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A weekend of discovery in Karangahake

Image of the March 2019 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more articles from the
March 2019 Issue

There are walks – and cycle trails – galore in this small Coromandel town, discovers Alistair Hall

Driving through the Karangahake Gorge, it’s difficult to keep your eyes on the road.

There’s the Ohinemuri River, the towering Karangahake mountain, old building ruins and curious riverside walks carved into the rock face all competing for attention.

Passing drivers might find a car park in the huge, but most often full, roadside rest area and walk among the remains of stamper batteries. But walk on a few minutes more and you’ll leave the busy SH2 behind and find yourself transported through time, on ledges and tunnels cut into the mountainsides, where awaits a weekend of discovery and outdoor adventure that few people are aware even exists.

“The whole area is really understated,” says Anita Roest, the host at Karangahake’s Riverside Accommodation. “I’m still discovering new walks and I’ve lived here for more than a year.”

It was a discovery of another kind that first drew people to Karangahake. Gold was found in the hills and three stamper batteries were built to process the ore. At its height, around 2000 people lived in the town and while mining still occurs, it’s the recreation opportunities like the Hauraki Rail Trail that draw most visitors today. But according to Roest, even those on their bikes are missing out on the best Karangahake has to offer. “People know of the Hauraki Rail Trail, but they don’t know about the walks,” she says. “None of the overseas visitors who stay here have even heard of the Windows Walk. I would guess just 20 per cent of Kiwis have heard of it.”

The Windows Walk is the must-do trail for those passing through. At just 2.5km long, it can be completed in an hour. It’s named for the ‘windows’ in the mine tunnel the trail passes through. Bring a torch and be sure to look to the ceiling.

“I love the glowworms, they bring out your inner child,” Roest says. When I walked it, I saw a few of their blue lights but Roest advised visiting at nighttime for best results. “At 6pm you’ll see 100 and at 9pm you’ll see 500.”

The previous day I’d climbed Karangahake (555m) and sweated bucket-loads on the exposed and steep track. I chose a different route off the mountain – a three-hour walk on the County Road and Dubbo 96 tracks – that proved a lot easier thanks to a gentle gradient and the shelter of the forest. It also included some of the finest bushwalking I’ve done in the upper North Island. That’s the kind of discovery I had come for.

Stay and eat

Accommodation: Riverside Accommodation is a short stroll from all the walks described and has nine rooms and a soon-to-be-opened campground; Karangahake Winery Estate has three rooms.

Food: Talisman Café is opposite the roadside car park and closes at 4pm; The Falls Retreat, 4km from Karangahake and opposite the impressive Owharoa Falls, offers dinner and accommodation

4 walks in Karangahake (scroll to the bottom of the article to download the route notes and maps):

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1. Karangahake mountain

View from the summit of Karangahake. Photo: Alistair Hall

The namesake peak in the region offers incredible views in all directions from its 555m summit. But it’s also a tough walk, requiring half a day.

The Mt Karangahake Walk begins beside an unmarked stream, then joins a mine road for about 1km before heading into the bush on a wide track. Be sure to look over your shoulder for ever improving views of the township and beyond.

At a junction, a goat track heads in a more direct line to the summit, offering a quicker and steeper approach. Alternatively, the Mt Karangahake Walk sidles around to the southern side of the hill before climbing to the summit.

From the highpoint you’ll enjoy views that extend to the Firth of Thames, the Coromandel Peninsula and east to Waihi and the coast.

Time 1.5-2hr to summit Grade Moderate

2. Windows Walk

The Windows Walk follows the Waitawheta River. Photo: Alistair Hall

This trail includes gorgeous river views, dramatic cliff-faces and historic mining ruins. The trail, carved into the rock face, follows the Waitawheta River for 800m before crossing to the far side and climbing some stairs to the large mine tunnel with the ‘windows’. Back in the sunshine, the track passes the ruins of the Talisman stamper battery, providing plenty more exploration opportunities.

Time 1-1.5hr Grade Easy

3. Rail Tunnel Loop

Exiting the 1.2km tunnel on the Rail Tunnel Loop. Photo: Alistair Hall

The highlight of this walk is the kilometre-long rail tunnel, which forms part of the Hauraki Rail Trail. The trail then snakes beside the Ohinemuri River and passes through the ruins of old mine buildings to reach the car park.

Time 1-1.5hr Grade Easy

4. County Road Track

View to the east from a clearing in the County Road Track. Photo: Alistair Hall

For those wanting a bush walk experience, you won’t do better than this easy trail that combines with the Dubbo 96 Track and practically hugs the same contour line all the way around the eastern and southern side of Karangahake. Almost – it does head uphill but there are very few dips and gullies. Eventually, the trail joins the Mt Karangahake Walk to gain the summit.

The bush is mature and offers plenty of shade, and because there’s little understorey it’s not claustrophobic. The track is wide and well-graded (mountain bikers use it too), and passes several mine tunnels which can be explored by those with torches. It’s an absolute delight of a walk – the best in the region.

Time 2-3hr to Karangahake summit Grade Easy.