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New Zealand: Waihi and Karangahake Gorge

New Zealand: Waihi and Karangahake Gorge

There’s gold in them hills, in those gorges, and under the town of Waihi. While a lot of our pioneer plundering industry has reached its natural end, gold mining continues in Waihi, making it an interesting spot to spend time in on my way north.

03.01.2017 - 04.01.2017

03.01.2017 – 04.01.2017

After being fed delicious pancakes for breakfast in Taupo by my friend and his family, I gave up waiting for the rain to fade and packed the sodden tent into the car. I had intended to do some walks, but it was set to rain until late afternoon.

Walks abandoned and time on my side, rusting machinery outside Putaruru caught my currently photography-obsessed eye. The New Zealand Timber Museum. I hadn’t heard anything about it, but it’d be dry and kill some time – I popped in.

The museum, just outside Putaruru, is housed in an old timber yard. I didn’t notice this until halfway around the property, but once I did it make it a bit more interesting.  The museum is an old-fashioned affair, with a lot of timber-experience love put in. But it assumes a level of knowledge, feeling like it’s built to satisfy the nostalgia of timber industry codgers. For some modern IT dork from Wellington whose timber knowledge extends to cutting gorse, it left me completely lost. There was some nice old machinery around, and I had the place to myself so I enjoyed taking photos, but in terms of learning much about timber, or even the history and fate of that particular mill – I got nothing. It has the bones and potential for real education on lumber, and the history is all there I think – it’s just not clear how to make heads or tails of it. With a bit of work around the visitor experience it would be something neat. They’ve got a bit of an events centre there too, and can use the wee church for weddings and funerals – I hope the site rejuvenates rather than rots in its future.

I saw this

I saw this (Timber Museum, Putaruru)

Part of the timberyard workings slowly returning to timber.

I enjoyed the old machinery

I enjoyed the old machinery

Count the modern health and safety violations

Count the modern health and safety violations

I can't stop taking photos of churches. This is St Michaels and All Angels, 1926.

I can’t stop taking photos of churches. This is St Michaels and All Angels, 1926.

Moving on, I shortly arrived at Waihi. The road to town is enormous and framed by huge phoenix palms. The avenue belongs at a palace, but you pass this pomp and find yourself in a mid-sized rural town. It’s a nice town though, there’s a lot of pride in Waihi – maybe that’s because there’s still some work. The town sits on a sloping site, edging along the huge open Martha Pit mine on the north-west. What grabs your eye is the huge Cornish pump house, perched over the town. It was moved to the site recently as the old mine was collapsing beneath it, but it used to house great steam pumps which moved the water from the old mines – just like they did around Cornwall.

Cornish pumphouse, above Waihi

Cornish pumphouse, above Waihi

For me, that pumphouse is a physical connection to the European settlement in the area. It looks just like those on the Cornish coast, a relic of a similar era. I thought that quite neat. There’s a lot of that around Waihi – Cornish miners were actively sought here too, and they brought with them their hard-won trade unionist ideals. Big mining strikes have occurred in Waihi’s past, and it was those miners’ British experiences that facilitated that. I loved the history, the more I learn the more my jigsaw pieces fit together. It’s a great feeling when two histories connect in your mind, it’s like a haze is burnt away and you get a glimpse of how it all fits.

Next to the pumphouse is the Martha open pit mine – it’s rather large. Part of the resource consent involved caring about what’s going to happen after the mine closes (scheduled for 2019 or so I believe), so there’re nice gardens and a track with sculptures around the pit. An interesting walk now, which will one day be a lake-side walk. I wonder how Waihi will be once the mining wraps up – hopefully it’ll stay such a great spot, provided they fix that water-tastes-like-dirt problem! They’ve already tasted a slump – the mine closed in the 1950’s, but re-opened in the 1980’s after technology could assist a higher yield from the ore than previously possible.

The Martha Open Pit mine

The Martha Open Pit mine – that slip must have been quite something!

'The Rangatira' (chief). The plaque said a chief hit the ground and water gushed, so he called the place 'Waihihi' meaning gushing water - it was later shortened to Waihi.

‘The Rangatira’ (chief). The plaque said a chief hit the ground and water gushed, so he called the place ‘Waihihi’ meaning gushing water – it was later shortened to Waihi. Interesting that they had the worst water by far of my whole trip.

The pit from the other side

Mindful that tourism businesses close at about 4pm I escaped the heat and visited the Gold Experience museum over the road. This is a pretty new museum space showcasing Waihi’s mining past. It’s really nicely done, with varied and high production standards. A lot of it was done by Weta Workshop, and that top-quality effort shows. There’s an enormous piece of ore in the entrance, and at the other end you’re able to see how much gold they get out of a block that large. It isn’t much!

The museum works through the very early pioneering efforts – including local Maori causing a cave-in to trap the earliest prospectors in their failing mine – and works through refining improvements, miners’ lives in the town, the strikes, and finishes up with some neat videos showing how they do the modern processing. Despite all the new technologies over the last 200 years, the final step is still pouring the molten metal into moulds!

One of the miniture scenes from the museum showing the stamping/crushing battery process

Some fun little nuggets of information I gleaned:

  • When people bit gold coins to see if they were real, they weren’t testing to see if it were gold, but if it were lead. Lead, being heavy, was used to fake gold, but it’s soft – whereas gold coins were generally made of an alloy so they were hard (but still heavy).
  • The Cornish got free entry to New Zealand due to their mining skills.
  • During the Great War, miners got paid 3x as much as other soldiers, as the mining skills were in such demand and regard.
  • When prohibition came around, the local miners were so pissed off at the local hoteliers for raising the price of beer, they voted prohibition out of spite.
  • 52% of all gold mined is used in jewelry rather than anything useful.

I thoroughly recommend popping in there if you’re up that way.

After that I popped in to the local campsite and set myself up, before driving down the road to the Karangahake Gorge, and the Victoria Battery.

Next to the river, it’s a huge old processing plant. Having gone after visiting the museum, you could see the relics of each stage of the process and understand them: the batteries to pulverise the ore, the cyanide tanks to chemically bond the gold and such and such.

The cyanide tank foundations of the Victoria battery these days

How it looked in its prime (1910)

It was deserted when I arrived, save for one unsavoury looking character. As I approached, they gestured in a ‘come hither’ motion, and headed off to the rusty labyrinth of the cyanide tank foundations at a leisurely pace. I think the guy was probably only selling tinnies (or maybe I had a purdy mouth), but it put me off a bit. The light wasn’t that good, so I wandered off again to come back in the morning.

Arriving back at camp, the rain pelted down, I got the wee stove out and heated my baked beans for dinner. It was a tragic affair that depressed me. Consequently, for the rest of the trip I opted to eat out, and next time I’ll get my act together on the food front!



The next morning, it was a bit drizzly but the Battery was properly deserted, and I enjoyed scaring rabbits wandering about taking photos. One of the interesting parts about the Victoria battery is their enormous ore kilns – huge brick dug-outs in the hillside, ten metres deep or so, where they roasted the ore using a lot of local timber. Roasting the ore helped the chemical bonding or something. Once the fires were out, they’d feed the roasted ore out the bottom into little hopper-tunnels. Using timber for this was cheap at first, but as they cut more and more down the transport costs of this fuel got higher and higher, and it eventually became unprofitable. There’s a wee museum there run by some old dears, but they opened at 10am and that was just too late for me.

Looking down into one of the ore kilns

Looking down into one of the ore kilns

Some other relics

Some other relics

Just down the road are the Owharoa falls – I popped in and disturbed some geese.

Owharoa falls - I can do those fuzzy water shots too see

Owharoa falls – I can do those fuzzy water shots too see

He's quackers about waterfalls

He’s quackers about waterfalls

I dropped in to the Karangahake gorge proper before the carpark was heaving with summer tourists.

The gorge there is crammed with old mining processing plants, tunnels and tramways. Early on there were a lot of companies mining there, all using their own methods to get ore out of their plots. There are mine heads all over the place, but due to the difficult location, they’d tram the ore some distances to process at times. So in places there’re two tramways on opposite sides of the river, and they had flying foxes with ore hoppers hanging off them to cross the river and all sorts of crazy stuff. There are a few wee walks to do there, visiting old batteries. The historic signage isn’t all that good, but having visited the museum it all made sense.

I think the nicest thing was seeing nature taking the place back. The trees are growing, breaking the bricks apart. It’s a nice, almost romantic area of ruin now, but from the photos it looked like a hellhole while they were working there.

Nature taking it back

The walkway following an old tram-ore cutting

Down one of the side-tunnels on the ‘window walk’


Another shot of the gorge - what a working environment

Another shot of the gorge and an old tramway cutting – what a difficult working environment

As well as the mining and tramways walks, there’s a two km rail tunnel loop – I walked that too (completionist!)

The Paihia-Wairoa railway tunnel, 1905

The Paihia-Wairoa railway tunnel, 1905

The plan for the evening was to get to Auckland, via the scenic route to the east of the Hunua ranges above Waihi. Driving past the small town of Miranda, I saw 20 or so motorhomes all parked up on a white beach. I dropped in to daydream, and got talking with a retired couple from Whakatane who’d sold up and bought a 10 tonne bus. I had a good yarn with them, they showed me around their custom bus. It was really quite something; reclining chairs, woodburner, beautiful joinery. It was great to talk with people leading different lives. 9-5 in the city 40hrs a week for the next 40 years is only one option for life, and in future I believe I will find a different way to live that suits me more. Not doing what these old guys were doing, but something. It’s good to see the reality of different options – they seemed very happy.

The motorhome beach by Miranda

The motorhome beach by Miranda (this wasn’t the RV whose people I talked with)

The road around the coast was just lovely. But all too soon, I was hitting the two-laned highways of Auckland for my three nights based in Takapuna, on Auckland’s north.


I won’t name names, but somewhere in this leg I met a person with curious ideas. They were a bit salty about the Maori ownership/reparations in the area, and they perceived that the ‘lack of use of the resources’ which had been returned indicated a lack of intelligence. But fortunately, some Maori had ‘interbred’ with Europeans, and the ‘half-casts’ were smart enough to do sensible business things. This was an actual conversation I had (well, listened to with small encouragements). I like to let people speak when they are sharing borderline opinions, it’s a better insight to just listen. The optimist in me was hoping they were referring to their perception that Maori weren’t educated in European land ownership and business ways of doing things back in the day. Unfortunately, I couldn’t shake the feeling the opinion had a eugenics aspect, which I found quite surprising and repugnant. They also made the old, ‘if the British hadn’t taken New Zealand, one of the other empire’s would have and the Maori would’ve had a much worse time of it, so they should be happy’ argument. Even at the time I couldn’t suppress a Marge-esque ‘mmmm’ which shut them down a bit, but yea. There you go. The official messaging on bi-culturalism on this trip was pretty positive for the future, and in my life multiculturalism seems on the up, but it doesn’t seem you even need to try to peel back the veneer to see our race relations rot is still pretty damp in places. On a hopeful note, they were old, so hopefully it’s just an old-fashioned attitude that’ll die off soon enough.

On that cheery but hopefully interesting note, Auckland next!

Larry's a 30-something chap interested in travel, being a dork and changing the world via less boring training.

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