Two girls, two trails, 4 marathons, 4 days. 163km of trail running bliss in back-country New Zealand. Top Kiwi runner Lesley Turner Hall shares her story.
163km of trail running bliss in back-country New Zealand.
Karyn & Lesley
Several months ago my good friend & fellow Ironman athlete Karyn Holland asked me if I would like to join her on her goal to run the Old Ghost Road Track (OGR) (85km) and the Heaphy Trail (78.4km) back to back over four days! That’s 163km’s or four mountainous trail marathons in four days! And of course my reply was; “Hell yeah!”
Only having tramped the Heaphy Track exactly 10 years ago myself & always wanting to do the Old Ghost Road, this was such a cool & awesome opportunity to run on a new stunning trail with one of my best friends. For Karyn this adventure was huge! Having never done any sort of tramping before and never having stayed overnight in a back-country hut and with only limited experience with trail running, this journey was going to not only test her physical ability and endurance but also her mental strength and fortitude.
This epic self-supported adventure meant we had to carry all our own gear & supplies and that included a lightweight down sleeping bag, four days worth of food & a change of warm clothes for in the huts!
First off, I devised a ‘gear list’ which essentially was a modified version of my tramping gear list. Instead of a 65L backpack, we each carried a 20L Osprey backpack which was ideal for ‘fast-packing’ and running with little weight. Necessary items included a lightweight down sleeping bag, a rain jacket, rain pants, thermal top and bottoms, hat/gloves, head-torch, first-aid kit, ELB (emergency locator beacon), warm dry clothes for in the hut, minimal toiletries, rationed-out nutrition for the run and dehydrated food for one breakfast and one dinner in the hut and Black Diamond lightweight trekking poles. Fortunately, a few weeks prior we were able to courier a bag each to the lodge we were staying at in Karamea (after the two days on OGR) so that we did not have to carry 4-days worth of food and were able to re-stock our food supplies for the final two days.
Karyn took care of the bookings and organized our accommodation for in the two huts along the tracks and also booked the transportation. This was a team effort and it worked out perfectly.
I had flown into Nelson from Auckland on the Wednesday night and stayed at Karyn and Sian’s place in Ruby Bay for the night. We had an early rise the next day at 4:45am and were out on the road by 5:30am. Sian kindly drove us 90 minutes to Lyell near the Buller River for the start of the Old Ghost Road southern end of the trail. After a few photos & high fives and a “see you in four days!”, Karyn and I set out for our Day 1 which was a 42.2km trail run to Stern Valley Hut for our first night. The OGR Ultramarathon race, which is held every February goes in the opposite direction to what we did. Which meant we had a nice long steady 25km incline to start our day. Karyn eased us into our run by a brisk walk to get the legs going and to get used to running with our trekking poles. I personally love tramping with my poles as it really takes the pressure off your knee joints and makes going over rocky/tree-rooted terrain and across streams so much easier.
The OGR trail immediately starts on one of the 17 bridges built to create this trail. Once we got across the bridge we were greeted with a pristine track surrounded by dense green native bush and fern trees as far as the eye could see.
I’ve been on a lot of NZ trails over the years and I have probably tramped or run on nearly 75% of them but for me the Old Ghost Road has soul. Lots of soul. Like no other in NZ. The North American feel to it made me feel right at home and it didn’t take long for me to realize that this trail was special. After 42km’s and 7 hours of fast-packing/running we made it to the Stern Valley Hut, which is the half-way mark for the trail. We were greeted by three wonderful and jovial American men who were totally amazed that we had just run from Lyell that morning. We soon learned that these three men had an integral role in the making of this majestic trail. In fact, they are the reason this trail exists in the first place.
The Old Ghost Road had its grand opening on December 12, 2015. The project started way back in 2007. The driving force behind the making of this track was a man named Marion “Weasel” Boatwright. A man from North Carolina married to a Kiwi woman from Christchurch. They moved to the Seddonville area and first built the Rough and Tumble Lodge (at the other end of the track where we were running to on our 2nd day in Seddonville). The trail was built by hundreds of volunteers and a shitload of money. You’ll have to read the book “Spirit of the Stone” written by Weasel himself to really get a feel for the spirit & soul and for the incredible details of how the trail was created but I will share a few fascinating points. The trail has a lot of bedrock and granite stone; every metre of the trail needed blasting and digging. The volunteers would dig approximately 15-20 metres a day and that was considered really good progress. You can imagine the back-breaking work it took to clear 85km of trail! It took 10 days to dig the infamous Skyline Steps, all 302 of them. Each step was made from pre-fabricated box-steps from kiln-dried pressure treated timber. These steps have a sheer 60 metre drop, so creating them was no mean feat and also crucial to making the trail work. The Skyline Ridge itself was built in 15m sections per day over 100 days. With all these man-hours and commitment to the project no wonder you can feel the spirit on every inch of this trail.
The signs that are scattered over the trail are hand-carved and have awesome names like; “Heaven’s Door”, “Lake Grim”, “Lake Cheerful”, & “The Boneyard” to name a few. I also loved the personal touches like the natural tree-roots for door handles (instead of metal) on all the toilet doors and doors of the huts. The outdoor ‘shower’ facilities are something we don’t see in back-country NZ. And the huts all have that North American log-cabin feel to it versus a NZ DOC hut (which are also lovely in their own right). I noticed straight away the entrance to all the huts on the OGR have these big Appalachian porches that I was told by Art Corn, the man himself at the Stern Valley Hut had built at each hut. Weasel, Art and James have these wonderful friendly and jovial North Carolina accents that made us feel so welcomed the second they greeted Karyn and I to the Stern Valley Hut. James the ‘old guy’ was blown away by what we had just done and exclaimed in his beautiful Southern accent, “By golly did I just hear y’all ran all that way from Lyell? Good golly you girls are amazing!” James was once a United States Marine Corp Captain and was an integral part of the making of the OGR these past 10 or so years. Art has traveled the world on volunteer missions. The little cabin the three men were staying in beside the main Stern Valley hut was named ‘Blue Duck’, which I read was named after the family of blue ducks that had stayed in the area the entire 4 weeks the Stern Valley hut was being built by these three men in October 2011.
The first night in the hut was really cool. Karyn and I each took up residence in one of our own bunks in the main kitchen. The bunk rooms had already had beds claimed by the other 6 or 7 trampers and one mountain biker staying in the hut as well. The huts are also kitted out with four stoves, large kettles for boiling water, a sink with running water, full porcelain kitchenware and cutlery. Most DOC huts do not supply these things, so this makes trekking a lot easier as you can eat off their dinner plates and use their cups. I always love a hot cup of salty tomato soup to replenish my sodium and a nice way to re-hydrate before dinner. Fortunately I had two sachets of soup and Karyn was able to enjoy one too. Being able to boil water in a kettle also meant we didn’t have to carry a kettle or pot in our packs. And so we were able to eat our yummy NZ-made Backcountry dehydrated meals for our dinner too. After cleaning our teeth in the outdoor sink we slept very soundly for 10 hours.
We set the alarm early for a 6:30am start to our 2nd day on the OGR. Our bodies were feeling good. My calves and Karyn’s quads were feeling slightly tight but mostly we felt really good and ready to take on Day 2 and run another marathon. Most of yesterday we ran in the misty cloud but was perfect conditions. On Day 2 we had all sorts, some sun, some mist and grey clouds and both Karyn and I agree that the trails looked and smelled better when it rained. The colours of the green leaves and brown fallen leaves are more vibrant and makes the run more interesting when wet. The entire trail is such that you can run on it and there isn’t too much technical stuff but it’s also not so groomed that it lacks a challenge underfoot. The changing scenery on the OGR is to die for!
Our second day was just as awesome as the 1st and took us about 30 minutes less time where we finished at the trail-end in Seddonville. This is where our transport Bryan from Karamea picked us up to drop us off in Karamea which is about a 50 minute drive to our lodge the Last Resort. Before heading back to Karamea I had a quick look in Weasel’s Rough and Tumble Lodge as he advised me the night before to have a look at the lodge he built by hand back in 2007 and to also purchase his book the Spirit of the Stone. It’s an amazing lodge that once again, has that awesome American Appalachian log-cabin feel to it. I will be sure to return and stay there. Bryan also picked us up the next morning to drive us 15 minutes to our second part of our journey to start the Heaphy Track.
Our legs coped very well on our 2nd day on the OGR and it was nice to have lighter packs now that the majority of food was eaten. It’s probably worth mentioning that our packs each weighed 6.5kgs with our gear and food but once we filled them with 2L of water in our hydration bladders and our 500ml water bottles, the packs weighed about 8.5-9kg. It didn’t take long to get used to the weight and we ran really well with them on our backs. On the first day I followed behind Karyn the entire day, happy to let her lead and set the pace but the next day we agreed to go at or own pace as it was hurting my knee trying to run at someone else’s stride-length. Going at our own pace worked out really well as I was designated “photographer” so this gave me a chance to run up ahead at times and take photos and then we would meet up every 1-3km on the trail.
After a nice hot shower, hot meal and a good sleep at the Karamea Last Resort Lodge, we started Day 3 of our trek on the Heaphy Track. This end of the Heaphy is by far the nicest 16.5km section as the trail follows the rugged coastline of the West Coast and passes through forests of rata and karaka trees, vines and groves of nikau palms. The Heaphy Hut, like many of the huts on the Heaphy are newly built and are really nice and are also equipped with gas stoves, kettles and flushing toilets. The view of the sea from the Heaphy would be a welcome sight for those who have tramped it and were staying the night. But Karyn and I only had a short break here to have a gel & nutrition bar before carrying on to the next hut, Lewis Hut. Day 3 (1st day on Heaphy) was the hardest. It was also the longest with a 48.5km run and 8hr day. The middle section from Lewis Hut to James Mackay was brutally tough in that it went straight up for 12.5km/2hrs. We both resorted to a fast walk for the entire duration. Once I got up to the hut, I was craving a cup of hot salty soup. Karyn was keen to carry on as she didn’t like to stop for too long as her body would start to tighten up and she found it hard to get going again. Also, Karyn had unfortunately taken a bad fall early on in the morning after tripping on her pole, badly hurting her ankle and gashing her knee. Thankfully Karyn is one tough nutter and was able to carry on running. But I needed a break and I needed to put something inside my tummy as we still had another 4 hours of running ahead of us. Once I got into the hut, I kindly asked one of the four trampers already in the hut if they wouldn’t mind boiling some water for me. I had my own silicone collapsible cup and spoon. Downing that hot salty soup was just what I needed to perk me up for the rest of my run to the Saxon Hut which we were staying at for the night. It took me about 50 minutes to catch up to Karyn, who was going really well and then we pretty much ran the rest of the way in the rain to Saxon Hut together.
Saxon Hut was a welcome sight and was nice knowing our longest day on our journey was now complete and we had survived it. Tomorrow was ‘only’ 30km and we would be greeted by Sian who would walk in about 10-12km to greet us as we finished the final section of the Heaphy. When we woke up on our 4th and final day, despite the pain killers, Karyn’s ankle was really sore and running on rocky sections made it very painful and challenging for Karyn to run so she had to power-walk some sections of the final 30km’s. We continued with the idea that I would run 3-10 minutes ahead and then wait and take photos which worked out fine. The final 15km of the Heaphy Track is pretty much downhill so we were able to run it the entire way. I loved running that final section. It was so much fun being out there in the forest, running like I was Little Red Riding Hood on epic trails in beautiful New Zealand.
Saxon Hut (Heaphy) after our 3rd & longest day (48.5km).
Feet weathering up well thanks to my VOXXLife socks & On Swiss Engineered trail shoes. My Moxie ankle gators worked a charm at keeping grit & stones out of my shoes. I love them.
Four days of running was done! It went by way too quickly, but it will forever be entrenched in our minds and in our hearts.
If you ever have an idea to run multiple days on New Zealand’s stunning trails, do it. And better yet, ask your friend to come along with you to enjoy the experience.
I loved my four days running with Karyn on the OGR and Heaphy tracks.
I would do it all over again in a heartbeat!
High five from the LTH