New Zealand: Gold Mining in Karangahake Gorge

Going to sleep on the East coast means waking up for sunrise. I’m approaching the top end of the North Island. Soon I’ll be turning around, heading South on the West Coast. Clouds blanket the horizon, keeping Mayor Island warm. The blue sky reflects in the ocean below. The water shimmering, iridescent like oil. A small explosion of light erupts from the top of one of the clouds. The day is begun. I manage to get moving earlier today. The propane stove requires more faffing to set up but it does burn in the cold mornings. I left Waihi Beach and drove inland. The blue sky buried under clouds, the warmth of the coast lost. Mountain walls rise rapidly. A fast flowing river runs through the valley. I arrive at Karangahake Gorge to find the car park filling quickly. Another good reason to be on the road early. I remain almost entirely hopeless at manoeuvring the van in confined spaces. 

The morning is colder now. The grey clouds continue to climb down the mountains in to the gorge. I don’t mind, I’m still pleased to be dry in the outside for another day. There are heaps of trails starting here, ending here, being about half way here. Of course I want to do them all, I know that I can’t. I’ll have to choose carefully. With visibility poor I strike off the mountain summit. Dickey Flat is a long way out and back, walking down to the Victoria Battery and back might be pushing it too. I decide to link the Rail Tunnel loop with the Window walk. I get moving.

The closest thing to castle fortifications are the ruins of the gold mines. Concrete foundations a little over 100 years old. The mines in the gorge are no longer active, abandoned when they were no longer profitable. Even the railway line has been left behind. The kilometre long abandoned railway tunnel is the structure I decide least likely to be haunted. Water runs down both sides of the tunnel. The oranges lights striping the walls like a tiger. Black graffiti is painted on to the brick walls, I was there too but I only leave footprints. The crunch of my boots echoes in both directions. As with all good feats of human engineering I am impressed by how determined we are as a species. Ain’t no mountain gonna stop a couple of fellas getting a bit richer a little quicker. I follow the gorge back to the car park and start on the Windows Walk.

The Windows Walk is undoubtedly the highlight of the trails in the immediate vicinity. The route follows the banks of the Waitawheta river. The old mining tramway rails have been left in the ground. A lone, rusted out cart sits in one siding. I walk along the tracks into the edge of the mountain. Natural windows appear where the track passes too close to the mountain side. An old mine shaft disappears in to the darkness, a trail deeper into the heart of the hillside. I don’t want to, but also I do. I have to. I put my torch on, turn off the main walkway and walk into the dark. At first the tunnel is cold, water drips from the ceiling. Mist forms ahead of me. Then it starts to get warmer. I keep walking, my brain starting to tell me about mine shaft collapses, replaying scenes of movies where a child gets trapped underground. I reach a fork, the tunnel splits. Down one of those tunnels is treasure. Down the other is the giant spider Shelob. I don’t want to be eaten, nor do I want to be crushed in a collapse. I let my imagination carry me back to the light. The abandoned mine shaft is most definitely haunted. I keep walking until I realise I’ve followed a broken pipeline almost as far as Dickey Flat. I should probably turn round. There’s rusted metal everywhere, iron bars in the river. Small tiered waterfalls that would no doubt make a lovely feature in your aunt’s garden, tumble down the valley walls.

The clouds dispersed. I sat in the sun and ate my lunch. I think about walking on, going to Victoria Battery but I know I’d have to come back. That might be too far. I have to drive out past it anyway, so I’ll stop in on my way. The name made me think of somewhere on the South Coast of England, Victoria Battery should be a sea fort in the Solent. It is actually an ore processing plant, or at least the remains of one. There’s another tramline, with a miniature tram doing the rounds. The driver was the only person aboard as the tram passed me, I gave him an over-enthusiastic wave to which he responded in kind. There’s not much else here. The main draw is the concrete foundations of the gold processing plant. Tanks of cyanide used to sit above the foundations, some of the rusted out lower sections remain in place.

I had a stroll through the ruins, deciding there was a moderate chance of abandoned cyanide tanks being haunted. There was also a waterfall nearby which I decided I could probably make a detour too. As I made my way back to the carpark I could feel fatigue dripping into my legs. They’d had a good stretch today and were ready for a rest. I went back to Waihi Beach, staying in a different car park. This one came with the added bonus of a ridiculous toilet. At Kaiti Beach in Gisborne, the toilet is world famous in New Zealand for singing. It doesn’t sing, but it does play terrible elevator music while you’re locked inside. This toilet was the same, only it came with a panic mode. The panic being after 10 minutes the door would open. This would stop people locking themselves in to wash dishes, but if you needed a bit of time to get your life in order this was not the toilet to do it in.

The next morning I was up again to see if there would be a sunrise show. There wasn’t. In the end I found myself sitting in the van, watching the fine, mist like rain settle on the grass between the carpark and the beach. For a minute I thought maybe it was more snow. The fine dusting of white on the manicured lawn may well have been frost. This was the beginning of the end for my good weather window. I drove in to Waihi proper, sitting in a carpark with everything on, ready to go, waiting. Hoping the rain would stop. I told myself I would go out in the rain but I didn’t want to start off by getting soaked through. The showers carried on down the coast. Behind the town of Waihi, completely out of sight is the Martha Pit Mine. This chasm is big enough to swallow the town whole with room for dessert. The mine is still active, not that I could see anyone down there. I realise I don’t actually know how pit mines work. There’s a pit, but then what? I walked around the outer rim, reading the few boards. I still don’t know how pit mining works but I do know once the gold runs out they’re going to fill the pit with water. This will either give the town an incredible recreational lake or a fantastic plot line for a disaster movie. I arrived back at the van and started making my way up the Coromandel Peninsula

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.