The Karangahake Gorge lies between the Coromandel and Kaimai ranges, at the southern end of the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand’s North Island. A sharply winding canyon, it was formed by the Ohinemuri River. State Highway 2 passes through this gorge between the towns of Paeroa, Waikino and Waihi. This road is the main link between the Waikato region and Tauranga Bay of Plenty.
The East Coast Main Trunk Railway used to run through the gorge until it was bypassed by the Kaimai Deviation. The Karangahake Gorge section of the line, including a 1100-metre tunnel, is now a combined walkway and cycleway, part of the Hauraki Rail Trail, and together with the natural sights of the gorge, makes it into a well-visited local tourist attraction. The railhead at the Waikino end of the gorge still exists, preserved as part of the Goldfields Railway to Waihi.
At Karangahake, several walks and tracks ranging from 30 minutes to over 2 hours start at the Karangahake Reserve car park and picnic area. One of the most spectacular walks in the area is the “Windows Walk”, a loop walk that leads through the old gold mining tunnels of the Talisman Mine, crosses the Waitawheta River over a suspension bridge, and joins the Crown Tramway Track back along the cliffs of the Waitawheta Gorge. The path follows the route of a bush tramway and passes by “windows” in the cliff face at the end of mining tunnels, which were used to tip tailings down into the Waitawheta Gorge. Two of the mining tunnels, which are about 2 metres (7 ft) tall and wide, are safe to enter. They end abruptly after about 50 metres (164 ft) and are home to glowworms and cave weta.
The Woodstock Underground Pumphouse in the Waitawheta Gorge is also still accessible via a short detour from the Crown Tramway Track.
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 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 a 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 operate a daily service between the Waihi Railway Station and Waikino Station Café.