Karangahake Gorge, The Coromandel
Voted as one of the 101 Must Do's for Kiwis. Many will have driven through the breathtaking Karangahake Gorge but few will have ventured into the walkways and old tunnels, to discover the rich history hidden in the deep valleys and to cycle the Hauraki Rail Trail. Not only is this one of the most stunning stretches of river in the country it was home to one of the busiest and most lucrative gold strikes at the time.
The Windows Walkway rates as one of the most stunning in the area with "windows" blasted through the walls of old gold mining tunnels providing impressive views down into the Waitewheta River.
The Karangahake Gorge is a major highlight on the Hauraki Rail Trail, which can be accessed from Thames, Paeroa, Waihi, or Te Aroha. The trail offers a range of short riding options or for those wishing to explore the entire trail, it can be done over three to five days, from Kaiaua through to Matamata.
If you give nature long enough it will cover over all that has gone before. A nationally significant gold heritage site, Karangahake Gorge was once a maze of bridges, trams, water races and construction. The regenerating native bush and crystalline currents of the Waitawheta River make it a stunning nature spot for visitors today.
Located on State Highway 2 between Paeroa and Waihi, the Karangahake Gorge is about 2 hours drive from Auckland, or 1 hour from Hamilton and Tauranga. Parking is available directly off the State Highway at Karangahake and toilets, rubbish bins and basic visitor information can be accessed at the car park.
Karangahake Gorge was voted as one of the ‘101 Must Do’s For Kiwis’ and it’s easy to see why. Regardless of whether you’re a history buff, a hiking enthusiast, or simply a curious sight-seer, the Karangahake Gorge is a terrific place to walk, cycle and soak up the stunning sights of the area.
The wind whipping through the valley is no deterrent to visitors on a chilly winter weekend. Before midday, the carpark is full and the tunnels and tracks are lined with a steady stream of visitors. The Karangahake Gorge is a great place to visit for both locals and first-time visitors. There is much to see, explore and learn about.
The heritage site includes a labyrinth of tracks and walkways throughout the gorge, with steel and concrete mining relics illustrating the region’s vigorous industrial past. There are walks to suit all itineraries and abilities; from a ten minute amble around the Talisman battery and mines site of the early 1900s, to a four hour summit of the mighty Karangahake Mountain.
The Windows Walk is an excellent way to absorb the historical, natural and scenic highlights of Karangahake Gorge in a short timeframe. It covers 2.5km and takes about an hour to walk. The squeak of wood and steel as you walk across swing bridges at the start lend a dramatic, aerial quality to the adventure. Sheer cliffs rise up all around you and the rush of the Waitawheta River courses beneath.
The walk follows a short line of steps up a steep bush tramway. A rusty old tram trolley clings to its tracks and makes for a fun photo opportunity. With footsteps following the remnants of railway tracks, it is daunting to imagine the risk associated with working in this area in the early 1900s.
The ‘windows’ of the walk are four open holes, once used to tip tailings into the Waitawheta Gorge below. They frame dramatic views from their midway vertical vantage point. Looking down, the sunlit track of the Crown Walkway hugs the cliff-face opposite. Further down still, the swift river smashes over boulders. Looking up, the sharp peaks, sheer cliffs and lofty summit of Mt Karangahake rise to dizzying heights.
The windows also provide an opportunity to pause and regroup after tentative steps through low-ceilinged, pitch-black tunnels. When all you can hear is the echoing of your own footsteps, all you can see is the dim light of your torch and all you can feel is the eerie air of old mine shafts, a flood of light is a welcome relief!
After the tunnels part of the track, the Windows Walk links with Crown Walkway via a swing bridge over the Waitawheta River. Further up, there are tranquil waterholes, perfect for swimming, though it’s hard to imagine dipping a single toe into the icy water in winter. When you walking back along the opposite side of the river, be sure and look up to see the windows from below. The white cliffs of the Waitawheta Gorge are a stark contrast to the dense green bush opposite.
Karangahake Gorge is a resilient place. Even the spindly pines clutch firmly to their rocky origins. One cannot help but be impressed by the magnitude of what the workers of the time achieved. The scale of industry contained within the area is massive, and more can be seen on The Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway. Shared with part of the Hauraki Rail Trail, this track follows the old Paeroa to Waihi railway line along the banks of the Ohinemuri River. Old mining equipment, buildings and sites can be seen from various vantage points along the path, with information panels offering a rich history. A highlight - and another chance to use the flashlight - is the exciting journey through the 1,100m Karangahake Tunnel.
At the eastern end of the Karangahake Gorge, Waikino Station makes a worthwhile whistle stop. Vintage suitcases sit on the platform as if waiting for their passengers. The cafe’s lace tablecloths and old-fashioned baking set an atmosphere of yesteryear. Incongruously, modern mountain bikes fill the racks beside the station. Cyclists adorned in high-viz vests munch from lunchboxes and eat in the cafe with the open fireplace blazing. The Bistro At Falls Retreat, The Talisman and the historic Waikino Tavern are also welcome rest stops for delicious local Karangahake Gorge cuisine and refreshments.
The Hauraki Rail Trail has brought new energy to Karangahake Gorge. Cyclists line the path in bright colours and children scramble eagerly over old relics. Karangahake Gorge will surprise you. No longer a place of ruin and decay, it is a vibrant intersection of past, present and future New Zealand, connecting nature, industry and history. A ‘New Zealand Must-Do for Kiwis’ indeed.
The Waikino Cafe located in the Gorge (7.5km from Waihi and 15km from Paeroa), hosts a Visitor Centre that has displays with information showing the attractions of the Karangahake Gorge area.
As an alternative way of getting to the Karangahake Gorge, Goldfields Heritage Railway operates a daily service between the Waihi Railway Station and Waikino Station Café.