Gold mines in Karangahake

The original plan was pretty complicated: hitch-hike to Waihi, rent a bike, ride hard to Karangahake Gorge, ride back, get a hitch ride through the gorge again to Paeroa, where I had booked an Airbnb. I feared I wouldn’t have much time to see the gorge well, and taking pictures while you’re on a bike is not easy, but it sounded doable. Also, I didn’t have anything else to do.

But a timely encounter on the road changed it all – for the best.
Anton picked me up from the roadside, and told me he was going to Paeroa. That was great, it would take me very close to my destination. However, as we talked, I mentioned the gorge, and he said that was actually where he was going, to visit his daughter Anita at Riverside Accommodation.

Hurray, can I come? 😀

Anita let me leave my big backpack in her hostel, and off I went on an adventure! There’s still a big mine active in Waihi, closer to the coast, but in the old days, frenzied mining took place in Karangahake Gorge.

It started in the late 1800’s, lasted a few decades, then died out as ore veins became harder to reach, thus less profitable. The impact of gold mining would have a lasting impact on the region, though, as is always the case with mining.

There are several paths for walkers and bikers around the settlement, and all along, many signs allow you to learn about the history of this special place. I appreciated this wealth of information, complemented with many photographs and schemas from that time, for I felt it gave me a in-depth look at the past. In the end, I felt dizzy, both from the sheer scale of the infastructures that were built to tame and work the land, and from the influence humans had on the environment there.

Often, human activities bring obvious change, while some remains invisible, or easy to ignore. However, the consequences of ore-roasting in wood-fired kilns was truly dramatic. Rock from the mountains was thrown into these pits with wood, which was then burnt, all that to dry the ore and make the extraction of gold easier. This process consumed titanic amounts of wood, as could be seen from photographs showing thousands of logs piled up next to the kilns, on the mountainside. The induced deforestation affected power generation, for the soil wouldn’t hold precipitation water anymore.  “When heavy rain used to bring consequent flow to the power plant for weeks, the effect now barely lasts one week”, noted an engineer from that time (freely quoted). Thus, the power plant, which used the river to produce electricity, could not take advantage of rainy spells as effectively as before.

Dry crushing stopped after 1889, when cyanide was used for the first time in the world to separated gold and silver from quartz, in Karangahake.

There are two main walks to do in the gorge. I started with the Rail Tunnel Loop, that goes down the river, then crosses it on a two-level bridge before running through the mountain, in a tunnel that was originally dug for the railway. Unfortunately, the last part of the trail, along the river, was closed, so I had to go back in the tunnel.

Afterwards, I hiked the Windows Walk. It started as a narrow path at the bottom of a narrow gorge, but then it climbed on the other side and ran along the galleries dug by gold miners. On the ground subsided rail tracks used to push carts full of ore for further processing. This walk gets its name from the windows, on the side of the mountain, that workers used to throw debris from the galleries directly into the river, several meters down.

Can you see the window?

View from a window

If you look up in the right place, you may find glowworms. I followed Anita’s instructions carefully, and saw them, only a few at first, then many more in another section. It was so dark I didn’t even try to make a picture, but I thought I might give you an “artist’s rendition” of what it was like. When you read articles about planets and stars, you often find these, as we don’t have real pictures that show the phenomenons described. Here it’s the same: I used Paint.net to show you what I saw. It was very difficult :p

Glowworms

I don’t actually know what these worms look like, because I didn’t want to disturb them by pointing my light at them. In the dark, they simply looked like light blue dots. Like stars.

Since I discovered it, I’ve used the phone app WikiCamps to learn about sights and hostels around New Zealand. However, Anita’s Riverside Accommodation did not appear there, and that’s why I had booked an Airbnb stay in Paeroa. I regretted, for the hostel looked fantastic. It had been freshly renovated, and I would have liked to stay there.

After my walks, Anton drove me to Paeroa, on his way back north. I had a pizza there, watched a fabulous sunset, slept well, before moving south, to the famous Matamata.

Resource: the Karangahake Gorge

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