Elisabeth Easther explores the charms of a sleepy settlement.
Snug between the Coromandel and Kaimai Ranges with the towns of Paeroa and Waihi at each end. The gorge is an hour from Hamilton or 130km from Auckland.
Origin of name?
Some say it means the "meeting of the hunchbacks".
In 1911 the population peaked at 1400, falling dramatically with the end of mining in 1920. Today it sits at about 128.
Claim to fame?
Voted as one of the AA's "101 must-do" places for Kiwis.
In 1875 gold fever transformed the sleepy settlement into a mining metropolis; today it's snoozy again and all the better for it.
In 1820 missionary Samuel Marsden became the first European to travel through the gorge.
Tourism and hospitality keep the townsfolk occupied.
It's just so very beautiful, the high walls of the gorge layered in dense green bush, the sparkling Ohinemuri River and the remarkable historical treasures - utterly charming.
The Xtrerra Trail Challenge runs through the gorge and The Waikino Arts Festival brings the crowds in each Labour Weekend.
Here for a short time?
Instead of rushing through, cross the swing bridge, slow down and look around.
And what's more?
Lots of fun stuff is free.
Best places to take kids?
Goldfields Historic Railway connects Waikino with Waihi by a vintage train that choo-choos its way through the countryside. Or stop at Bullswool Farm and Nature Park. There are sheep, donkeys, miniature horses, emus, goats, alpacas, llamas, deer, kunekune pigs, rabbits, chickens and many creatures can be handfed.
Anywhere along the river and the world-famous Hauraki Rail Trail.
There are so many super tracks but it's hard to beat the Windows Walkway with its viewing portals blasted into the tunnels providing picture postcard views down to the Waitawheta River. Or hike anywhere along the Karangahake Gorge Historical walkway, following the old rail line between Paeroa and Taneatua. Scotsman Gully Walk is also a beauty and not too challenging. FYI; Waikino Station Cafe acts as the DoC visitor centre.
It's hard to beat the scene from the top of Mt Karangahake - three tracks can take you up to the trig station (544m) and you'll want at least six hours to make the return trip.
Best place to pull over?
The Karangahake Gorge Reserve; play in the river and unfurl the picnic blanket.
The river has plenty of pools. And if you trundle up Waitawheta Rd you'll find three impressive cascades at Owharoa Falls, also decent for dipping.
Neighbouring Waihi is home to the award-winning Waihi Gold Discovery Centre, and the gorge is generously dotted with interpretation panels telling the tales of times past.
Cream of the coffee?
Choose between the Talisman with its intriguing gardens or the Waikino Station Cafe - which is very sweet and cosy with fabulous decor, they are famous for their scones, raspberry tart and wholesome soups, plus they hire out bikes.
If you want to go upmarket, Ohinemuri Winery is set in a beautifully restored historic buildings where they serve outstandingly hearty brunches and lunches and wine too of course.
Fancy a pint?
Waikino Tavern has a old country-pub feel, perfect for a cold drink with decent pub grub.
Best mountain biking?
The Hauraki Rail trail runs through the gorge and connects Paeroa and Waihi with many describing the gorge section as the best leg of the trail. Do be sure to take lights for the 1km tunnel as it's rather disconcerting to do in the dark although there is light at the end, you'll be pleased to know.
The whole gorge is one big adventure - from hiking, fishing, cycling and playing - with the best sort of fun the sort you make yourself.
Plenty of birds, eels as thick as your thighs, brown trout and glow worms and cave weta in some of the tunnels.