There’s gold in that gorge! Well, there used to be and there’s still plenty of gold-mining history to explore among the natural beauty of Karangahake Gorge. Start up the rental car in Auckland, head south and in just over 90 minutes you’ll arrive at this canyon formed by the Ohinemuri River.
Make sure you pack your walking shoes because there are trails and tunnels right through this area, which lies at the southern end of the Coromandel Peninsula. You might want to extend your drive there, or spend some time in Paeroa, a historical town that’s home to New Zealand’s famous L&P soft drink. Here’s what to do on a day trip to Karangahake Gorge and beyond.
An old railway once ran between Paeroa and Waihi but now there’s a walking trail that runs along its length, with a few different paths that run off it. The Karangahake Historic Walkway, which is shared with cyclists, is about a 7km round trip, and you should leave four hours or so to complete it. The start is at Waikino Station and you’ll pass the rusting buildings and machinery that were once part of the Victoria Battery gold refinery complex.
The miners here carved tunnels into the hillside, tipping rocks out through windows into the river below. There are about 12km of tunnels now and you can carefully explore many of them. A torch makes it easier, so remember to put one in the rental car before you leave. There are suspension bridges over the gorge and, eventually, you’ll arrive at Owharoa Falls and its picnic area. People often swim here, but you need to take care as the undertow and currents can be surprisingly strong. When you get back to Waikino, there’s a cafe at the station.
Nearby is Waihi, New Zealand’s heart of gold. They’re still digging up the precious stuff here today and visitors should head to the Gold Discovery Centre. Not only do you get to dig into how early miners and their families lived and worked, but you’ll also check out the open-cut gold mine that’s still in operation today. The whole process, including ore extraction, crushing, and processing, is on show.
Wash the dust off afterwards at Waihi Beach, a cute coastal village on the northern tip of the Bay of Plenty. Go for a walk along the sand, paddle near the shoreline or grab a table on the deck of Flatwhite. Here, with views of the beach and Tuhua Island, you can grab coffees, burgers, pizzas, and sweet treats.
The Coromandel Peninsula is known for its incredible beaches and misty forests. On a day trip, you won’t have time to explore it all, but the town of Whangamatā is only another 50-minute drive in the rental car from Karangahake Gorge. It’s one of the region’s favourite surf towns, with beaches of golden sand that seem to stretch on forever. You can hire a board from Whangamatā Surf School, otherwise simply pull on your swimmers and dive right in.
Another excellent adventure involves kayaking to private Whenuakura Island, about 600m off the coast. At the centre of the island, a collapsed volcanic blowhole (it gives the island its other name, Donut Island) has formed a beautiful turquoise lagoon that’s only accessible by kayaks and paddle boards. Join Surfs Up on either a one- or two-hour guided tour.
All that driving in the rental car can build up a thirst. Luckily, you can stop along the way at Paeroa, the town where a favourite home-grown drink, L&P, used to be made (production now happens in Auckland). Look for the 7m-tall bottle at the end of the main street. There, read plaques that explain how the drink was developed – its initials stand for Lemon and Paeroa and it was originally made by mixing lemon juice with mineral water from a local spring – then go and buy a bottle at any of the convenience stores in the street.
Paeroa is also home to the Historical Maritime Park. It includes a museum that tells the story of how this town was once a port that served the local mining industry. There are also hour-long cruises on a wooden paddle boat along the Ohinemuri and Waihou rivers.
If you’ve got a little bit of spare time, head onwards to Hot Water Beach. It’s one of the most popular attractions on the Coromandel Peninsula because, at low tide, there’s hot thermal water just below the surface of the sand. People dig holes – or find one that someone dug earlier – and immerse themselves in the water, which can be as hot as 64ºC. At high tide, it’s very different. The beach will likely be deserted, with surf crashing over the rugged coastline. Whether you soak or walk along the sand, it’s an adventure you’ll never forget.
If you’re ready to explore Karangahake Gorge and its surrounds, hire a rental car in Auckland and get started.