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Ghost Road, says, listing artefacts along
The trail offers a journey back in
time to the goldrush days and the long-
forgotten settlements of Zalatown,
Gibbstown and Lyell, and remote farms
that were abandoned after the 1929
magnitude 7.8 Murchison earthquake
It follows an old dray road from
Lyell to Mokihinui, built to link the two
promising goldfields but, over time, the
gold boom went bust.
During the Depression efforts to build
the road were revived, but soon faded.
Interpretative panels have been
installed about the 18km mark at either
end, marking where the old-timers
quit. But now, the track is done, a new
generation is finishing what their forebears
A knock at the door
At 85km, the Old Ghost Road is New
Zealand’s longest continuous single track,
designed for mountainbikers and trampers
It took nearly nine years of planning,
fundraising and construction. There have
been 26,000 hours of volunteer input
underpinned by more than 100,000 hours
of paid employment.
The trail has 16 bridges and four new
hut complexes to complement two already-
existing Department of Conservation huts.
It is a grade 4 mountainbike track suitable
for skilled and experienced back-country
riders and trampers.
It all started when someone came
into possession of the 1886 road survey
map. He knocked on the door of the new
Rough and Tumble Lodge on the banks
of the Mokihinui River. Owner Marion
Boatwright answered it.
The rest, as they say, is history. They
inherited a track that went 18km up the
Lyell Gorge, then stopped. The 1920
Murchison earthquake had buried huge
sections of it. The 1968 quake added to the
They had to clear 100 years of
windthrow trees, then track cutting could
Rain this spring and summer meant
they were working up to the 11th hour to
surface the track, ready for today’s official
Old boots lie among the leaves in the ‘lost’ West Coast towns of
Seatonville, Zalatown and Gibbstown. Almost a decade ago,
someone came up with the idea of reopening the old dray road that
passes through them, from the historic mining settlement of Lyell in
the south to Seddonville in the north. Today, the Old Ghost Road
cycle and tramping trail is being officially opened. LAURA MILLS
learned about its past — and its future.
“It ’s heroic country,” Mr Rossiter says.
Also a heroic effort.
“It ’s a back-country adventure,”
Mr Rossiter says of the route into the
mountains. But its appeal is also the
“Heritage is a big part, it ’s how it
started. It traverses some of the most
outstanding country in New Zealand.”
There are no buildings left, but
mountainbikers who slow their pace will
find lots of artefacts. An anvil, old bridge
abutments, an old Pelton wheel and even a
Despite nine years of hard, physical
work, the Mokihinui-Lyell Backcountry
Trust has found the time to research the
ghost towns. Already the trail is getting
publicity in Australia, the United Kingdom
and United States. It will also be marketed
as part of the New Zealand cycle trails.
“ We will go harder on that
Lyell, Mr Rossiter says, is a ghost town
to fuel the imagination. It is also where
the trail starts, and ends. Its growth was
rapid, thanks to gold. By the 1870s there
was a brewery, cemetery and the first
hotel, Sloane’s Alhambra. Within a year
it had grown to six hotels, three general
stores, one drapery and ironmongery,
three butchers, a baker, two boot makers,
several banks, a courthouse, police station,
school and a blacksmith, all along a narrow
terrace. The backs of the houses were
supported on props or pillars some 20 or
30ft high. They were so close together,
it was said not even a cat could squeeze
The town suffered a severe setback
in 1896 when a fire swept through,
destroying at least 20 buildings, yet many
The early 20th century saw the
continued decline of the town and by 1912,
when the New Alpine Mine closed, many
of the residents moved elsewhere.
The 1929 Murchison earthquake had
a further detrimental effect, as slips on the
Buller Gorge road isolated the settlement
for 18 months and by the 1930s very few
people continued to reside there.
The Old Ghost Road follows the
former county dray road from Lyell. A
track to the Alpine Company workings
had been built by late July 1869.
By 1883 there was a road from the
junction of the Lyell road and Zalatown
tracks to where the United Italy lease was
As the Red Queen Mine was
established, the town of Seatonville
emerged to service it. Remains of
Seatonville can still be found near Jones
Creek. One of the wagon drivers who
served Seatonville was named Johnny
Cake, hence the creek crossed by the Old
Ghost Road bearing his name.
It is said that small children were
carried into the town in empty gin cases
slung over the side of a horse.
In 1892 visitors found just three or four
houses, and just one gentleman living there.
Zalatown was on a spur by the Alpine
Mine, and named after a mine founded by
Antonio Zala. It was so high snow settled
in winter. By the 1870s it boasted hotels
and a post office. It was, a Mr Walker
once said, perched high like an eagle’s nest
among the clouds.
But the mines closed and by 1904
nothing was left.
Some of its people had already gone
to Gibbstown (and the Belfast Hotel),
which became the main town settlement
in the valley. In 1896, residents convinced
authorities there were enough children for
a school. But the mine closed in 1912, and
by 1915 the town was no more.
The road passes through all of the
farming allotments located on the true
left (south-western) side of the South
Branch of the Mokihinui River. Farming
was abandoned after the Murchison
Today it looks like untouched
wilderness, but the river flats of the
Mokihinui flats were once farmland.
The Murchison quake formed a natural
dam and even as late as the 1940s the
grasslands were riverbed. In the 1960s
and 70s, it was an airstrip for deer culling
operations. If you look closely you can still
see wreckage from the rougher landings.
In the river itself are the remains of
the iron bridge that once spanned the
Mokihinui. The centre pier collapsed in the
earthquake though the bridge stood for a
few more weeks.
DOC walked the road several years
ago, sur veying the archaeology. “ The track
is representative of the struggle (of ) the
companies working in the area,” they
“ Travelling along the dray road gives
visitors a very real understanding of what
life would have been like for those living at
Gibbstown, Zalatown and the Eight Mile
the isolation, the nature of the terrain
and bush and the forces of nature at play.”
For more information go to http://
‘It’s heroic country’
An old boot.
A pelton (water) wheel.
PICTURE: Alexander Turnbull
Lyell, now the start and end of the Old Ghost Road.
PICTURE: Sven Martin
Descending from Ghost Lake
PICTURE: Jonathan Kennett
Suicide Slips Bridge
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