Cape Brett Track: one tough, rugged northerner

Dunc Wilson walked Cape Brett Track and discovered just a fraction of what the area has to offer.
Dunc Wilson walked Cape Brett Track and discovered just a fraction of what the area has to offer. Photo credit: Duncan Wilson

Sweat was streaming from my pores faster than I could swallow water. My arms had severely swollen, making my joints look like the knots in a balloon animal. I stopped and threw down my pack, glad to be relieved from its weight, if only temporarily.

Convinced the swelling was some sort of water retention caused by the extreme summer heat, I began holding my arms up in a variety of positions, trying to tease the fluid back to wherever it normally lives.

We were only six kilometres in, but this was brutal. To be fair, we’d parked the car six kilometres from the start of the track, planning to take an alternative route on the return next day, but even at 12 kilometres I felt unusually wasted.

First learning: this track is best served cool.
 

A banner frequently appears on the DOC website advising trampers carry in their own water supply - sea spray often contaminates the hut’s tank supply.

The exponential result of carrying 5 litres of water in 30-plus-degrees is you need to drink more to counter the extra thirst from the added pack weight; you can’t win and I was discovering this the hard way.

Back walking, I quickly followed a steep and root-lined section of track, and was soon reunited with my tramping buddies high on a ridgeline.

From there, the views faced east, revealing jagged fingers of rock reaching out into the Pacific; we might as well call it the Bay of Peninsulas.

The eastern side of the peninsula reveals vast Pacific Ocean views, with small bays and jagged fingers of rock reaching into the sea.
The eastern side of the peninsula reveals vast Pacific Ocean views, with small bays and jagged fingers of rock reaching into the sea. Photo credit: Dunc Wilson

Scenes of this kind were regular, as we moved through different stages and thickness of regenerating bush.

From Rāwhiti to Deep Water Cove (roughly the first 12 kilometres) the track crosses over private land, for which walkers must pay a fee. The proceeds go towards track maintenance and pest-eradication on the peninsula.

Three more kilometres of minor undulations and we arrived at a grassy flat, high up above the ocean.

A small private hut and toilet are found here, with a water supply, which I began furiously purifying and guzzling. Lying in the long grass, with our packs as pillows, we had a bite to eat and admired the vast ocean scenes beyond the cliff.

Several mostly downhill kilometres followed and the chance to smash out some easy steps was welcomed, despite Rākau-mangamanga, the highest peak in the area, beginning to creep up the skyline.

Rākau-mangamanga is hugely significant for Māori, since it’s considered one of the points on the ‘Polynesian Triangle’ - the other two being at Hawai’i and Easter Island.

Arriving from the Pacific Islands to the northeast, early Māori are said to have landed at Cape Brett during the Great Migration. As such, the track avoids the summit, opting to skirt round to the west and over a saddle, at about half the elevation of the 362 metre peak.

Good news, if you want Cape Brett 'Lite'

Leaving the private land, the track passes the junction with a side track to Deep Water Cove. A common option for visiting the Cape is to water taxi from Paihia or Russell and take the shorter walk by picking up the track from the cove.

Other people became a common sight after this junction, although some of the poor souls were heading in the wrong direction, with tiny or no packs. These eery folk left us mystified - ghosts?

My wacky-waver limbs all but forgotten, the three of us stumbled over the saddle to find the reward was a stunning view of the Cape and our first real glimpse of where this challenge would end. My cellphone GPS told me there were 3km to go, but the reality looked further.

Once over the saddle, Cape Brett is in sight, but the real work is about to begin!
Once over the saddle, Cape Brett is in sight, but the real work is about to begin! Photo credit: Dunc Wilson

What remained was actually the toughest and most dangerous section on tired legs.

Frustrations were simmering, and, I’ll admit it, I swore at one poor stream, after it demanded we descend 100 metres just to cross it.

Climbing up the other side, I realised we were entering the track’s most brilliant section.

As we shimmied around slip-prone gullies and wandered within metres of steep cliff edges, the surrounding flora morphed into low shrubs and grassland. Constant views of the rocky bays below are on offer, as waves crash up on their shore.

I couldn’t help but stare longingly at the occasional vessel anchored at sea level, imagining the captain’s feet up, cup of tea in hand: comfort.

It’s obvious once you reach the final summit. Motukokako Island, famed for its giant ‘Hole In The Rock’, which sits behind in the sea. From there, it’s down just a short-but-steep climb down to the well-photographed lighthouse.

The hut is then just several hundred metres beyond, its white paint job and red roof contrasting starkly with the grass.

Relieved and joyous at having completed this tough tramp on a seriously hot day, we plonked our packs and ourselves down on the path and cracked open a beer.

Bottles clinked as the sun fell around us, turning the sky purple and amplifying the white reflection of the moon. There’s no better place than outdoors in this land.

Cape Brett Hut beneath a summer sky at dusk.
Cape Brett Hut beneath a summer sky at dusk. Photo credit: Dunc Wilson

Some of our hut-mates greeted us upon arrival. It had taken us just over seven hours.

Options, you have many options!

DOC have labelled this an ‘advanced’ tramping track, with a one-way walking time of eight hours.

As mentioned, the more casual walker can water taxi to Deep Water Cove and take up the DOC part of the track for no land charge.

From Cape Brett, you can either get picked up there or spend the night in the hut and return the same way next day.

The slightly more adventurous might want to water taxi to the hut, spend the night there, then walk the entire track back to Rāwhiti the next day.

But go on, give the full hussle a go!

Bookings and costs

The DOC website has all the information and links you need to give this adventure a crack.

The hut currently costs $15 per person per night and the land pass (required between Rāwhiti and Deep Water Cove junction) costs $40.

Water taxi prices vary, but start at about $40 per person, with a minimum charge for the boat to leave of roughly five passengers.

Dunc is a producer for The AM Show who spends most of his spare time discovering the great outdoors of Aotearoa.

Follow him on Instagram: @duncwilsonnz

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