Te Aroha Estate with Cadman Bathhouse, now the museum. Photo / Eleanor Hughes
Between steaming geysers and a century of history, Eleanor Hughes finds time for a nighttime hike to the summit of Mount Te Aroha.
The television mast at its summit makes Mount Te Aroha easily discernible. We are here to hike. But the quaint cream-and-orange striped clock tower and historic buildings on the sprawling estate keep me exploring the town in advance.
Nestled at the foot of the mountain, the Te Aroha Estate Museum is housed in the impressive Cadman Bathhouse, built in 1898. Black, cream and rust tiles still cover the floor, porcelain toilet bowls decorated with floral patterns subsist. Popular from the late 1800s until around World War II – with 22 hot and cold springs – public baths were developed in the area and offered therapeutic treatments for rheumatism and muscular disorders. In 1904/05 39,000 bathers were registered, in 1960 678 and the baths closed the following year. I read about the various sources and browsed the porcelain produced around the world depicting the city and bathhouses in their heyday. Who knew that “Te Aroha and Lemon” was produced from 1888 until the 1960s?
Heritage-listed buildings dot the estate. The restored Bathhouse #2 is open to the public and is part of the Swim Zone complex with its heated outdoor pool. The Head Gardener’s Cottage, built in 1907, is a café, and you can soak in a wooden tub at Te Aroha Mineral Spas, which occupies Bath No.
Behind, the Mokēna Geyser erupts steaming water every 40 minutes. Formerly the site of Bath No. 4, it was discovered when drilling produced a fountain of boiling water. It is the only hot soda geyser in the southern hemisphere.
Back on Whitaker St, the Heritage Trail map from the i-Site, formerly the estate’s ticket office, guides me through the city. The two-story former post office is immaculate with cornerstones and gray upholstery; the library, originally the council building, is in the Art Deco style, its stepped roofline. Outside Adrian Worsley’s gallery on Rewi St, the motorcycle built from scrap metal looks steampunk. A one-hour walk includes an old miner’s house, tall, two-story balcony buildings, early 1900s churches, and a train station, cream with rust-red trim, that the Hauraki Rail Trail passes by.
I-Site staff advise, as we are carrying bags, to spend the night at Waitawheta Hut, not to tackle the steep trail from the top of Te Aroha, but to take the hilly trail from the domain of Tūī starting in front of Mokēna Geyser. The next morning we pass an old reservoir, now a square hollow covered in foliage in the bush, and the Tutumangao Waterfall splashing down a vertical rock face. Noel’s Lookout offers views of the city and the spreading countryside. An hour later, on Tui Link Track, a sign warns of the slope. We pass a mine shaft, reach Tui Saddle and surprise three wild goats scattering. Ridge Track brings us exhausted to the gravelled TV Rd, 4.5 hours after leaving the estate.
Throwing my bag into the bush, I complete the walk back to the 952m summit of Te Aroha in 45 minutes. The view is worth it. The sea sparkles; a large island lies near the coast; flat, green farmland stretches endlessly, hemmed in one direction by the Kaimais.
I discover the Te Aroha area via the Summit Track which is only 1h30 away!
Back in the bush, we follow Waipapa Track crossing bridged rivers and crossing some pretty sections, with punga lining the trail. The mostly downhill track widens out near the 26-bed cabin we reach, located where the Waitawheta Sawmilling Company kitchen once stood, 8.5 hours after leaving Te Aroha.
Just after the rebuilding of the vertical frame saw Waitawheta Mill, where the mill operated until 1928, the river is worth the breathtaking coldness to wash away the sweat and grime. As darkness descends, I have just enough energy to walk a short distance to find glow worms dotting a rock face and riverbank.
The next morning, the occasional sounds of the river disturb the calm as we follow it along the mostly flat Waitawheta Tramway from the vertical frame saw. On the swing bridges, I look at the concrete foundations of long-gone wooden bridges and walk on the sleepers of the old tram line that crosses parts of the broad gauge. The steep cliff of Devil’s Elbow, one of the steepest bends in the gorge, surprises. Information boards along the scenic trail tell stories of kauri logging and the tramway, formed in the late 1890s to supply timber for the gold mining industry.
We leave the Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park and cross paddocks to reach the end of the parking lot, where we had left our car the day before, three hours from the cabin. Heading to Te Aroha, we walked through the history of the area.
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