Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Old Ghost Road

Warning - I'm about to go on a long splurge about cycle tourism ...


You may just want to flick through the pictures and just let me go "blah, blah, blah ... and that's why I love the old ghost road and think we should build one in Tasmania".

So, if you're still reading, where do I start ... I think this story started last year when I was working on the draft cycle tourism strategy for Tasmania (just to be clear, I'm no longer working on the strategy so I have no conflict of interest anymore) and I got sent a link to a short video of the Old Ghost Road in New Zealand (by Rob Potter I think) and was told to watch it because this was what Tasmania needs to compete against.

So I watched it, and I reckon I came to the same conclusion as pretty much every other mountain biker who has ever watched that video ... "where is the trail - I have to go ride it".

And let's face it, if you want to get a cycle tourism sector going, that's exactly the response you want.

I planned to go and ride the trail last September / October but amusingly the dates I wanted to go on the trip clashed with the release of the draft cycle tourism strategy, so I missed that window and spent the day I was supposed to be flying out to New Zealand at a Bicycle Network Workshop in Ulverstone watching the Premier release the draft strategy (by video) for comment instead.

Then, on an overnight ride in Mt William National Park, Tyrone mentioned that he was going to New Zealand in March and was going to ride the Old Ghost Road.

I had been thinking along the same lines and in fact had mentally penciled in m next attempt on the Old Ghost Road at a similar time, and after half committing to join Tyrone for a long while, I finally bit the bullet a few weeks before we were due to do the ride and booked my flights, shuttle and hire car and told Tyrone I'd be joining him.

And that's how, on Tuesday March 7, I found myself sitting in the Lyell Car Park at the start of the Old Ghost Road hoping that Tyrone was actually going to turn up and join me ...


Now I should say at this point that the Old Ghost Road is an amazing exercise in determination, perseverance and engineering (if planning on riding the trail it is really worth reading "Spirit to the Stone" to learn about how it got built and all the challenges they had along the way).  It is a recently opened 85km trail, almost 100% singletrack, that starts in a small place called Lyell and ends in another tiny place called Seddonville (In Tasmanian terms it would be the equivalent of starting at Granville Harbour and finishing at Arthur River - ie. a long way from anywhere with limited facilities at both ends).

The ride can be done in a day (heck it's now been run end to end in under 7 hours) but is designed as a 2 or 3 day ride, and after our adventure both Tyrone and I agree that it's a track you don't want to rush through.

We did it in three days and two nights, and if we did it again (when I do it again) I reckon I'd do the same or probably even add another night to really enjoy the place, I mean check out just some of these photos ...

Day 1 - heading up from Lyell
Cycling into the clouds below Lyell Saddle



Day 2 - First view of the alpine area 
Day 2- heading down again!

Day 2 - The Alpine section

Day 2 - down, down, down we go ...

Day 2- The Boneyard - and back up we go.

Day 3 - Early morning sun alongside the river.

Day 3 - A nice rest point by a waterfall.

Day 3 - Tyrone and I just checking out the trail we just rode.

Day 3- Amazing bridge crossings.

Day 3- Are we really here????
This place is, without doubt, one of the most amazing places I have ever ridden in my life.

It is beyond amazing, way beyond (albeit we were really blessed with the weather and good people on our trip).  Not only is the track amazing, but because you can only have so many people at the huts each night, the whole area still has that lovely remote feel to it.

The people we did meet were also very awesome.  On our first night, we met a couple of locals who took pity on us drinking our granulated coffee (stolen from one of the hotels I stayed at) gladly sharing their dehydrated smoothies and fresh coffee bags with us.  As another example, on day 2 when we stopped for lunch I realised that my seat bag had come undone and my very expensive light and (more importantly) Kim's USB charger had fallen out on the track.

As I was to learn later in the day, some of the walkers we'd passed had found these items on the track, and instead of just pocketing them, they'd handed them off to some other cyclists riding behind us.  Those cyclists had then ridden and caught us up to give me back my fallen gear.

I mean can you see why I loved this trip?



So here's where my observations on tourism begins.

On the shuttle, and on the trail, we met lots of riders who would be the core market we'd be trying to attract to ride places like Blue Derby, and you know what every single one, with only one exception, said when we said we were from Tassie ...

They said some variant of:

"Tassie - is there any mountain biking in Tassie?"

The one exception to this was when I was riding the Kaiteriteri MTB Park and came across a guy out doing some track maintenance.  We got chatting and after getting over the "we don't talk to people who ride our trails in the rain" (as I explained that I'd driven 200kms out of my way to get here and only had the day to ride the trail), he said "don't you have some new trails over there - are they as good as ours?"

Now I'm not knocking the trails at Derby (they're still very near the top of my favourite trails in the world) and I'm not knocking the promotion of the trails - I think the Blue Derby team are doing an amazing job bringing riders and events to the trails, what I'm questioning is the penetration of that message.  And again, I'm not knocking the promotion, I'm just asking "do we know how effective all the promotion is?"

In one way we do.  We know some information on how many times the trail is ridden (the management group has trail counters).  But we don't know how many people are riding the trails (a counter only tells you the number of times ridden, it doesn't let you know if 1000 riders rode a trail once, or 250 riders rode the trail on average four times).  We also don't know, beyond anecdotal stories, where they are coming from.

We know that the tourism visitor statistics indicate that there has been a statistical (and significant) increase in visitors to the State that are undertaking some form of mountain biking as part of their holiday, and the (reasonable) assumption is that this is strongly linked to Derby, but having looked at these statistics a bit more, you have to be fair and say that this link is so far assumed, not proven.  No one, to the best of my knowledge, has cross linked the data of those that said they'd been mountain biking, and the locations that they said they visited.

There is other evidence as well: I recall Buck from VertigoMTB mentioning that he used to (and may still) ask riders where they come from so he'd have some idea of the number of visitors who are using the shuttle.  If my experience on the shuttles is anything to go by, it is probably a lot.

I've also seen unpublished strava data for the various mountain biking areas in Tasmania which allows you to see where the riders come from (number of riders by local municipality or country) and there's no doubt again that Derby is a standout attraction for non-local strava riders compared to other mountain bike area in Tassie, but I've also seen an unpublished report of mountain bike tourism recognition in Australia which showed that Tasmania had virtually no recognition amongst riders as being a place to go and ride (albeit this was back in early 2016).

I guess, while I can dance around the point for a long time, my main point is one I've made many times before - you really need to go and ride the rest of the world to see how it compares against the rest of the world, and amongst all the hype, you need to realise that some of what we hear is the truth, some is extrapolations of the truth, and some if just hype.

Last time I checked, more visitors still quad biked, sea kayaked or took a train journey in Tasmania than rode a mountain bike and we don't talk about them as boom industries.

Over the course of the three days Tyrone and I had many conversations about the pros and cons of various trail proposals in Tasmania, and it was interesting how strongly our thoughts (as riders) aligned in terms of the areas we both agreed we would travel to to ride, and those where we were just scratching our heads wondering why these proposals were on the table ...


But that's enough of those ponderings - back to the Old Ghost Road ...

As it turned out, Tyrone didn't turn up at the start (this was half expected and we had a plan B of meeting up at the hut if he wasn't there by an agreed time) and so after waiting around for an hour, I set of to ride to Lyell Hut by myself.

This turned out to be a good thing as I was soon to discover that although my new 1 x 11 gearing set up was good enough for riding around mountain bike parks, when I add a pack and rack to the equation (probably an extra 10kgs to my load) and then ride up hill for 20kms ... well I needed am extra easy gear.

Just one more gear would have been the difference between constantly having to 'ride' my way up the (I must say rather gentle) incline as against being able to spin my way to the top which would have been much more pleasant.

So I stopped - a lot.

And I took lots of photos.












As I slowly made my way up the first 12kms or so of climbing.

I discovered some things pretty quickly - there were kilometre markers pretty much along the whole track (though they didn't come very close to matching my GPS distances) which made distance planning very easy.

I also discovered that the route profile that is on the official map is 'indicative only', although in this case this was a good thing because I was expecting around 16kms of climbing, but the trail really seemed to flatten out around the 12km or 13km mark and from there it was an easy and quick ride to the Lyell Hut where I was spending the night.

Lyell Hut - First to arrive,

Lyell Hut


Lyell Hut.

The hut (and all those that were to follow) was brilliantly laid out with everything you could need.

Tyrone turned up about an hour after I'd settled in, as did a couple walking the other way and a final group of three cyclists turned up just before dark (but who staying in one of the two smaller huts at the site). This meant in the end that there were just four of us in the hut (designed to sleep 16) which was nice.

Day 2 was to be our big day and started with what we'd been told would be a steeper version of what we'd just been up as we climbed the final 400+ metres onto the range.

And there was no doubt that there was a lot of climbing, but it was all well graded and with someone to chat to along the way we made our way up to the top much more easily than I'd expected.





Having said that I'm really glad we didn't ride all the way to Ghost Lake on the first day, partly because it avoided the extra climbing on day one with a full pack (I was now one dinner and one breakfast lighter) but mainly because the rain and cloud had come in on the afternoon of the first day, and so we would have missed this when we got to the top ... cycling nirvana ...


















Seriously you should have seen the smiles on our faces as we pulled into Ghost Hut to make ourselves a hot drink.


Now, I've already mentioned how lucky we were on this trip, but just to make the point we pulled into the Ghost Lake track, walked inside and there sitting on the counter was a large, untouched packet of Honey SoyChicken Chips.

So we sat on the deck eating honey soy chips and drinking hot chocolate, and just pinching ourselves to see if this was all real.

I did have one horrible moment when I stepped outside and there was the famous 'stacky' himself (the guy who pretty much lead the whole route finding and building of the trail) standing outside the hut, and I had the sudden thought "oh shit - we've just eaten stacky's chips", but fortunately this turned out not to be the case (he'd just ridden in behind us on a motorbike for a helicopter drop) and so we had an interesting chat with him about how the trail was going, how they were funding it (turns out it is costing around $350,000 a year to maintain although this includes quite a few upgrades due to use being much higher than expected) and we also learned about their very cool mobile rock crushing machine which is what they were moving by helicopter lift today.

After our lazy morning tea we set off to ride the grade 4/5 ridgeline section which consists of hand cut trail and 'the steps'.

I have to be honest - I marveled at the engineering fortitude of this section, but I really did not enjoy riding most of it.












The riding consisted of lots of tight switchbacks on some pretty exposed areas, and after overshooting a couple of the first corners and then shooting off the track in the rainforest section, only managing to save myself by grabbing onto a tree as I went off the track, I lost all confidence through this section and ended up pushing most of it.

Tyrone absolutely loved it though - so if you can ride a bike (which I can't) you'll be fine.

Oh - and if I did this trail again I'd ride it with flat pedals, not clipless pedals.

I did however enjoy the views, and once we'd got our bikes down the steps (which is a short section that descends about 60 metres down some steps) I was back on the bike and loving it again.









We ended up stopping at a little waterfall for lunch and Tyrone went for a swim.


Our lunch spot on day 2

Tyrone's swimming hole

My bike - looking a bit muddier.  I'd just discovered I'd lost my lights etc.
Not long after lunch we cycled past Stern Valley hut (well we pulled in for some extra water) and then, after many kilometres of descending, the track finally started to head back up again - very gently at first until we got to the boneyard (which is a big scree covered area of big boulders) and then after a bit of climbing (pushing in my case) we found ourselves at Solemn Saddle and we were heading down again ...







My recollection is that other than a few small climbs coming out of rivers it was mostly downhill to Goat Creek hut, although the track was pretty muddy in places, and then from Goat Creek hut to Mokihinui Forks Hut (where we were staying for the night) the riding was mostly flat(ish), fast and easy.







Most people prefer to head to the newer, more modern Specimen Point hut, so we only had to share the forks hut with one other couple who were over here from Wyoming to do some fly fishing.  They were great company, and it made for a really pleasant evening.

Our final morning started with a mist rising from the river ...




But the sun soon came through and as we set off down the trail along the Mokihinui River the day turned perfect again ...










There was actually a bit of a short climb between Forks hut and Specimen hut which I wasn't expecting, so again glad we stayed at Forks, although Specimen Hut was pretty nice ...






Tyrone had been told by a friend of his that the last day's riding was probably the best of the trip, but after all the amazing riding we'd been through we were both very skeptical how this could be so.

But goddamn it - I think he was right.

The last section just blows your mind as you ride along a narrow trail through beautiful forest constantly convinced that the trail is about to collapse either on top of you or from underneath you as it hugs these near vertical drops.
























The much feared undulations shown on the map never eventuated, except at around kilometre 81 when we found ourselves having one last short, steep ascent/descent ... it was even signed.


Now I actually thought the trail was 82kms long (it's not - it's just over 85km by the signposts) and so you can imagine my disbelief when scooting down the last little descent about 800 metre past the 81km signpost, expecting to see the car park at any second, I managed to get a flat tyre.

Now, in case I've not mentioned it yet, I bought a new bike for this trip - literally just before the trip, and so I hadn't really gotten to know it.  For example - I'd assumed it was tubeless ready, but I only realised after I broke the seal between the tyre and the rim, that it was actually already set up and running tubeless, and I'd just broken the seal with no gas canisters to re-seat the tyre and  couple of little pissy hand pumps.

Thus began a very messy process of inserting a new tube for what I thought was the last few hundred metres of the trail - I wasn't cross about this, but I was a little cranky to get a flat so close to the end of the trail (I was however cross and cranky two days later when I pulled my bike out of the hire car and realised that the stans stop-leak had leaked all over the inside of the car, and that that stuff is almost impossible to get out of a car seat).

Anyway, as it turned out, it was worth fixing the tube as it was another 3kms or so to the end of the trail (BTW - this last 3kms is probably the most uninteresting section of the whole track) and then another 3kms from there to the place I had left my car.

But we'd done it - we'd ridden the Old Ghost Road and we had big smiles on our dial (even if the lodge at the end only did plunger coffee, not latte's).


And that was our ride.

An hour or so later we were sitting in Westport eating burgers and drinking fresh fruit smoothies, another hour after that we were driving past the start point at Lyell (so tempted to go again ...), we tried out the french cafe at Murchison which we were told was amazing, and then I bid goodbye to Tyrone somewhere near Nelson and headed off to find myself somewhere to crash for the night, and something to do for the next few days (which is an adventure for another post).

I said at the beginning that this blog would be about cycle tourism, and it sort of is.

I will rave until the end of my days about this ride.  I will tell anyone, anywhere that they should go and ride this trail, and at the same time I think about some of the long distance routes we whisper to each other about in the closed forums away from public eyes, and I think ... if we had the right attitude to this stuff we could build a ghost road in Tasmania.

We really could.

And that excites me.

In the meantime - go and ride the Old Ghost Trail.