Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 25, November 1981
By HENRY RAWLE
While many tourists will be familiar with the rocky grandeur of Karangahake Gorge, few will realise that the whole of the road from Paeroa to Waihi is steeped in the history of the goldmining era.
Majestic Karangahake mountain comes into view at the top of the first rise while on the left the towering "White Rocks" look out across the valley. A little further on lies Turner's Hill, a gentle slope to-day, compared with the tortuous gradient of earlier times when up to forty horses were required to haul the heavy loads of coal and machinery up the long hill en route to the Karangahake mines.
The legendary cave to which the district owes its name - - - lies just over the crest of the hill. All that can be seen to-day of the Ohinemuri Cave is small gap in the screen of foliage which covers the entrance to a tunnel which once led to the river. The legend gives an insight into early Maori history and explains the naming of the ancient site as "Ohinemuri", which means 'the maiden left behind'.
According to Maori folklore a small pa in the vicinity was captured by a hostile tribe who killed most of the natives and drove the rest into the forest. The chiefs daughter, returning from a visit to find a strange tribe in possession, took refuge in a nearby cave where lived a taniwha. Legend has it that the couple got on very well together until the chief returned with reinforcements and drove out the invaders. The girl rejoined her people and the love-lorn taniwha left the district never to be seen again.
Near the bottom of Turner's Hill the old Pahu [Rahu – E] Road climbs up over the ridge. This and the earlier Butler's Track were the only access routes to the east until the present highway was put through the gorge. Work started in the 1890s following a council decision to 'form a deviation of the main Thames Tauranga road via Karangahake at an estimated cost of 1400 Pounds'.
It was a long and hazardous project with workmen dangling like flies on the sheer cliff face, setting charges which blasted hundreds of tonnes of rock into the river far below.
Before the "deviation" was opened in 1901 the road from Paeroa petered out at Kahakaha which, now known as Mackaytown, nestles at the foot of Turner's Hill. It was here that the old-time waggon teams forded the Ohinemuri to the Wairere Flat where a rough bush track led through the hills to the Karangahake mines. A little further on, a railway bridge spans the road, carrying the line into the 1100 metre long tunnel which runs straight as an arrow through the bluffs emerging from the rock face deep in the gorge.
Across the river the sturdy ramparts of the old Crown battery cling to the banks like some ruined castle on the Rhine. Part of the chimney stack remains and the concrete chute where clinker from the boiler fires was tipped into the river.
Karangahake lies just around the bend, overshadowed by the towering peak which gave the area its name. Payable gold was discovered here in the 1880s and in the years that followed three mines were opened on the mountainside. They were the Crown, the Woodstock and the Talisman, the latter covering 507 acres and yielding over 3 million ounces of gold and silver bullion before it closed in 1919.
A township stood here 80 years ago, part of it encroaching on the riverside area which now serves as recreation reserve. In its heyday Karangahake had a population of 2,000, with 480 children attending the school which still perches on the wooded slopes above the road. There were nine boarding houses and two hotels, one on each side of the river. The Tramway Hotel, established in 1880, was a two storied building with 30 rooms and stood on the river flat now occupied by the popular Gold Camp.
As there were no bridges in those days and no access roads all supplies, including barrels of beer, were forded across the river at Mackaytown, hauled up Crown Hill and lowered over the cliff at the back of the hotel with the aid of ropes and windlass. Behind the hotel a tramway ran from the Crown mine to the down-stream battery which handled the endless waggon loads of ore won from the rich lodes which honeycombed the mountain-side.
The hotel has long since gone, the tram track too and nothing remains of the once thriving settlement. Yet one can still find fragments of gold bearing quartz along the river banks and there are those who say there is still gold in the mountain. The road winds on into the rocky chasm of Karangahake Gorge. On your left the craggy cliffs reach clear into the sky, while across the river the lofty plateau of the Kaimai Forest Park spreads its verdant acres. Here in the green silence groves of native trees are regenerating after the ruthless logging of the mining era and miles of tracks give access to old kauri dams, sawmill relics, log bridges over forest streams and the spectacular Ananui Falls.
Out of the gorge the road crosses Owharoa Stream into the long straight of Cummings' Flat, named after one of the first pioneer families to settle in the district. The old homestead, which once served as a Post Office and store, still stands behind the straggling hedge on the river side of the road. A little further on a signpost points across a bridge into the hills. Over the river the road climbs sharply past the waterfall before it branches right to Waitawheta and the eastern entry to the Forest Park. The road on the left winds through the Puke-Kauri hills, skirting the colourful Waterlily Gardens before emerging at the back door to Waihi.
Back on State Highway 2 the road leads through the village of Waikino with its ancient tavern, its craft shops and museum. Over the river the crumbling ruins of the great Victoria battery can still be seen. It was here that the "rake line" from Waihi delivered up to 40 waggon loads of quartz a day [much more, up to 800 tons per day – E] from the famous Martha mine. Processing wastes were dumped into the river which was further polluted by tailings from the downstream mines and batteries. The Ohinemuri became an open sewer from Waikino through to Paeroa and in 1895 the river was declared a "sludge channel" by Government decree.
Beyond the level crossing the road to Waitekauri points up into the bush where one of the earliest gold strikes was made. Several smaller mines and batteries were set up deep in the forest and by 1887 the township had a population of just over two hundred. Machinery was water-powered, the main Waitekauri battery being driven by a huge waterwheel nearly nine metres in diameter made on the site from kauri felled in the forest.
There were no roads and all mining equipment and supplies were hauled along a bridle track which led across the hills from Paeroa. It took a team of 10 horses seven days to deliver a 5 tonne trailer from Thames to the Jubilee mine, a distance of some 40 kilometres. It is recorded that this ill-sited mine never produced enough gold to pay for the transport. A few more bends, a couple of hills and one last bridge and you are coasting through the palm-fringed avenue which leads to old Waihi, the town that was literally built on gold.