Walking the Cape Brett Track
Ever imagined what it would be like to live the life of an old-time lighthouse keeper on an isolated peninsula with only seagulls and the occasional seal to keep you company? Enjoy challenging hikes through lush forest filled with birdsong, appreciate endless sea views and not afraid of cliff-edge paths with 100+ meter drops to the ocean below? If your answer to any of the above is yes, then walking the Cape Brett Track together with an overnight stay at the Cape Brett Hut should definitely be on your New Zealand adventure to-do list.
Cape Brett is the rugged peninsula that marks the southern end of Northland’s picturesque Bay of Islands. Classified by the Department of Conservation (DOC) as an Advanced walk, the Cape Brett Track is a 15 km route that starts near Rawhiti, a small coastal settlement approximately 30 km east of Russell, and makes its way along the ridge to the lighthouse and what’s left of the lighthouse keeper settlement on the peninsula’s most northerly point. Established in 1908, and staffed until 1978 when the lighthouse was automated, now only one of the original cottages remain, converted by DOC into a serviced hut for lucky hikers such as ourselves.
The small coastal settlement of Rawhiti is 234 km / 145 miles north of Auckland and the drive there will take approximately 3 hours 30 minutes. Paihia is the largest town closest to Rawhiti although if you’re just needing a few provisions, there’s a Four Square supermarket in nearby Russell, about 40 minutes drive away. That said, you may be better off stocking up in Whangarei if you’re heading up from Auckland.
For current travel times and updates on delays, roadworks and road closures, use the NZ Transport Agency journey planner.
Track Details and Top Tips
|Distance:||15 km (9.3 miles) one way. Return via the same track.|
|Walking time:||6 – 8 hours one way|
|Start elevation:||13m (43 ft)|
|End elevation:||31m (102 ft)|
|Highest point:||347m (1,138 ft)|
|Track type:||A steep, rough track with unbridged stream crossings and steep drop-offs. Can be very muddy in places.|
|Track start coordinates:||35°13’40.8″S 174°15’48.3″E|
NZTM: 6100940N 1714971E
Google Maps: -35.2279879,174.2634255
- Take lots of water, enough for walking on both days and overnight in the hut as the quality of the water cannot be guaranteed. It tasted quite salty when we were there.
- Access to the hut is via a PIN code which you will receive after booking with DOC. There are fees for using the hut as well as a track maintenance fee for crossing private land between Rawhiti and Deep Water Cove. You can check the latest fees, pay for a Cape Brett walking permit and make a hut booking online here.
- There is no secure parking at the start of the track and you are advised to park at 253 Rawhiti Road.
Track Options, Hut Facilities and Parking
There are in fact a number of ways in which to enjoy this incredibly scenic peninsula. If you’re reasonably fit then doing the full 30 km hike from Rawhiti to the hut and back over two days is the most challenging but most rewarding option and will take anything from 6 – 8 hours each way. It does require a good level of fitness and proper boots are highly recommended, particularly in the rainy season as parts of the track get extremely muddy and there are several sections where you’ll be climbing and descending with slippery clay and tree roots underfoot. Definitely not suitable for young children unless they were born with hiking boots on their feet.
Alternatively, if a two day hike is not for you, you can catch a water taxi from Russell or Paihia which comes ashore at Deep Water Cove and from there you can join the main track and walk the final section in 2 – 3 hours. While you will miss out on some stunning scenery and more than a few hill climbs and descents, you will still get to experience the incredible clifftop path and views as you head towards the final summit before the lighthouse. As you climb, spare a thought for those of us who would have already completed 15km to get there from Rawhiti.
The hut itself is basic, but more than adequate for an overnight stay. There are 23 bunks spread over two rooms and a central area, and there’s a large communal kitchen with gas hobs and an ample assortment of mismatched pots, pans and other cooking utensils. There is however no electricity so make sure you have a torch or candles, especially useful when visiting the outhouse composting toilet. Carrying in some backup toilet paper would not be a bad idea either unless you’re particularly skilled with sawdust.
Access to the hut is via a PIN code which you’ll receive once you’ve booked and paid your hut fees. If you’re doing the full walk from Rawhiti, you will also need to pay a walkway permit as the track passes through private land and is therefore privately maintained. You can check the latest fees and book everything online via the DOC online booking form.
Something else to bear in mind is water. You’re going to need a lot of it along the way each day and there’s no guarantee on the availability and quality of the water in the hut, particularly in the dry summer months. In fact when we booked, we were advised to carry in all the water we needed for our stay as there seems to be an ongoing issue with salt getting into the water tanks. We tasted the water, and while it wasn’t exactly unbearable, it wasn’t great.
Finally, parking is something else you’ll want to consider if walking the full route from Rawhiti. There is no parking area at the start of the track itself and it’s not advisable to leave your car on the side of the road overnight. A number of the locals do however allow visitors to park on their grounds for a small fee, with 253 Rawhiti Road mentioned as the ‘official’ parking area on the DOC website. Just look out for the sign at the postboxes on your right as you come down the hill into Kaingahoa Bay. Drive into the gate and park immediately to your left. Don’t forget to bring some cash to put in the small cash box nailed to the post, $5 per car per day (as at August 2016), and say hi to the deadly guard poodle before you head down the road for a kilometer or so to the official start of the track.
Who or what is Pukehuia you ask? Well, after you pass through the small white picket fence that marks the beginning of the track, and as you start to make your way up the hill, you’ll want to take a moment to look to your left and find the highest point on the ridge. That my friends is Pukehuia, the highest point on the Cape Brett Track itself. Granted, at 345m it’s not that high in the scheme of things but it’s a nice 2 km uphill push that will soon have you warmed up for the many kilometres that lie ahead.
We quite enjoyed the encouraging comments on the orange route markers on the way up, but if by the time you get to the one that says ‘this is just the start’ and you’re immediately filled with dread for what lies ahead, chances are this track is not for you. And, having completed the walk to the hut, if you don’t opt to go back via the water taxi and do return via this route, you’ll appreciate the comments on the return markers – ‘feel proud’, ‘you’re almost there’, ‘what were you thinking’… ok, I may have been imagining that last one.
We were both pretty sweaty by the time we reached the lookout point and water tank on Pukehuia, and took a moment to admire the view while we stowed our rain gear. Well that’s the hard part over with we thought. Oh how wrong we were. Having looked at the Cape Brett topo map (in hindsight, not closely enough) we kind of thought that after Pukehuia, the track was reasonably level as it continued along the peninsula. That was despite DOC describing this track as ‘undulating’. Now we know what they mean. After Pukehuia, the track drops fairly steeply in places before climbing again to the next summit and then down again, and does this several more times for the next 7 or so kilometres. But with each new summit came another spectacular view across the Bay of Islands to the north and south towards the Whangamumu peninsula which helped distract us from our gradually tiring legs.
At around the 9 km mark the track reaches a small hut where there is a nice level patch of grass with stunning views to the south, a good place to catch your breath and contemplate the next 7.5 km. The good news is that from here the track gradually descends for the next 3 km down to the Waitui Stream. We stopped there for lunch before heading up to the Rakaumangamanga saddle with the weather starting to close in.
Rakaumangamanga Saddle to Cape Brett Point
At 362m, Rakaumangamanga is the highest point on the Cape Brett peninsula. Fortunately, you don’t have to climb Rakaumangamanga. You do however have to go around it, and from Waitui Stream the track heads up to a saddle, one of the most iconic spots on the track. From here, for the first time on the route, you get to see your final destination. You’ll also get to see your final challenge, the short but steep climb to the lighthouse that’s just over the summit. When you reach this point, looking across from the saddle, follow the ridge to its highest point where you’ll be able to make out a pole. That’s where you’ll be heading.
Unfortunately, by the time we reached the saddle, the weather had well and truly hit and all we could see was cloud and just an ominous looking hint of what lay ahead. We stopped long enough to get our rain gear on and then hit the track, heads down for a final push to the hut. It was a fairly wet and miserable tramp from thereon although occasionally there was a brief respite, just long enough for us to see the next rapidly approaching wall of grey from the east.
Despite the wind and horizontal rain, or perhaps because of it, it’s hard to describe how we felt when we finally caught that first glimpse of the iconic Cape Brett lighthouse. We’d done it, although not quite. There was still a fairly steep, and in places, tricky descent to the lighthouse, but from there the track gently zig-zagged its way down to the red-roofed hut, our home for the night. What a relief it was to finally be inside out of the rain and the wind which by this point was so strong it shook the entire hut. That night, in our warm and comfy sleeping bags, we were too tired to care.
Sunrise at Cape Brett
The weather had been less than ideal the day before, but ever the optimists, we’d set our alarm to be up before the sun. The next morning we awoke to a gentle breeze and while everyone else slept, we crept out of the hut to catch the sunrise and the beginning of what turned out to be an awesome day. We could have stayed there for hours, watching the constantly changing light but we knew we had a 7 hour hike ahead of us so after an hour or so, we headed back to the hut to pack up our gear and start the walk back. Fortunately for us, the weather was perfect, and on the way back, we were able to capture the views we’d missed the day before of Cape Brett’s rugged cliffs and stunning cobalt blue water. The photos speak for themselves.
Back at Rakaumangamanga saddle, we were able to enjoy the view which the day before, had been a complete white-out. In hindsight, we’re actually glad the weather had been so bad previously as it made the trip back feel almost like a different walk altogether, with new views and surprises along the way. It also gave us a chance to experience just a small taste of what it would have been like for the lighthouse keepers and their families who lived on this remote and rugged peninsula through rain and shine. They must have been a hardy bunch.
We were pretty shattered by the time we finally reached the road at the end of the track. That last kilometre back to the car felt endless, but thoughts of a shower and a good hot meal in Russell kept our legs moving although we had to have a little chuckle as we reached the last corner and saw the roadsign that said ‘Slow down’. We were more than happy to oblige.
Cape Brett Weather
On the day we walked we were lucky with the weather right up until the last few kilometres when a front moved in off the sea. We managed to dodge the worst off it but a howling wind rattled the windows of the old cottage for most of the night. Thankfully, by the following morning the weather had passed.
Being such an exposed peninsula the weather is an important factor, especially the wind on some of the more exposed sections of the track. We always keep an eye on the weather a few days out from our activities and rely on a number of sources of information. In the case of Cape Brett weather conditions check the following:
- The New Zealand Metservice report for Paihia.
- While MetService does provide rain forecast maps, these cover the entire country. To check more detailed local weather conditions and forecasts including wind, rain, temperature and cloud cover we use, and highly recommend, Windy.com.
As with all things weather related, the usual caveats and common sense should apply as no forecast is 100% accurate.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Northland region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Northland.
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