Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 37, September 1993

By C W Malcolm

We pupils of Paeroa District High School in Wood Street seventy years ago, when required by our headmaster, Mr R J Hamilton, MA, BSc, to write an essay on "A Pretty Piece of Scenery" protested that we knew of none.

He confronted our ignorance of our local surroundings with the amazing statement that the Waitawheta Gorge at Karangahake was one of the finest pieces of scenery in the world. Accustomed to the exaggerations in much of his teaching, we were not long in exploring the region on our bicycles and on foot to be considerably impressed with what we discovered. He had, of course, been headmaster at Karangahake before his appointment to Paeroa.

What I found there caused me over many years to bring parties of my school pupils from Paeroa, from Netherton, and even from Hamilton to explore that fantastic canyon. Access was easy by a road bridge over the river from the centre of what had once been the thriving townshipofKarangahake where several buildings still remained. One particularly fascinated me; it had been the town's fire station and there hung in an ordered row along its inner wall a dozen bright gleaming brass helmets. I have often wondered what eventually became of them.

The tramline, its rails still there, carved into the sheer wall of the gorge, provided unimpeded walking into a fantastic world. Vertical rock walls on either side, reaching to a height of hundreds of feet, accentuated the awesome narrowness that shut out the rest of the world. High up, the rock faces wore a spectacularly warm colouring of red, doubtless the covering of lichens.

Today those tall bordering cliffs are no longer stark and bare; nature has asserted herself and one wonders how plants and even trees could manage to find a foothold on those perpendicular surfaces. The pathway branched. Ahead, through a short rock-hewn tunnel it ended at the mouth of the vast cavern that once held the machinery for lowering the miners and raising the ore from the depths of the Woodstock Mine; it had also contained the huge pump that kept the mine dry. There and elsewhere in the gorge were to be seen huge concrete foundations for buildings connected with the mines.

To the left the tramway led across a bridge to the opposite side of the river skirting a placid stretch of the stream ideal for swimming and contrasting with the lower reaches where it ran brokenly over a stony bed. Once more the track crossed the water to the entrance of the Crown Mine.

Along the lower section of the tramline a large cylindrical pipe line carrying water to power the Crown Battery was fixed upon its outer edge clear of the pathway and, especially for children, a welcome barrier from the sheer drop to the river below. Today the Paeroa water supply main unfortunately occupies the middle of the narrow track.

In 1988 my wife and I revisited the area. The day trip I recommend is easier made if transport can be arranged as the starting and finishing point are some miles apart. After being dropped off at the Owharoa Falls, a spectacular sight after rain, we commenced our walk by crossing the old railway bridge that spans the stream as it flows into the river. To remind you that the narrow pathway you are about to follow was once the railway from Paeroa to Waihi, the rails so often pounded by the trains, worn by many travelling wheels, are still there embedded in the timber surface of the bridge.

For about the next two miles or so, on a track that winds and twists in conjunction with the numerous curves of the picturesque river, you cannot escape, if you have the gift of imagination, the thought that this was once the so-called "permanent way" over which steam hauled trains thundered with their passengers (I was frequently one of them) gazing from the carriage windows at the passing scenery. To the walker the track is level though to the railwayman it has a significant fall of one foot in every 380. The rails, of course, have long since been removed with their wooden sleepers and the coarse metal ballast of the line covered with a finer surface easy to the feet.

As the path, after its several sweeping curves, approaches the eastern portal of the three-quarter-mile long Karangahake tunnel, we find a section of railway track that has not been removed, grass-grown and unkempt beside the walkway. This is an historic piece of the old railway. At times the freight trains were too heavy for the locomotives of those days to haul from Karangahake station through the tunnel with its steep uphill climb rising one foot in every fifty. Half the train was, therefore, uncoupled and taken through the tunnel to this section of track which was a siding switched off the main line.

The locomotive would return to Karangahake for the rest of the train which, in turn, was brought through to be re-coupled to its former half, hauled on to the main line, and the onward journey continued. So this rusting section of undisturbed railway remains a piece of history.

We are moments later, through a cutting in the rock, at the massive steel bridge spanning the gorge and taking the track into the tunnel. Scenes from this bridge are remarkable - the river foaming below, huge boulders in its course, the fantastic perpendicular walls of the gorge rising to their towering summits, a fraction of Butler's Track, an early road carved at a giddy height above us, mountain masses beyond, and the tunnel itself, lit by a line of electric lights with the small circular patch of daylight at its far distant portal.

The walk through the tunnel is an easier exercise for another occasion though it could now be made if so desired. However, after a rest and the lunch we have brought, enjoyed whilst sitting on a seat screened from the sun by the branches of a sheltering tree, with views of the bush clad cliffs and the busy traffic upon the road on the opposite side of the river, we resume our walk on a very different and far more exciting and interesting section of the walkway.

It clings to the edge of the precipitous cliff of Taukani Hill that rises almost sheer from the river. In places it is carved from the rock wall; elsewhere brief bridges suspend the track above the foaming water; yet again the narrow path continues comfortably through beautiful avenues of ponga ferns.

Remains of the large cylindrical pipe line that once conveyed water to the Woodstock battery where the gold was extracted from the quartz from the mine deep underground, and of abandoned mining machinery, and of the battery itself are encountered.

Points of historic interest are recorded by word and photograph on durable photometal plates fixed at readable angles to substantial tables, unfortunately not having been able to resist the disfigurement of the modem vandal whose efforts are deplorable.

At length we come to the point where the Waitawheta River leaves its gorge and joins the Ohinemuri. Here a long swing bridge takes us across the mouth of the tributary and the walkway continues beside the main river along the tram line that once conveyed the ore from the Crown Mine far up the Waitawheta Gorge to the Crown battery near the Karangahake Hall.

But having crossed the swing bridge, one should be able to undertake perhaps the most fantastic walk in the entire area, a walk along the Waitawheta Gorge, a rocky slit in the side of the world, its cliffs rising sheer for hundreds of feet, the pathway, the old tramway where horses hauled the trucks laden with ore from both the Crown and the Woodstock mines in the gorge. Carved from the perpendicular rock wall, often hanging overhead, the path was once safe for children.

We diverted our course to follow it making our way through the gorge here and there straddling the pipe line, walking now on one side of it, now on the other, on narrow strips of foothold, and in some places, where the path has slipped away, by plank bridges built by the Paeroa Borough to provide access to the Paeroa water supply pipeline.

We retraced our steps to the main walkway, gained the roadway by the hall, crossed the traffic bridge to the main Paeroa-Waihi road, along which we walked to the pleasant picnic area where Karangahake once stood. Here is a splendid shop which supplies delightful refreshment from Devonshire tea to almost anything else the traveller could ask for. The walk took us from 11.30am till 3pm.

The whole conception and planning of the scheme is quite remarkable and an ideal preservation of scenic beauty and nature's grandeur together with a unique historical record of man's endeavour in his incredible pursuit for gold. Possibly it might have been made a much wider attraction had foresight preserved the railway between Paeroa and Karangahake maintaining a connection with the national rail system. Excursions by rail could have brought enthralled sightseers from many parts of the Island. Not only would it have ensured the permanence of the line to Paeroa but it would also have provided for thousands of New Zealanders and even overseas visitors one of the most inspiring and historic experiences our country has to offer.