Grab your flashlights and a picnic lunch for in New Zealand’s Karangahake Gorge Reserve. Just a short car ride away from popular Waihi, this mini-adventure is perfect for a day trip with elementary-aged children as it allows plenty of space to burn off energy (in a phenomenal setting too) as well as a chance for curious kids to investigate. The reserve is nestled alongside State Highway Two, just west of the township of Waihi, which is about 100 miles from Auckland. Waihi is at the entry to the Bay of Plenty region and it is known for its rich gold mining history. Tourists come to Waihi for the pristine beaches, and Karangahake Gorge Reserve is a great little add-on excursion for lots of family fun when traveling with kids.
These bridges are wild rides….
On a typical sunny summer’s day, the reserve is a pretty hard spot to beat. As you enter, you will find a rocky-bottom river that burbles and surges past wide expanses of grass—perfect for spreading out a blanket or letting the children run around. From the picnic area, there is a massive swing bridge that leads to numerous walkways which will make young explorers’ heads swivel. The bridge is like a magnet for most elementary aged children; not many can resist the slightly precarious feel as the bridge sways with each step and the water rushes by not far below. The first bridge doesn’t get much movement, but the second, smaller bridge is a highlight for any naughty child who will enjoy making mom swing and squeal as they stomp across it.
Take a nature walk
Of all the lovely paths, a crowd favorite is definitely the one which follows the river and circles around under the highway and through the neighboring hill by way of an old railway tunnel. The track itself is picturesque. Massive limestone boulders clutter the riverbed, and native bush borders the path, lush and cool. Children can easily find broken branches to toss into the pools and channels, racing their pieces of flotsam against one another.
Flashlights make it a real adventure
Walking through the tunnel is quite an experience; it is surprisingly cool inside, even on a hot day, and you won’t regret packing a sweater to wear just for the thousand yard stretch under the hill. Flashlights make the walking easier, and adventurous children will enjoy having their own light to carry and experiment with. Children take great delight switching their flashlights on and off, on and off, on and off, and inspecting the curved ceilings and walls that used to protect steam engines from the hill above. Little explorers can take time to traverse all of the safety nooks which are cut into the walls at intervals. It’s a rare day that you won’t hear at least one child—or parent—mimicking a train’s whistle in the gloom.
For families traveling with kids who haven’t gotten their fill of adventure yet, there are also tracks that lead up into the bush-clad hills from the main swing bridge. While most of these are not loop tracks, they explore the remnants of century-old mining operations, including old stamping batteries and tramways. You can walk through some of the old tunnels quite safely. The Windows Walk is especially popular, featuring lengths of tunnel running parallel to the hillside with window-like openings cut through intermittently where little eyes can peer outside. These tunnels have absolutely no lighting and they give a great sense of what the miners of yesteryear must have experienced every day. Sharp-eyed visitors will probably be able to spot glow worms on the ceiling in places when the flashlights are turned off.
Ride the train for even more fun
At the end of a thrilling hike through, you can treat the family to a ride on the historic Goldfields Railway, just a short way down the highway from Karangahake Reserve. On a fine day, choose one of the open top cars and wave to drivers below you as the train crosses the bridge over the highway. It’s a blast to rattle along the rails in an open top carriage, or to play cowboys in the antique wooden car—complete with leather seats and sliding windows.
The Karangahake Gorge offers a very affordable and full day for families visiting the Bay of Plenty. It makes the most of the region’s rich history and breathtaking natural beauty. Well away from the bustle of cities, it is still easy to reach, but enough off the beaten track to make it a gem worth discovering.
Paul Dunn is a freelance travel writer and a native of New Zealand.