Published: Travel Digest – May 2014
New Zealand’s home of L&P is fast gaining a new name for itself as the gateway to one of the most stunning natural wonders in the country. The Karangahake Gorge is on the “to do” list of many keen cyclists – some coming from Australia specifically to ride through – but is it ideal for families too? Debbie Griffiths finds out.
Our day begins with a tantrum. Six year-old biking enthusiast, Nate, isn’t impressed that he’s riding tandem. His dad and I think the “tag along” cycle attachment is a stroke of genius by the Hauraki Rail Trail staff who’ve organised our trip. It’s a matter of minutes before our perseverance is rewarded with a “wheeeee” and a broad grin so we set off.
Like so many other Kiwis, I’ve often driven through Paeroa on my way to Tauranga and stopped for a coffee, lunch or a quick snap with the famous L&P bottle. However, I’m intrigued by the growing popularity of the cycle track through the Gorge which is now considered one of the top 100 things to do in New Zealand. I’m hoping this 14 kilometre-long gentle cycle will be a weekend getaway that the whole family will enjoy.
The Karangahake Gorge cuts a jagged gash through the Kaimai-Mamaku Ranges to link with the mining town of Waihi and is home to one of the busiest and most lucrative gold strikes in the country. Less than 90 minutes after we leave our North Shore home, we arrive at our B&B and, after getting bikes, maps and advice from the local i-site, we pick up the signposted trail across the road. It is here that we discover the beautiful riverside.
I had no idea the Ohinemuri River ran next to Paeroa so I’m an immediate convert to the advantages of travelling by bike. We’re out of the metal cocoon of the car and completely immersed in the fresh country smells, the warmth of the sun and the picture postcard scenery.
Shops and houses quickly give way to flat farmland before our view of paddocks abruptly changes to ferns and punga after one last cattle-stop. The trail follows the winding waterway and we pass behind the community of Mackeytown to find ourselves quite suddenly at the first bridge of the Karangahake Gorge. It’s impossible not to stop to admire the spectacular valley spread beneath us. The river is wide and gentle with trees and native bush covering the slopes and State Highway Two is cut into the rock along one side.
From the bright daylight, we’re then engulfed in the dark, straight one kilometre-long former rail tunnel that provides an alternate to a dog-leg in the track. Yellow lights along the roof give the bricks inside a soft glow and there’s a pin-prick of light far in the distance, so we’re happy we’ve followed the recommendation to bring torches. The children are whooping with excitement through the drippy, cool thoroughfare and, as with the rest of the track, there’s plenty of room for bikers and pedestrians in both directions. Collisions are easily avoided by simply staying to the left.
We stop at the far side and the children are so enchanted with the tunnel, they walk back inside with their torches while the adults read one of the many historical information signs that are dotted along the trail. The Eastern Portal Bridge takes us back over the Ohinemuri River and there is the choice of completing the loop back to Karangahake, by heading back downstream. We continue on upstream towards Waikino. Nate’s “tag along” attracts plenty of attention on the track – cyclists passing us comment what a good idea. The Hauraki Rail Trail also hires out covered buggies for younger children.
It’s another hour’s gentle cycle before we reach the narrow track that leads down to the beautiful, Owharoa Falls. At this point, I regret not bringing some sandwiches – it’s the perfect spot for a picnic. However, we’re aiming to catch the last train of the day from Waikino, so we cycle on to the Victoria Battery ruins. In 1896, it was the largest quartz crushing plant for gold extraction in Australasia and the 24-hour-a-day pounding could be heard as far as Waihi.
The final 7 kilometres from Waikino to Waihi takes half an hour by train. The conductor on the Goldfields Railway smiles as he gives the children stamps and agrees that we’ve made the right choice. This leg of the rail trail was opened in September but is mostly uphill into the mining town where the Sherpa Bus is picking us up. The train runs three return trips on weekends and holidays and one on weekdays. The carriages date back to when the East Coast Main Trunk Railway used to run through the Gorge. I’m delighted to discover later that the MP who lobbied in Parliament for the completion of the track in the early 1900s is the man who owned the accommodation we’re staying in.
The Villa Bed & Breakfast was built in the late-1800s by well-known Ohinemuri politician, Hugh Poland. Long-time locals, Margarete and Wayne, have owned the home for 16 years. Margarete also manages the town’s i-site which prompted the idea to renovate one wing into an up-market B&B.
“I’d estimate the numbers through our office have tripled since the rail trail opened,” she says. “There was a big demand for accommodation.”
Wayne was in charge of incorporating the original features into the contemporary design of the two queen bedrooms, lounge and kitchen and Margarete adds natural warmth. She surprises us with freshly baked lemon slice when we arrive back from our cycle and there’s homemade lemon honey for our breakfast. Their attention to detail is down to the experience they gained on their own travels.
“In some hotels I’d wonder ‘why don’t they do something special?’” she explains. “I think people like those little touches.”
Margarete is passionate about the region and warns us we’ve bypassed one of the best parts of the gorge.
“You should do the Windows Walkway,” she urges. “It’s really amazing.”
That turns out to be invaluable advice.
At the northern end of the gorge, the Waitawheta River joins the Ohinemuri in a “T-junction” and it’s this new branch that we follow on the one-hour loop. The kids are chuffed to find plenty of “old rusty stuff” – evidence of the massive gold mining operation that used to dominate the valley – and we adults find the beauty of this gorge absolutely jaw-dropping.
The trail takes us up wooden steps to the abandoned train line which runs about halfway up the slope on one side of the valley. We soon enter the red-yellow rock tunnels blasted into the ranges and need torches to navigate. There are four “windows” along the tunnels that provide spectacular views down the sheer cliffs to the foaming river and massive boulders below. When we get back to the car park still buzzing from all we’ve seen, we notice that there’s a handily placed café right across the road.
It’s during the drive home that we have our first disagreements of the weekend. We can’t pick just one highlight … and we can’t agree on which leg of Hauraki Rail Trail we will cycle next.
Accommodation courtesy of The Villa Bed & Breakfast, Paeroa.
Bikes provided by Hauraki Rail Trail.