An hour and a half south-east of Auckland, on State Highway 2 between Paeroa and Waihi, lies one of my favourite places in New Zealand to go walking: Karangahake Gorge. And last week I was lucky enough to go there again.
The reason I like Karangahake Gorge so much is its variety. The gorge itself is spectacular, the frothing Ohinemuri River snaking between towering walls of jagged rock crowned by trees and sunlight, but there’s a lot more to it. There are long walks and easy walks, walks through bush and walks through abandoned mines and railway tunnels, walks along the river and walks along old train tracks; it’s a tramp through history and a tramp through nature of the awe-inspiring kind. And it’s beautiful.
I once went on a class trip that involved the school minivan driving through Karangahake Gorge early on a biting winter’s morning, when it was swathed in frost and pure white mist, and the trees at the river’s swollen edge were like sharp, black hands reaching for the cold sun. I’d never seen anything so lovely.
I never tire of driving through the gorge, (which is fortunate because it’s on the main route between my parents’ house and university,) because the river is always at a different level, gambolling between the boulders, hiding and revealing secrets. It can be scary driving along the tightly winding road, towering rocks on one side, a nasty drop into the water on the other, but it’s always breathtaking.
Last week the sunlight was incredibly bright – so bright I didn’t manage to get any particularly good photos, but oh well. It was still cold. Five of us went: me, my mum, my dad, my sister and my boyfriend, and we left the house only half an hour after we’d said we would, so it was a good start. The drive was pleasant, apart from my sister getting sick on the windy road, and when we arrived we found that, despite it being the middle of winter, there were lots of people there.
As usual, the car park was full of campervans. Karangahake Gorge is obviously a very popular New Zealand campervan destination. I saw at least three holiday parks leading up to it and at least two Freedom Camping spots, and the campervan park close to where the walking tracks begin didn’t have a single vacancy – I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case in the middle of winter, but there you go.
We couldn’t decide which track to take at first. Should we visit the historic ruins of the Victoria Battery, climb the mountain, do the long walk to the waterfalls, hug the river, or explore the old tunnels by torchlight? I was keen to walk to the waterfalls, but this is best done in summer, as it’s hard to resist jumping into the picturesque pool. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic. You can swim under the little waterfalls and climb into the little tunnel… just make sure you have insect repellent. We didn’t go there this time.
We started by crossing the big swing bridge – always fun crossing a big swing bridge, but last week we were greeted by the spectacle of hundreds of fantails swooping and spiralling over the water, no doubt hunting insects. I’ve never seen so many fantails at once – not even close – it was an absolute frenzy! What a wonderful start to the tramp.
I stopped to take my first photograph of the day. As it turned out, this was a mistake. While I was taking the photograph, my dad and sister went ahead without me, leaving me with no idea which path they’d taken! Neither of them had a mobile, so me, my mum and my boyfriend were left wondering what to do. In the end, we decided to just choose a path and go, hoping to meet up with them later, which we did, thankfully. But before we did we encountered the tunnel, the kilometre-long former train tunnel – echoing, dripping and very eerily lit.
Right before you enter the tunnel at the end we were at, a side path disappears into the bush, accompanied by a sign saying that there’s a winery just two hundred metres away. I wonder how many people have given in. We didn’t, but we were tempted. Instead, we stepped into the dragon’s mouth.
The tunnel wasn’t as dark as I remembered it being, but it was still mildly frightening. The ground was uneven and streams ran down either side, and even gushed from cracks in the brickwork at a couple of places. There were a few creepy nooks in the wall, sanctuaries where workers could run and take cover if a train came. It took just that little bit too long to reach the other end.
After that, we found the others again. We decided to do the Windows Walk, which is a track that leads through the remains of an old mining operation. You start off going through the bush, and you begin to notice rusted hunks of metal at the side of the path, maybe a cogwheel or bit of piping. My dad mentioned it felt rather post-apocalyptic. Then you come to a railway track, which would have supported the mine carts, and you start to walk along it like the kids in Stand By Me – it’s irresistible. Then you come to the tunnel. I was taken over by childhood memories of those ‘old, abandoned mine’ rides you get at theme parks. It was time to turn on the torches.
If you ever go to Karangahake Gorge, make sure you have a torch.
The reason it’s called Windows Walk is there are ‘windows’ in the tunnel, windows you can look out of directly down at the river. By one of these is a side tunnel, so long and dark I’ve never been bothered enough (or brave enough) to go down it. There’s also an underground pumphouse you can explore, with old machinery in it.
By the time we got back to the car park we were well in need of a hot chocolate, so we decided to check out the café across the road and – guess what? – it’s just about the nicest café I’ve ever come across! It’s not the food that makes it special, (and it did take an unreasonably long time to come,) it’s the way they’ve decorated the place. The garden is like Alice’s Wonderland, and inside there’s a fire, art and crafts, a fish tank, a bird cage and a play area for little kids. The Talisman Café, it’s called.
Unfortunately, it was the end of the day and the café only had one hot chocolate left, so we had to fight amongst ourselves as to who got it, and the rest of us had tea. Then we went home. It’s so nice to be able to have days out like this in winter.