Exorcising the Old Ghost Road

Mountain Safety Council’s new video guide dispels the “unknown unknowns” of a backcountry adventure

Words by Justin Henehan, taken from Spoke Issue 87

“There are known knowns—there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns—that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

That was the response of Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defence, to a reporter asking for evidence that Saddam Hussein tried to supply weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups 20 years ago. 

I often think of that epistemological puzzle (dubbed the Rumsfeld matrix) when heading out on an adventure into the “unknown unknowns”. No matter how much you read, or how many topographical maps you pore over, you never truly know what lurks between those elevation lines. 


But imagine if you could ride a track virtually, see for yourself the trail conditions, the exposure, and all the other hazards that you’re likely to encounter, before you set off.

That’s exactly what the Mountain Safety Council has created with its Old Ghost Road Video Guide, which takes you on a virtual ride along the 85km-long Old Ghost Road in the Kahurangi National Park.

The Old Ghost Road is the longest singletrack backcountry ride in New Zealand. It’s a grade four (advanced) multi-day ride that retraces an old mining road from Lyell in the Upper Buller Gorge to the Mōkihinui River on the West Coast. It’s one of Aotearoa’s Great Rides and it’s clear why as it climbs through ancient forests into rugged and exposed alpine environments.

Mike Daisley, Mountain Safety Council CEO, says people were hungry for information about the Old Ghost Road.

“We know people want to see this place. The video produces that for them. They get a really clear picture of what to expect. It’s got epic scenery, it’s very compelling, and it’s very easy to watch, but woven through there are safety elements.”

As it traverses the route, the video details the hazards you’ll encounter in each section, along with footage that clearly shows trail conditions and the types of surfaces you’ll ride. It takes you through the weather variations, what time of year is best to ride, what equipment you’ll need, and how to pack and balance your bike for best handling and safety. It also breaks down the accommodation options and how to plan a route.

“This video unpacks key decision points, key elements that we know cause incidents on those tracks. We can put it into a format that’s just epic but woven through it is evidence-based guidance about what the hazards are and what you can do about them,” Mike explains.

“The video tips its hat to the preparedness and skills you need to ride the Old Ghost Road, but it’s not about that. It’s about identifying the hazards on the trail, and if you don’t think you have the skills to tackle those sections, it just advises you to get off and walk. And plenty of people do that.”

New Zealand has traditionally had a “she’ll be right” relationship with the outdoors, one in which we’ve embraced Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” with a kind of jolly fatalism. It’s an attitude that’s been getting us into trouble for decades, Mike says.

“Kiwis have always had this higher propensity for incidents.” 

What Covid travel bans showed us, he says, was search and rescue numbers didn’t really drop, and ACC injuries stayed consistent, “which exposed what we’ve never really talked about, which is Kiwis are pretty good at finding interesting ways to fall off stuff”.

The data was often hidden behind international tourist numbers, a group that isn’t overrepresented in the statistics, despite our prejudices, Mike says. 

And, as technology advances, more and more of us are finding high-tech ways to get further away from help and deeper into trouble. And there’re plenty of opportunities for that on the Old Ghost Road.

“It’s the unexpected stuff that turns up, like the weather system changes, the wind gets extreme—it’s those things that are catching the bikers out,” Mike explains.

“There’s frequent strong wind and rain, there’s snow and freezing temperatures, even in summer. That’s what leads to most of the incidents. If you’re prepared for it, you’re okay. If you’re not, you’re not, no matter how experienced you are.”

The Old Ghost Road Video Guide aims to turn more of those “unknown unknowns” into “known knowns” or, at the very least, “known unknowns” for the more than 6500 riders and 5000 trampers that tackle the trail each year. 

MSC also recommends using its Plan My Walk app for preparation and planning. It includes the new video, weather forecasts and any relevant weather alerts, and bikers can use the gear list and create a trip plan that they can then share with a trusted contact. 

For more information go to planmywalk.nz, mountainsafety.org.nz, or oldghostroad.org.nz.