Karangahake, NZ to Athenree, NZ

23.7 mi / 10.1 mph / 752 ft. climbing
Home: Athenree Hot Springs & Holiday Park

The Hauraki Rail Trail runs generally north-south, and we’ve only gone about half of its length so far. But there is an east-west offshoot through the Karangahake Gorge (that the trail guide recommends as an out-and-back while staying in Paeroa for an extra night). I hadn’t made a strong plan on where we’re headed beyond “south”, but if we wanted to see the volcanic area at Rotorua, we would need to cross to the east side of the Kaimai mountain range at some point, and the next opportunity to do that after the gorge was at least 50 miles south.

The AirBNB Rett had found for us happened to be a few miles east of the main trail, partly into the gorge. So our choices were to backtrack out to the trail and continue south, or just keep going east into the gorge. If a motel in Paeroa had been a better deal than the AirBNB, chances are we would have defaulted to continuing south on the west side of the Kaimais, but since we didn’t, we’re now heading east! With no hard plans, it’s actually kind of freeing to use this “flipping a coin” method to help choose a route for us!

Plus, the Karangahake Gorge was like an attraction all its own, and “gorge” sounds like an easier way to cross a mountain range than “pass”, especially if it has a trail running through it! Unlike most Hauraki trail riders, we wouldn’t be turning around at the end of the spur.

Rain chances continued through the early morning, so we stayed under shelter until the 10am checkout time, and by then I was glad that the skies were clear enough that we could do an on-foot exploration of the Karangahake sights. I’m not exactly sure what “Karangahake Gorge” refers to; there is a main east-west valley cutting through the mountains, carved by the Ohinemuri River, and then there is a more north-south gorge in the middle where the Waitawheta River flows north into the Ohinemuri. You’ll notice neither of those rivers is named “Karangahake” as you might expect. Anyway, we’d be walking up the Waitawheta branch, which was the site of a gold mining operation in the late-19th/early-20th century.

The Karangahake Gorge

Once we headed up the “Windows Walk” trail, it was immediately clear that it was much more than a couple of toothless old codgers chortling “there’s gold in them hills!” and putting their pans in the river. From the structures that remain, it was a serious corporate investment by people with a lot of engineering knowledge. But, with the fast-growing New Zealand foliage making a strong effort to reclaim the land over the last century, the industrial ruins unexpectedly felt much more like the religious monuments of an ancient native civilization!

Walking through the ruins of an ancient Mesoamerican civilization (ok, it’s actually the ruins of a late-19th-century gold mining operation, but it’s amazing how “covering stone/concrete with greenery” triggers the matching-algorithm in our brains!)
“Right there, that’s where Zacatzihul repelled the attack of the Minohara warriors in 438 BC! No?”
Rett walking a “rail trail” that used to deliver ore to the processor.

And then narrow-gauge train tracks led us right into Arizona Sunshine (one of Rett’s post-apocalyptic VR games), a network of dark tunnels cut into the cliff high above the river. The whole area was a really fun and unique place to explore, so I’m glad we had the time to do it before riding on.

The tracks continue right into this tunnel through the rocks high above the river.
A view upriver from one of the “windows” cut into the tunnel we were walking through.
We forgot to bring our headlamps, but at least we had our phones (which were definitely necessary!) Just past this point there was a four-way tunnel intersection to make things more-disorienting!
Some of the frequent foxglove along the trail when we returned back to river-level on the upstream side of the high tunnels.
This carved-out walkway across the gorge was unfortunately closed (it sort of looks like the mouth of a giant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle though?)
Rett, a gold-digger? No!

To get to the hike we had ridden east on a short section of SH2, which was definitely no fun as the gorge tightened and twisted. We had turned off SH2 and crossed a one-lane bridge over the Ohinemuri River to reach the trailhead at the Karangahake Town Hall, and now we would be crossing back over on a bike/pedestrian bridge on top of the first bridge! That bridge brought us immediately into the Karangahake Tunnel, a 1km-long shortcut through the mountains. It was lit inside (though our lights were still useful too), and surprisingly the surface was paved (unlike the rest of the trail), so it was a pretty easy and fun tunnel transit, of a length comparable to Tunnel #3 on the Elroy-Sparta Trail of my youth.

Riding through the Karangahake Tunnel, lit by both its installed lights and our headlights + headlamps.

From that point this spur of the Hauraki trail was definitely much-less flat and straight than the last section we did, but the surface remained in decent shape (with sections of wide concrete laid onto some of the steeper slopes), so we were still able to ride almost all of it. And that gorge-winding made it far more fun and interesting than the flat pastures we had been through the other day.

Rett can’t go a mile without finding another literal “rail trail”! This one was a short tourist loop of another historic operation.
This was one of the coolest sections of trail we’ve ever ridden through. A vertical slot carved out of a hill, with the sides now coated in living green wallpaper.
There was a big sign before entering this cut telling you that stopping is not allowed, due to the risk of rockfall. Too bad, otherwise we surely would have stopped for lunch in here!
A look at the trail surface. A bit too much loose gravel in spots, but usually with a smoother line we could find.
Rett crossing back to the north bank of the Ohinemuri over a long suspension bridge.
The historic train depot at Waihi, on the eastern side of the gorge. Toilets and tent-camping allowed! (NZ$10)

The trail ended in Waihi, where we got groceries and then headed down the big hill back to the coast at Waihi Beach. It was a longer route than taking SH2 down through the Athenree Gorge, and while the traffic was certainly lighter, it was heavier than I thought it would be on the shoulderless road, and we didn’t really see the water (despite riding a block away from it), so I’m not sure if it was better than the highway.

Athenree is a quiet town on a peninsula that juts into Shelly Bay, not the Pacific Ocean. Anthenree Hot Springs & Holiday Park was the first “holiday park” we were staying at, and unlike the public campgrounds, here we got a personal welcome, guidance to our site (marked out by lines of dug-up grass), and full hot showers!

Our site at Athenree Holiday Park. We had selected an unpowered tent site, but they put us in this powered, better-located one, I guess because no one else was going to be staying here.

We hit the “hot spring”, which is something entirely different than the hot springs we were in recently in Wyoming and Colorado. There isn’t any hot water just flowing out of the ground here, so they dug a 600 ft. deep well, and pump that geothermally-heated water into a swimming pool. Even that isn’t quite “hot”, so they boost its temperature (at least they use a heat exchanger to grab heat from the discharged “warm” water) and pump that to a smaller, hotter pool. Either way, both pools still felt good, the water still had the soft minerally feel of hot-spring water, and there is something to be said for a more-sanitized swimming-pool experience.

Unfortunately our relaxed muscles quickly lost their rubberiness when Rett kicked a tent stake that I had failed to drive far enough into the dirt, cutting a good chunk out of her big toe and pulling up a decent portion of her toenail. We went over to the kitchen area to get her patched up, and it was nice to have some concerned staff members help and augment our first-aid kit.

They were having their employee holiday party, and when I went to ask if someone could drop back to the store with me so that I could buy some cold drinks for dinner, they instead offered us beers from the party cooler! Ok, I guess that’s an easier solution for everyone! Earlier in the day Rett had mentioned wanting to go a few more days without any alcohol to make it a week, but the combination of circumstances (a bloody toe and freely-offered drinks) felt like a fair reason to cut the streak short. They were so friendly that they strongly encouraged us to have another, which Rett eventually took them up on. Future private holiday parks are in trouble, because we now are going to expect that they’re all as nice as this first one!

We also had to laugh with them about their “staff Christmas party”. It seems common to do them here in early December, just like in the US (before family holiday commitments come up), but neither Rett nor I could remember our companies ever coming up with the idea for an outdoor pool party and barbecue! Earlier at the gorge hike we had talked briefly with a group of school-break university students about our travels, and mentioned how strange it feels to be warm (and getting warmer) as we approach Christmas. One of them confidently asserted “it will be the best Christmas you’ve ever had!” We’ll see about that, but it will almost-surely be the most-unique Christmas we’ve ever had!

Shelly Bay (named after these shells?) was an endless flat plain of mud when we arrived, and it seemed unlikely we would get any water near us, but sure enough by nightfall the tide had swept all of this underwater.
Sunset over Shelly Bay as the sea starts to fill it in.
I caught this bird trying out a new dance move for a moment.
The Southern Cross! I’ve been looking for this only-in-the-southern-hemisphere constellation for more than a month, ever since we arrived in New Zealand (it’s on the national flag), and this is literally the first night that has been clear enough for me to see it. Though it’s upside-down right now, so I guess it’s the Satanic Southern Cross?


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