Magical Ōwharoa Falls in pretty Karangahake Gorge. © Mike Mackinven

Karangahake Gorge: a reminder of a golden era

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If a day weeding the garden leaves you laid up with backache for a week, spare a thought for the hard buggers who left their mark on the landscape wherever a sniff of gold was detected.

The rock of the Coromandel Peninsula is honeycombed with shafts and tunnels driven and sunk by men with equipment no more sophisticated than you’d deploy in your vege patch – pick, shovel and wheelbarrow – although unlike most recreational gardeners, some did have occasional recourse to dynamite. 

Some of the best-preserved workings of the Coromandel district gold rush of the late 1860s – the last significant occasion on which the discovery of gold led men to descend en masse to a New Zealand locality – can be seen in the pretty Karangahake Gorge, between Paeroa and Waihī in the North Island.

The trouble with the gold in these here hills was that unlike the alluvial stuff of the South Island, this was all lode-borne – found, that is, in veins shot through quartz which in turn formed seams in the Coromandel’s iron-hard granite.

Extracting it was no simple matter of scooping up a few shovelfuls of sand and gravel and swirling it about in your pan. Oh no: first you had to accomplish with your gardening tools what the awesome forces of nature had taken aeons to do – break the rock, extract the quartz and crush it to get at the gold.

The gold-bearing quartz in the hills through which the Ōhinemuri River cuts its way was liberated by blasting and chipping it out bodily using pick and shovel. It was then conveyed to stamping batteries which, as their name suggests, were great steam-powered hammers designed to pulverise rock to dust.

The remains of three of these can be seen in the Karangahake Gorge. Access to them is by an easy, well-graded 4.5-km walkway, which follows the same route as the railway that once ran from Paeroa to the Waihī goldmine.

This includes a couple of historic bridges and a one-kilometre tunnel, sporting sideshafts blasted through the tunnel walls to the exterior, namely the cliffs fronting the Waitewheta River. These were originally to allow waste rock to be cast out of the mine, but now they serve as picture windows for sightseers.

In summer (or year-round if you're hard enough), you can round off the half-day’s exploration of the railway and the gold workings with a picnic lunch and a swim in one of the Ōhinemuri’s lazy pools. Now that’s a solid gold experience.

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