HIKING DESTINATION: Cape Brett, Bay of Islands, Northland, North Island, New Zealand
HIKING DURATION: 6-8 hours (one way)
There are certain views and landscapes in our minds that we vividly imagine long before we experience the actual journey. Maybe we all, and not just me, dream and visualize in such way. We ask ourselves how we would feel and what would our eyes see. We wonder about landscapes and cultures and people. Often it’s just a matter of time until such dreams manifest into reality.
For me, hiking the Cape Brett (Rakaumangamanga) trail was a dream of its own. I’ve seen it actualizing for a while in my mind. I’ve seen myself hiking and exploring the cliff-tops, and finally reaching the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula in the beautiful Bay of Islands. In January all of that was finally happening. In reality!
I love and embrace the usual excitement of exploring such ‘dreamy’ places. Anticipation tends to sneak in about a week before the adventure and builds towards the actual day. It’s always a sign of something wonderful about to happen. I was pumped up, but also a bit under stress of organizing the overnight stay. The hut at the end of this popular hike wasn’t available anymore and camping is not allowed here in this national scenic reserve.
Today I’m taking you with me on this absolutely beautiful journey to Cape Brett. Here it is, Cape Brett Hike Explained.
There are a few things one needs to plan and take care of before heading out on this hike. Fees and charges that might affect you can be taken care of once in the Bay of Islands (i-SITE Visitor Centre in Paihia) but can also be paid online beforehand. I suggest you make the hut booking well in advance. Weekends and summer months are the busiest.
Fees and charges
• Track fee ($40.00) covers the crossing of the private land section between Oke Bay and Deep Water Cove.
• DOC hut fee ($15.00 per night). Both, track and hut fees can be paid HERE.
• Water taxi charges. In case you’re doing one-way hike only and need to return to your starting point, then you need to make a booking with one of the local water taxi providers. Same goes if you want to be picked up/dropped off at some other point along the track.
• Ferry ($13.00). If you’re coming to Rawhiti through Russell, there is a short ferry ride across the bay in Opua (departs every 10-15 minutes).
The ‘usual’ stuff
As per usual, polish your hiking shoes. Depending on the duration (1 or 2 days), fill your backpack with all the essentials: food, sunscreen, clothes, first aid, and camera. Especially load up on water, as there’s no guarantee you’ll find any at the hut.
Getting to Cape Brett
Cape Brett and Rawhiti are located in the New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, approximately 30km north east of Russell. The road from Russell to Rawhiti is well signposted and easy to follow. On the other hand, if you’re coming to Rawhiti from Auckland/Whangarei on SH1, turn right at Whakapara. Drive on scenic Russell-Rawhiti Road for about an hour to reach the hike’s starting point.
Beautiful Oke Bay is where the hike starts and you’ll want to leave your car parked here. There’s a designated place on the inner side of the bay (Hauai Bay). It’s not well marked, and you might only be able to find it by spotting other cars that are parked there.
Alternatively, you can access either end of the track by sea. A water taxi is available from Paihia or Russell. They will be able to drop you off in a couple of places along the track as well as pick you up when you finish the hike.
Where to stay in the area?
Staying at the DOC hut after completing the hike, or before starting it is one of the apparent choices for this adventure. However, if there is no space left at the hut, as in my case, you’ll need to find some other accommodation preferably somewhere close to the start of the track.
There are a few private accommodation options available in the area. You can find some of them in Oke Bay, right at the entrance to the Cape Brett track, and many more if you look further towards Russell. Book 2 nights if the Bay of Islands is not at your doorsteps.
I happened to come across a great opportunity to book a Tipi with Russell-Orongo Bay Holiday Park. It was such a great and unique experience, something I wanted to do for a while now. A dream come true! I recommend it to anyone that’s looking to stay in this area during dry summer months and wants to feel close to nature.
The Cape Brett Track
So, now that you’re all settled, the fun part begins. The hike itself. The distance of the track is approximately 16.3 kilometers one way. At a steady pace, you will reach the lighthouse in anywhere between 6-8 hours. On the day of completing the hike, I realized that there are roughly 2½ kilometers more to this hike than ‘advertised’, but more about that later.
The hike starts by stepping through beautiful Maori carving. It’s such a great representation of what lies ahead. A land that is rich in early Maori history, full of cultural significance and beauty. The initial steady climb leaves you with gorgeous views of Oke Bay. Don’t forget to look back from time to time to admire the gorgeous landscape you’re leaving behind. It seems to me this is one of those tracks that can actually provide two similar but also different experiences depending on the direction you’re completing it from.
This initial part of the track leads through the native and regenerating bush that also gives quite a good shelter from the sun. As you begin to reach a bit higher points, you get to snatch the first glimpses of the wonderful coastal scenery around you. The expansive views of the Bay of Islands, golden sand beaches and harbours have all the power to leave you breathless.
You’ll quickly realize that the track is quite easy to follow. The footpath is well maintained and marked, and there’s no way to get lost. However, pretty much the whole trail runs along the (mostly forest) ridges, with numerous drop-offs and steep cliffs on both sides of the track. It’s essential to exercise caution all the way to the tip of the peninsula.
As you reach the Deep Water Cove junction at around the 2/3rds of the track you have the option to descend to the beach. Bear in mind, the return walk will add around 2 hours to your trip (without the time spent there). This is the beach I ended my hike at to be picked up by a water taxi after returning from the lighthouse.
Last part of the hike can be a bit challenging and tiring. You’re actually walking all the peaks along the exposed ridge, with never-ending ups and downs that follow the Cape’s spine. Here’s where your fitness and endurance need to kick in. The distances seem quite achievable and the tip of the peninsula appears very close. However, it takes time and some more time to actually reach it. This part of the hike does require some patience and a strong determination. It feels like the ultimate trial before that rewarding sight. In return, it gives an amazing perspective on the final stretch of this coastal landscape with many wonderful lookout points.
As anticipated, you finally start descending towards the historic Cape Brett Lighthouse and the edge of the peninsula. The incredible view opens up for you: endless sea below with Otuwhanga Island, famous Motu Kōkako (‘The Hole In The Rock’) Island, and the outer Bay of Islands. The sight of the lighthouse makes it all worthwhile and the final descent down to the hut is pure joy. You’ve reached the tip of the Cape Brett peninsula.
Points of Interest
The loo with the view
The first part of the hike surprised me with this extremely nicely positioned loo with the view, where you actually don’t want to close the doors. The views are much more inviting and rewarding, though, than the loo itself.
Deep Water Cove
Deep Water Cove might be one of the stops on your way to the Cape Brett Lighthouse. It’s an ideal place to relax, take a dip or on a separate occasion even explore the sunken wrecks of the HMNZS Canterbury warship. Makes a great diving experience!
Cape Brett Hut
The sheltered cottage was built in 1908 and was used as a lighthouse keepers house at the time. The hut is today administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and can accommodate up to 23 people. Book well in advance for an overnight stay.
Cape Brett Lighthouse
The 14-metre lighthouse can be considered one of the highlights of this hike. It’s located at the very entrance of the Bay of Islands. Since 1906 it lights the night sky from the Rakaumangamanga cliffs and guides the sailors so they stay safe out on the sea.
My Experience of Cape Brett Hike
Completing the Cape Brett hike was such a great experience, just like I imagined. The walk itself was very transformational. Being immersed in such natural beauty with the most amazing views of the Bay of Islands is everything I could ask to encounter out in nature. There is no way that the majestic cliffs, diverse bush, secluded sandy beaches and the tip of the peninsula, that I kept chasing for 6½ hours, can leave you indifferent.
I experienced the last part of the hike to be a bit tricky. Not only was there lots of hills with constant ups and downs, but this part seemed to go on and on forever. Even though the landscape was breathtaking, by the time I realized that I left the 16.3 mark well behind, I was already concerned about the actual distance of this leg. My tracker kept flipping on new kilometers. So I nervously watched at the time during this whole time. At the same time, I tried to forget about the tiredness and blisters that decided to show up. Let me explain.
Before the hike, I sort of assessed how much time I’d need to complete it. I wanted to take it easy that day and started at 9.30 in the morning, thinking I’d be all right. Remember, I wasn’t able to book the hut for an overnight stay in time and had to find an alternative solution for transportation back to Oke Bay. So, after reaching the Cape Brett Lighthouse I had to return the same way back to Deep Water Cove, where my water taxi would pick me up at the designated time. For me, it basically meant topping my 6½ hour journey with additional 2-2½ hours.
However, the mysterious 2½ kilometers that showed up on the final stretch not only got me exhausted but also edgy as I didn’t want to miss my only way back that night. Luckily, it all turned out well in the end, as my pickup was 1½ hours late and I got to witness the most beautiful sunsetting sky over the Bay of Islands that evening. I walked nearly 27 kilometers in 9 hours with a longer stop at the hut that day and felt proud I pulled it through. Blisters and all.
WHAT DID I LIKE THE MOST?
• The views! I experienced some of the most spectacular cliff-top views along this part of New Zealand coastline.
• Taking my shoes off and walking barefoot the very last part down to the hut on the softest green grass field and then again up to the lighthouse on my way back.
• I really loved that the track wasn’t too busy (compared to Tongariro) as it often felt I had it all to myself.
• I like challenges, and this hike was just that – a combination of a physical and mental challenge. The kind that holds numerous rewards and fills you up for many weeks ahead.
Bay of Islands is an incredibly beautiful part of New Zealand. I always feel energized and happy after leaving this place. Hiking the hills and cliffs of the Cape Brett Peninsula is such a great way to explore the coastline and to experience some of the best views in this area. I highly recommend completing the hike and seeing the Cape Brett lighthouse sitting so perfectly in this coastal landscape. You won’t regret going off the beaten track in this part of the North Island. I do wish I had a chance to witness the sunset and sunrise at the edge of the Cape Brett Peninsula. But that’s just another adventure I’ll now dream about until I return here.
→ Also check: Climbing Mt Taranaki
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