A few years ago, as a reporter I witnessed the sublime spectacle of a gold bar being poured at Waihi’s Martha Mine, a moving experience for a number of reasons. Perhaps above all, there’s some real magic in clapping wide eyes on a gleaming lump of combined metals worth the thick end of $1 million, a gold and silver ingot known as bullion.
It all happened inside a nondescript industrial building where the molten metals are poured into moulds amid some rather special security measures. The room itself was effectively a huge metal cage with an elaborate locking system. Handed a dully-gleaming ingot worth around $700,000, I staggered to hold up a wedge of precious metals tipping the scales at around 20 kgs. Then sadly, I had to give it back.
In modern Waihi, they are still scooping ore out of the giant opencast Martha Mine and processing bars of bullion. But the town, re-branded as ‘New Zealand’s Heart of Gold,’ is preparing to plumb its rich mining heritage, for tourist earnings. Innovative plans have been unveiled for a $20 million gold discovery centre. The public-private joint venture envisages an ‘innovative and interactive’ visitor centre that portrays New Zealand’s gold story.
In the meantime, Waihi is already transforming itself from a glum, run down provincial town, at times curses by its history ( As recently as 2001, land on Martha Hill subsided into early mine workings, with one house slipping into a crater that opened up).
Waihi’s relaxed main drag, Seddon Street, is a visitor’s first encounter with loads of mining history and folklore. Elegant period light standards help set the scene, and the town has dug out some nuggets of information on its mining heritage. All along Seddon Street are nicely designed ‘did you know?’ information boards, complete with historic photos that provide nice snippets about the mining days of the 18th and 19th centuries. One board notes that mining did not become economic in Waihi until the cyanide process was adopted in 1893.
Statues in the main street also help form the ‘Heart of Gold’ identity. In front of the Waihi Memorial Hall the statue of a miner and a plaque tells the story of the 18th century prospectors John Mc Combie and Robert Lee who first discovered the quartz reef, which would yield millions of dollars worth of gold. The mine would later be named ‘Martha,’ and go on to become one of the greatest in the world.
The architecture is a big part of Waihi’s appeal, including splendid old wooden pubs that served miners’ big thirsts, like the Rob Roy dating back to 1896. Amble down any street and you’ll also spot delightful, lovingly preserved miners’ weatherboard cottages.
At the superb Art Market at 65 Seddon Street, you can buy a woody piece of Waihi’s history, in the form of Kauri bowls made from old mine timbers, with paua shell inlaid around the rim. This classy market also sells fun Kiwiana such as possum products, jandal key rings and post cards of Maori chiefs.
At the centre of Waihi’s historic attractions, visible on the hill above Seddon Street, is the majestic Cornish pumphouse, that looks like a set from Wuthering Heights. Before visiting, collect some information from the brand new visitor centre, at the top of Seddon Street, that’s well stocked with information on Waihi’s past (Tours of the huge opencast Martha Hill mine start here).
To reach the pumphouse just amble across the road and climb some stairs to this fine piece of Cornish architecture. The pumphouse was moved for safety from a spot near the mine (where it was tilting), to its present resting place – a tricky operation involving steel runners, Teflon pads and plenty of Kiwi ingenuity.
Not far from the pumphouse, is a spot equipped with bench seats where visitors can gaze deep into the terraced bowels of the Martha mine, watching huge earth movers at work and monster trucks carrying loads of ore.
Head south from Waihi town and Waihi Beach is 11 kms, and only minutes away. Many old baches have been snapped up and the first modern concrete and glass townhouses are in evidence, but the beachy, laid back ambience has not been lost. Take the Northern Esplanade to reach the north end of the beach. It provides access to the excellent coastal walk – the Orokawa Bay Scenic Reserve Track, a local ‘must do.’
Waihi Beach itself is a safe, family-oriented sweep of sand – of the sort that has attracted generations of holidaymakers. It’s been described as one of the most stunning stretches of sand within an easy drive of Auckland. There is ample parking, easy beach access, and surfboard hire.
The small Waihi Beach township a few minutes back down the road is well known for its bakery. People come from far and wide to stock up on ciabatta and pies of various flavours, churned out by the hundred. The bakery also produces homemade soups on a daily basis.
‘Everything is made on the premises boasts John, from pies and ciabatta to bread rolls, sandwiches. John doesn’t do the baking himself: ‘too bloody old.’ His wife jokes ‘ I tell you we’re famous,’ referring to the butcher almost next door, and his gold medal winning beef sausages, and The Porch across the road, the winner of a Monteith’s Wild Food award.
The Porch restaurant and bar occupies a typical period-piece tin roof, wooden- board house that would probably still be in service as a holiday bach, if it was closer to the beach. An outdoor courtyard with a driftwood decor is especially appealing.
Where to stay at Waihi Beach? The multi-award winning Waihi Beach Top 10 Holiday Park describes itself as ‘the original Kiwi holiday since 1899.’ The park’s accommodation can cater for almost any budget, ranging from a camp ground to more than 30 units - from basic cabins, to fully-furnished motel suites.
Facility-wise, the Qualmark 5-star park is easily one of the best in the country with the latest additions a new pool complex including a 25-metre lap pool, children’s play area and slide. A new facilities block has, aside from a kitchen, dining room and shower block, its own library sauna and gym.
The swimming pool and gym are also open to the general public, with the pool costing $6 adults, $4 seniors and children, or a family pass $16. For only $8 adults, $5 children, the park offers a day visitor pass to use the pool, gym, barbecues and other facilities.
The authentic Kiwi beach holiday, practised for many generations, is alive and doing very well here.
Waihi township is around 2 hours from Auckland City (Waihi Beach another 15 minutes), or 45 minutes from Tauranga
THINGS TO DO
Visit the imposing Cornish Pumphouse (opposite Waihi Information Centre, Seddon Street)
Tours of the Opencast Martha Hill mine start from the Waihi Information Centre, Seddon Street. $5 adults and $2 for children (visitors need to book on 07-863 9880).
Historic rail journey from Waihi to Waikino return (great for kids). Goldfields Railway, Wrigley Street, Waihi, Phone 07- 863 9020 www.waihirail.co.nz
WHERE TO STAY
See www.thecoromandel.com for information on various types of accommodation.
Award-winning Waihi Beach Top 10 Holiday Park around 15 minutes from Waihi town, has a range of accommodation. www.waihibeach.com
WHERE TO EAT
Award-winning The Porch restaurant & bar, 23 Wilson Road, Waihi Beach, phone 07-863 1330
Homemade baking at Waihi Bakery, 16 Wilson Road, Waihi Beach, run by John and Noeline Horsburgh, Phone 07-863 5002
History of the Martha Mine: www.marthamine.co.nz