If Confucius was still around to visit the Coromandel, I would suggest he take some time out and go for a nice ride along the Hauraki Rail Trail.
Myself, my partner and some family friends went to test out Auckland’s nearest New Zealand Cycle Trail in December, and we had a great time.
Since some of our party weren’t keen on multi-day rides, we based ourselves in Paeroa (in the southwest of the Coromandel area). You could consider it the “centre” of the rail trail, with routes running north to Thames, south to Te Aroha and east to Waihi, through beautiful Karangahake Gorge.
On our first day, we collected our rental bikes at the Lemon & Paeroa Cafe (no great architectural treat, unless you like oversized lemonade bottle memorials – but they make great pancakes, which was to prove an omen for our ride!).
It took a while to get all the bikes sorted, and all equipment stowed – but how were we to know that we wouldn’t need any of the raincoats, or food, or bike tools? As a German, one likes to be prepared, even if one travels in a mixed Irish-Kiwi party…
After experiencing the narrowest shared path in New Zealand (nicely marked as part of the cycle trail of course, and giving great views from the heights of the stopbanks along the river), we crossed over the Paeroa Bridge, and set out on the cycle trail proper towards Waihi. After following roadsides for a short while, the trail got onto the old rail bed, and we were off across a striking farming countryside in summer (with the occasional light cloud to reduce the heat), riding towards the backdrop of the mountains.
Of course, being a rail trail, the gradient never got too steep. After wandering out of the fields, the old track made for steam locomotives soon started winding it’s way along hillsides and through a few cuttings (engineer-speak for “not worth a tunnel, lets just cut a slice straight through that hill“).
Which allowed the geologist in our party to gleefully stop everyone every once in a while, while her husband looked on with long-suffering amusement, hoping the rocks that would have to be carried off weren’t TOO heavy.
The first stop-over was at Talisman Battery, at the western end of the Karangahake Gorge, just before the long rail trail tunnel (which was sadly closed – but for a good reason, as the double-decker bridge ahead of it was being refitted to allow cyclists onto it: For once, cyclists will really be placed ABOVE car drivers!).
Our party however was more interested in getting a good feed at the Talisman Cafe (which has some wonderful and quirky outdoor seating areas) before leaving the bikes behind for a while, and going for a wander instead.
Well fed, we thus set out on foot into one of the side gorges, where massive gold mining operations have honey-combed the mountain a hundred years ago, turning the area into a clear-cut, toxic wasteland (the refining process involved rather vicious chemicals, and the stamping mill’s boilers needed a lot of wood as well).
Today however, the slopes are bush-clad again, and all that is left are some rather impressive stone foundations, narrow tracks cut into the mountainside (with railings, so feel free to bring your kids along) and if you brought a torch, some small parts of the mines are also be explored (SMALL parts – the main mine in the mountain has tunnels in over a dozen vertical levels!).
Having dawdled in these spectacular surroundings, we knew we were already too late to catch the last heritage train of the day running from Waikino (the current eastern end of the rail trail) to Waihi. However, we still felt that we should continue to the (current) end of the rail trail at Waikino, because after all, we had barely ridden 7km yet!
Because the tunnel was closed for the bridge construction works (since open again), we had to push our bikes along about 750m of very narrow path directly in the Karangahake Gorge.
While spectacular, it also was rather narrow – sure, the falls down to the river weren’t deep, but you did feel a bit like herding a mountain goat in the Himalayas when handling a bike through a tricky section of a half-meter wide path next to a steep rock face (just to confirm – this pedestrian path was a temporary diversion: the rail trail normally doesn’t go through this bit of the gorge).
Finally over that section, and back onto the proper rail trail, our spirits eventually began to flag a bit, as the temperature had heated up. However, we successfully made it to Waikino, were we again found a lovely feed at the Station Cafe.
No steam trains to Waihi for us (we were too late, as noted), but cafe tables on the platform of a heritage rail station make for an amazingly nice ambience. Ice cream was also served, as promised to the younger members of our party to keep them moving forward with more enthusiasm.
The way back was, of course, a little less enthusiastic, especially as we again had to navigate the tricky “mountain path” through the gorge. But all made it through well, and with the exception of a collision (eyeball vs high-speed fly) and a puncture (spurting green goo supposed to seal the hole, but mostly serving to cover the seat of my pants) we arrived back in Paeroa safe and sound, to eventually close out the night with a good meal at an Indian restaurant.
I won’t discuss Day 2 so much, as it was a much shorter trip on the leg to Te Aroha, somewhat hampered by a much hotter day. But lets just be said that the rail trail is a treat, the section through the Gorge is a must, and that I am looking forward to doing the Thames-Paeroa leg some day soon with family. I hope you all have a chance to experience this 2-3 day treasure yourself.
Oh, and why mention Confucius at all? You will have to visit the Talisman Cafe and look around very closely in the garden. Don’t depend on meeting him though – who knows, maybe he has already travelled on to another New Zealand Cycle Trail.