A Vintage Train Ride and a Satisfying Walk

Karangahake Gorge, Waikino Station

Every time I go through Karangahake Gorge, I’m mesmerised. I love the way the sunlight peeks over the towering walls of rock. I love the way the water rushes around the boulders. I love the way the trees undulate up the slopes. I also love the old train station at Waikino, as you emerge from the gorge.

Waikino Vintage Railway StationIt’s a proper old train station, is Waikino. It’s got the proper old-fashioned, colonial feel. A vintage train runs between Waikino and the gold rush town of Waihi. Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d never been on it. I’d been to the station café, though, which is very nice. I’m not even a train nerd, (unlike my dad,) and I enjoy the atmosphere. If you’re driving between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty, it’s well worth a stop.

The railway through the Karangahake Gorge to Waihi was completed in 1905. Back then, the area was home to a thriving mining community. Now, the six kilometres of track between Waikino and Waihi are all that’s left. I went there with my family just after Christmas. We parked at the Waikino Station, got the train to Waihi, and then walked back along the river to our car.

Goldfields Historic Railway, Waikino Station

The walk was very easy, flat the whole way and on a well-maintained track. (I suppose it would be, being part of the Hauraki Rail Trail, an eighty-two kilometre bicycle track.) It was also, to my mind, the perfect length. I finished it feeling satisfied that I’d done a decent amount of exercise, exactly as my energy was running out.

It took about two hours, perhaps a little longer. I don’t really know, as my dad kept stopping to “geocache” along the way. I know we walked about ten kilometres, because I had Pokémon Go running the whole time. (There were no Pokémon on the trail, only at either end. I did, however, hatch quite a few eggs during the walk.)

Ohinemuri River, Hauraki Rail Trail

Although the walk was mostly along the river, the views were never outstanding. If you want outstanding views, go for a walk in Karangahake Gorge itself. It was pleasant enough, however. We deliberately went on an overcast day, knowing the walk would have little shade to offer. Though the wind when we got off the train at Waihi was bitterly cold, the walk soon warmed us up.

Karangahake Gorge Train Cogs

At the end of our walk – just past the bridge over the river and the tunnel under the road that would take us back to the Waikino Station – we found a few enormous, old cogs. They marked the beginning of another walk, one that, by now, we were far too tired to embark upon. We needed a good feed. Happily, we had Christmas leftovers waiting for us at home!

The Goldfields Historic Railway between Waikino and Waihi has a carriage for bikes, and you can hire bikes at the Waikino Station. If you’re on a New Zealand campervan hire tour, you can stay the night at the Waihi Station for just $10. I wouldn’t say this vintage train ride and walk is a must-do, but something that takes you through the Karangahake Gorge certainly is!

Taieri Gorge

Yes, I’m writing about another gorge. Karangahake Gorge last week, Taieri Gorge this week – I seem to be gorging myself.

Sorry.

I was just looking through some family photos from ten years ago and was reminded of how pretty Taieri Gorge is. Of course, for me, it could never measure up to Karangahake, but my experience of Taieri was completely different: it was by train.

Taieri Gorge is in Dunedin. We went there on our first ever campervan holiday in New Zealand, because my dad is an insufferable train nerd and also, coming from England, we all kind of missed trains, not to mention the beautiful, old railway stations of which there are hardly any in New Zealand.

Dunedin has one.

This is it.

This is it.

From it, you can catch the Taieri Gorge tourist train, which takes you on an enchanting journey through dramatic scenery. Being twelve years old at the time, I gazed out of the window and imagined I was being whisked away to Hogwarts, which, I suppose, tells you how British the scenery seems. The journey, for us, was highly nostalgic.

As the train chugged along between lush hills and looming rocks, over meandering water and vintage bridges, I went to stand outside, at the back of our carriage. It got a bit chilly with the air rushing by, but it was thrilling, particularly the tunnels.

060 Reefs CuttingThe journey was quite long, so you get your money’s worth, but I imagine a child any younger than I was would get bored towards the end. Luckily, the train stops to let you get out and take photographs, and you can buy refreshments and souvenirs en route. Unluckily, one of the souvenirs – the one that my little sister had to get – is a train whistle, a wooden woodwind instrument that only plays one note in imitation of the ‘choo-choo’ sound that trains make. Imagine that in the hands of a nine-year-old, especially one that used to dress up as Thomas the Tank Engine.

Thusly serenaded, we returned to our campervan, eagerly anticipating the next stage of our holiday. Considering this is ten years later, I can safely state that the Taieri Gorge Railway makes for a memorable experience.

Karangahake Gorge

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.

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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.

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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.

Karangahake Gorge 011After 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.

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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.

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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.

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More awesome North Island day walks…

 

Going Bush

When I was a kid, back in Britain, we used to visit Sherwood Forest.

Yes, Sherwood Forest – the remnants of Robin Hood’s mystical domain – a symbol of romantic, English woodland.

Except it wasn’t that great.

There are nicer examples of English woodland, though patches of green seem few and far between in England, especially now: now I know New Zealand and its native bush.

It’s often said that New Zealand is green. This, of course, refers to its environmentally friendly image, but it may as well mean its landscape. There is a LOT of green. New Zealand simply has more unspoilt countryside, more patches of green to choose from than England.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love the English woodland. I get nostalgic for those grand, druid-worthy oak trees, cushioned by carpets of bluebells and snowdrops. But the New Zealand bush is something else.

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A view of the bush from inside a cave, Waitomo

The first thing you notice is the tree ferns. In Britain, ferns tend to be low-lying and rather unimpressive. In New Zealand, ferns grow tall everywhere, lining the roads and forest paths, delicate fronds lolling above people’s heads, filtering the sunlight. Some of the fronds are huge – my first few months in New Zealand, I kept expecting to see dinosaurs emerging from the foliage!

If you’re lucky, while you’re walking in the bush you’ll spot a fuzzy, brown coil protruding from the trees, a frond on the verge of unfurling. This is a koru, a Maori symbol of new life. When I arrived in New Zealand, having just stumbled exhausted and terrified off the plane, my dad gave me a koru necklace. I can’t say it made me feel any better at the time, but it was a nice thought.

Tree ferns are so abundant in New Zealand that the ‘silver fern’ is recognisable the world over as the emblem of the All Blacks rugby team. The Maori name for the silver fern tree is ponga, and the undersides of the fronds are, indeed, silver. So striking are they that these fronds can be placed belly up on the murky forest floor to create a gleaming arrow, a beacon to guide the way.

When I returned to New Zealand after going back to England for a few weeks, the sight of tree ferns at the side of the motorway when my dad picked me up from the airport evoked a strong ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ feeling within me – I was definitely back in New Zealand.

Ferns may be the most conspicuous of New Zealand’s native trees, but they aren’t the prettiest. That distinction, I think, has to go to the Pohutukawa tree.

Pohutukawa in bloom

Pohutukawa in bloom

They’re known as the New Zealand Christmas Tree, not only because they bloom around Christmastime – they bloom in a festive explosion of deep, beautiful red. The vision of bejewelled Pohutukawas gathered upon the edge of the golden sand, facing the gleaming waves, is the epitome of the New Zealand summer.

When you ‘go bush’ in New Zealand, you encounter many strange trees, and many more familiar ones, but what truly sets it apart from the English woodland is the atmosphere. It’s temperate rainforest. The air is hushed and humid. Well, hushed when there aren’t any cicadas around. When there are cicadas, it’s a never-ending cacophony of shrill, grating chirps. If crickets are violinists, cicadas are thrash metal guitarists.

A tui

A tui

Thankfully, cicadas aren’t the only creatures that serenade the trees. The tui, for example, is a native New Zealand bird that has to have one of the loveliest songs in the avian world. The males are a treat to look at too, with black feathers that shine with metallic purples and greens, their throats adorned with brilliant, white baubles.

There are endless places you can go bush walking in New Zealand, and most have campgrounds attached to them. Camping is an excellent way to experience the New Zealand bush, as you can base yourself somewhere and relax surrounded by nature, rather than driving ages to get there, walking for a few hours, then driving back. I think campervans beat tents in this situation, because you can have a shower when you finish your walk!

There are strict rules surrounding camping in New Zealand. This isn’t a bad thing, seeing as we don’t want these peaceful, picturesque sites to be ruined, but it does mean that you have to make sure you’re doing things right. There’s plenty of information about New Zealand camping out there and it’s well worth a read.

My absolute favourite place to go bush walking is Karangahake Gorge. Not only is it a breathtaking piece of nature, with its dramatic rock walls, carved by a large, winding river, it is a fascinating piece of history. The paths cross abandoned railway tracks, and tunnels delve into the rock, dark and frightening – seriously, I got scared going too far into one. It’s exciting to come out of a tunnel into daylight and suddenly find yourself looking down at the river far below. You can walk along the side of the river as well and even swim in it in places. There’s a pool with a waterfall and a cave you can climb into – an awesome place to have your lunch.

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

Another great place to bush walk is Waitomo, which is where most of the photos in this post come from. However, bush walking is probably the least amazing thing you can do in Waitomo – I’ll post about that another time!

And finally, as the location of my first ever bush walk in New Zealand, the Waitakere Ranges get an honourable mention as a brilliant bush walking destination, but, as I don’t have any photos of it, (I was only ten and didn’t have my own camera yet,) here’s another picture of Waitomo:

I always imagine fairies here.

I always imagine fairies here.

So is the New Zealand bush better than the English woodland? Well there’s more of it, and it doesn’t rain every time you go for a walk in it. And there’s exotic birds and weird trees. But the English woodland can be just as beautiful as the New Zealand bush; just as magical. For me – and, of course, I’m terribly biased – the bush simply isn’t as romantic the woodland. It is, however, wonderfully exciting.

I suppose you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

My Top 10 North Island Day Walks