Teasing out the Past
Hauraki Rail Trail
Our Trail Story
Karangakahe Gorge is a gateway to memories of my childhood holidays, opening the door to the seemingly endless days on those Coromandel white sand beaches. The long trips from the Waikato with my parents were shared with my sister who continuously teased me in the back of the Datsun. As always on these trips the ‘cream machine’ was packed to the hilt with camping gear as it struggled along with a boat in tow. As we weaved through the gorge I would peer out; in part as a distraction from my sister’s stirring as well as to watch the river plunge though this mysterious passage with its mining tunnels, shantys, and gold mining relics.
Sometimes we would stop in Paeroa, world famous in NZ for the bottle and those massive triple cone ice-cream scoops that would threaten to topple or melt away before we devoured them beside the river. Never did see the lemons there though. The place was a break in the journey rather than journey’s end. In the passage of time since the 1970’s the riches of the area have been revealed, in part due to the Hauraki Rail Trail that sits on the bones of the old railway line. My journey today was twofold; to cycle the unexplored treasures of my youth, and to collect yet more data for the Great Rides App.
As a cartographer my first step for such a trip is to review a map. My imagination goes wild as I plot which of the four sections to ride first and what I might see on the 126 kilometre purpose built trail. Each section is an easy half to full day flat ride. The time it takes is greatly dependent on the wind direction, your fitness, and how often one breaks from the saddle to grab a bite from the local cafés dotted along the trail.
My wife and I start our ride from the south at Te Aroha or Maori for ‘place of love’. It is indeed a lovely place set below the towering peak of Mt Te Aroha (953m) with its forested walks and mountain bike rides. On our mountain bike ride the trail we follow is somewhat flatter, in fact dead flat. It follows the Hauraki Plains on the former rail lines to Thames. Not only is this section an easy grade but it is as straight as my bike’s top tube. At times I check my GPS to ensure it is still tracking rather than drawing a straight line between the small settlements we pass. Our ride is peaceful and carefree as we travel past herds of cows grazing on the lush pastures, it’s one of those mornings where the light is right, and life is for living. Sweet! Before long we reach Paeroa, here the trail branches inland to Waihi via the Karangahake Gorge or northward to the Firth of Thames. No monster ice-creams for us as we elect to turn inland.
After a few pedal strokes we leave the bustling township and head for the hills. The trail snakes beside the Ohinemuri River before crossing over the highway on a former rail overpass. As a child I would wind down the window and be mystified at this bridge seemingly terminating at a rockface above the roasting Datsun. It’s a tunnel! My mind would conjure up all sorts of underground secrets that portal might hold.
No longer is the tunnel locked but now lit, locomotive bells are replaced by cyclist bells!
The glowing orange hue of ceiling lights help us avoid others, the sound of our bike bells echoing along the walls providing music to my ears. Such a contrast to the slightly longer Spooner Tunnel near Nelson of Tasman's Great Taste Trail. When I rode alone through the blackness of the Spooner Tunnel I felt I had entered the very bowels of the earth. Back on the Hauraki Rail Trail we emerge squinting; there is something magic about returning to the light, like awakening from a deep sleep, our eyes adjusting to see colour and warm detail.
The trail continues to delight as it follows the riverbank, with a slight detour to the beautiful white veil of Owharoa Falls, past the remains of the Victoria Battery with it’s labyrinth of concrete foundations and onto the Waikino railway station. The station is on a short side trail. It is an incredible setting to take a few photos and enjoy the café beside the rails. The Goldfields Railway operates from Waihi to here and it’s a real highlight for cyclists to catch a ride to Waihi for the last few kilometres of trail as an alternative to the beautiful river section into town. Choices choices!
Riding the latest section of purpose built trail between Kopu and Miranda on the edge of the Firth of Thames is another stunner. I left the car in Thames and caught a shuttle with Matthias of ‘Jolly Bikes’. As we drove across the plains we chatted and I was interested to hear his views on the trail, and how it has affected his business:
“It is amazing how in such a short time the (Hauraki) Rail Trail has come to popularity, with kiwis and international visitors. What makes the Hauraki Rail Trail special is that it’s perfectly ridable for such a broad spectrum of people of different fitness, age and experience, even if they ride in the same group. With the increase in demand our dream to cater for much more than equipment needs has been realised. Today we offer bike hire, transport and tour booking assistance too.”
After waving goodbye to Matthias, I took in my new surrounds: the carpark of the Miranda Shorebird Hide - the temporary off-road trailhead of the rail trail. In the future a purpose built trail will continue north to Kaiaua, however this is a stunning spot to view the estuarine flats backed by the Coromandel Range. If you arrive two hours either side of high tide you are in for a treat with shorebirds feeding on the mudflats. The area hosts almost half the world’s population of wrybills, incredible annual migrations of bar-tailed godwits, and other waterfowl. If you have a birder in your riding group it’s probably wise to allow a bit of extra time here. The short stroll over boardwalk to the hide gave me a gentle warm up, it’s a pleasant couple of minutes irrespective of the tide.
With the wind behind me and the sky darkening I flicked on the GPS units and cycled my way onto a stopbank lined on the seaward side by leafy mangroves. Before long I slowed as I passed a gumbooted couple who were feeding out.
It’s easy to strike up a conversation in the country.
These hard working folks confirmed Matthias’ experiences. From their farm gate they see a growing number of cyclists on the trail over the last few months. If the grazing cattle notice the bikes they’re not saying.
A little further on I pass the sleepy settlement of Waitakaruru. Here a weary (and wary) mum watches her two children catching eels from the pedestrian bridge to compete in a local school competition. While supportive, she hopes for an empty bucket as none of us (including myself) wants to handle these otherworldly creatures. While chatting, the inevitable happens and the drama unfolds once the eel spits the hook on the narrow bridge! It wriggles along like the tyre movements of a wayward rider with little hands in pursuit. Rural living has its rewards. I wonder how the poor eel stacked up in the competition before being released to dark waters fed by internationally recognised peat bogs.
The remaining trail continues along floodwalls with mangroves on one side and pasture on the other, the walls vital to keep the plains dry after the generations of floods that once plagued the district. Several times during my ride beside the Firth I am greeted by white-faced herons, standing elegantly along the fence posts. My arrival triggers their launch into flight while I appreciate their massive wingspan and their slow rhythmic beating against the wind.
The same headwind that gives herons their lift, picks up and delivers rain plops on the hard shell of my helmet. With my head down I glance up to see both the Kopu Bridges come into view. Standing proudly is the modern dual lane concrete span dressed with ancestral adornments while the lower derelict rickety timber predecessor is kitted out with a redundant swing bridge and operator towers. I have mixed feelings about this new link: in my childhood memories there is heightened anticipation in the backseat of the car with queues of traffic waiting to cross this massive old span to our holiday getaways. Today my adult mind reconciles the practical ease of crossing the river, while my childhood mind is still at play with the aging structure. One day the old relic maybe reborn to be used as part of the cycle trail, until then my memories are probably best left as the past.
As I record the final GPS mark and turn off the units at journey’s end, I consider returning to the area to capture future extensions. The discussions I had with the trail manager in recent days excited me with their ambitious plans to continue the trail southward from Te Aroha to Matamata. Once completed, the trail will be tantalisingly close to the Karapiro trailhead of the Waikato River Trail. What an incredible off-road cycle link it will be from the outskirts of Auckland to the Great Lake – a cycle trail riders paradise providing an alternative journey to our northern interior beyond the more common coastal holiday hotspots.