battery and decent sized pannier bag. My guess is they would have required two or three trips to get all that gear and wattage to the top of the stairs.

The trip from Ghost Lake Hut to the finish is 56 kilometres by my count, and descends 1200 metres. There are some seriously cool sections of flowing trail through exceptional forest scenery, I forced my self to stop a few times to look at it. The trail is nice enough that it would be easy to rail it and not see much. There are also 827 metres of climbing, so it is not an easy day. 

The Old Ghost Road was a perfect exclamation point on a quick sampling of the riding in the top of the south. We all reckoned the area deserves a lot more attention, which explains my current position, sitting in the caravan waiting out the rain.


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