7 Rankers Reviews
This is a coastal walk on a grand scale. The views are spectacular in every direction.
On the seaward side the pounding surf rides up the sheer cliffs in endless shows of foam. The more sheltered western side has quintessential Bay of Islands views with innumerable headlands, forest capped islets and tranquil bays at the edge of the clear blue waters.
From Russell, follow Russell Road and then turn left into Kempthorne Road towards Rawhiti. This runs into Manawaora Road.
At the junction with Rawhiti Road, turn left and the start of the track is signposted from Hauai Bay, just after Rawhiti.
Secure parking is available from Hartwells, Kaimarama Bay, at the end of Rawhiti Road, 1km from the start of the track.
Day walkers should contact the information centres in Russell or Paihia for details of operators who can collect you by boat from Cape Brett.
A track maintenance fee must also be paid prior to your departure. Again visit
https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/northland/places/cape-brett-and-whangamumu-area/things-to-do/cape-brett-track/ for details.
The Cape Brett Hut is an old lighthouse keeper’s house and has undergone major internal renovations to convert it to a 21-person hut.
You must book and pay in advance with DoC Russell to obtain the combination and for further information on the facilities provided. They can also provide up-to-date information on the track conditions.
The track is wide, well-formed and marked with orange triangles. The surface is mostly uneven, occasionally muddy and always on a gradient. You are always walking up or down.
For the first 1 hour, the track climbs steadily and steeply to a picnic table with magnificent views of the Bay of Islands.
Over the next 45 minutes the track passes the junctions of tracks to Whangamumu and passes through a gate in the electric fence.
After a further 2½ hours, a 45-minute-return detour is signposted to Deep Water Cove.
30 minutes later the track exits the regenerating forest and looks out towards the tip of Cape Brett. The 1½ hours to the lighthouse crosses grassland. In places the track is perched on a knife edge with steep cliffs either side. Be extremely careful in windy conditions.
The hut is 10 minutes past the lighthouse near the foot of the hill.
The electric fence was constructed in 1995 and crosses the entire width of the peninsula. It was erected to reduce the impact of possum browsing on the coastal vegetation.
The Cape Brett lighthouse stands 149 metres above seal level and was erected in 1909 to help prevent the frequent shipwrecks that were occurring on the New Zealand coastline.
A landing block and crane were constructed to unload the building materials, which were transferred to a tramline, powered by a whim. The route of the lines is still evident today.
The cast iron sections were made in a Thames foundry and bolted together on site. The lighting apparatus was the first in New Zealand to revolve in a mercury bath, which reduced the friction.
Three identical houses were built for the lighthouse keepers and their families. The families ensured the light functioned properly, maintained the buildings, kept stock and communicated with passing vessels.
In 1941 a military signal station was established to interrogate passing ships. With the threat of a Japanese invasion in 1942, a radar station was built. The remains of many of the structures are dotted around the hillside and make interesting exploring.
Cape Brett Lighthouse - Leading Light
After six hours walking along the undulating tops of the Cape Brett ridge, the beckoning peninsula is coming to a spectacular finale. The knife-edge ridge plummets hundreds of feet either side, the breakers smashing into the vertical cliff walls and exploding into clouds of spray. A thunderous roar accompanies each pounding and the salt spray brought aloft by the ever-present wind encrusts my face. Descending the nose of the promontory, the Cape Brett Lighthouse is illuminated by the afternoon sun, a piercing symbol on the headland. I’ve caught the place on a good day.
Cape Brett light was first lit on 21st February 1910, following a great deal of wrangling between ship masters and the New Zealand Marine Department. As there was no light between Cape Maria van Diemen and Moko Hinau, the Secretary for the Marine had described Cape Brett as the ‘most wanted light in the colony.’ On the advice of respected Captain Bollons, of the government ship Hinemoa, Cape Brett was selected, as it commanded an unrivalled panorama and rose steeply, obviating the need for a tall tower.
The Cook brothers of Whangamumu Whaling Station were responsible for carting the material to the relatively sheltered deep water bay below the headland. Blasting work at the snout excavated a platform for a lifting derrick, connected to the light tower and storehouses via a tramway. Lighthouse engineer David Scott was responsible for the ambitious construction (his last), especially considering the tower sections had to be hauled up 400 vertical feet. Without the aid of motorised winches, the men used a hand winch to cart the timber, tents, wire coils, tools and provisions up the trolley lines to site. Charles Judd’s foundry in Thames won the contract for moulding sections of the 35-foot iron tower. The plans are now preserved in the National Archives, all hand-drawn in blue ink - works of art in themselves.
An unusual feature of the Cape Brett light was the revolution off the lens in a mercury bath. This arrangement apparently gave a smoother rolling than the traditional bevels, rollers and bearings. Dog Island in Foveaux Strait was the original revolving light, which ran on a pendulum clockwork mechanism, controlled by a weight dangling within the tower. When the mercury bath technology became available the Marine Department saw the obvious advantages - faster rate of revolution, heavier lamp with commensurate increase in brightness and a smaller motor to initiate revolution.
The new technology took time to be fully understood. Even in 1931 the rate of revolution varied according the ambient temperature and the principal keeper, despite removing, cleaning, oiling and replacing the bearings, advised more mercury was needed. After Mr Peterson, the chief engineer’s visit, he concluded the lubricant used to wash down the sides of the mercury bath was contaminating the mercury, forming an amalgam which increased friction and slowed the rotation. Even by periodically stirring the mercury using special tools, the paste formation continued. After further analysis the engineer ascertained the absorption of petroleum vapour by the mercury was the chief cause. When the makers of the clockwork equipment, Milne and Sons of Edinburgh, were contacted, they placed the blame squarely on the keepers using too much lubricant. They recommended siphoning off the mercury, cleaning the bath with chamois leather so as not to leave any cotton fibre residue, then periodically skimming off any contaminants from the top.
Autoform burners were replaced with Smithford burners in 1937, a system which apparently used less mantles. This had become a source of angst for the bean counters at the Marine Department, who wrote to the keepers asking why 24 mantles had been used in the month of December when the average was only 3.
The whole apparatus was originally powered by diesel generators, although it was converted to diesel electric in 1955, with a 2.5 kVA 230V single phase diesel generator. Rather than increase the output of the generators the Marine Department decided to link into the national grid in 1967 - by an 8-mile long 11KV line suspended on 31 hardwood poles, with a maximum span length of 777 yards. The line was designed to withstand wind gust of 120 miles per hour. The £8000 operation was completed in two days and involved the poles being raised and line being dropped into place by helicopter, a new technology of the time, attracting so much interest a film was even made. Power was switched on on 17th March 1967.
Goat Island had the effect of sheltering the station from an easterly storm, but accentuated a wind from the north. During the equinoctial gales Mable Pollock, daughter of a keeper writes how the ‘gales howled and whined around the Cape, bringing little rain but stirring the ocean from its depths to toss and rage, flinging sweeping, crashing waves onto the time-weathered cliffs, ever seeking loose rubble, rocks or man’s belongings left carelessly in its path.’
If there was warning, precautionary measures attempted to ensure safety of property. Stores were stowed, dinghies winched and put into dry store and all loose items lashed down. Hens huddled from the howling gales and cows took shelter in the manuka. For the children it was pure excitement, the salt spray carried on the wind caking their faces and the waves breaking over the crane were the equivalent of (and much better than) TV.
Minor damage included oil drums crashing into houses, bowled pailings or garden casualties. A 1916 storm smashed the boat to smithereens, resulting in a severe reprimand for the keepers, not housing it on its blocks. It also broke the crane jib in two. A heavy gale the following year up-roofed some of the outbuildings, partly destroyed a pailing fence and toppled the flagstaff. It was almost a yearly occurrence that some form of request for funds to repair storm damage was received by the Marine Department. A common catastrophe was decimation of the fowl house, one instance in 1932 sending it over the cliff edge. A 1949 storm removed the rusting guttering from the dwellings, an urgent problem as this was the main source of water collection.
In such a harsh environment the upkeep to both light, dwellings and sundry buildings was ongoing. By the 1950s, after a lapse during the war and frequent staff changes, nearly £2000 was required to re-roof, paint and maintain the houses, light tower and naval signal station.
Life for the keepers was tainted with one obvious hardship – isolation. As with any island-like existence, the distance from mediating influences accentuated the gravity of problems, especially concerning personal relationships. With several families in close proximity, requiring close co-operation in the running the station, it’s unsurprising the occasional spat flickered into Marine Department records.
The most severe occurred in the mid 1930s between the principal keeper’s family (White’s) and assistant keeper (Grey’s) family. A rally of vindictive, back-stabbing and petty correspondence passed to the Secretary of the Marine Department’s desk, for which he could only take an adult view of the animosity. On the 18th December 1932 he received a letter starting, “ I would be very gratefully obliged if you could arrange a shift for me from this station….but I cannot get on with the 2nd Assistant Keeper and his family….They are now doing everything in their power to quarrel.” Mr White continued his explanation recounting events leading up to the sorry state of affairs. The Grey’s eldest boy Max apparently behaved as ringleader with the other boys, tormenting the Grey children with insults, rocks and ‘applying strangleholds and wrist locks.’ Furthermore Max had later stolen the boys fishing bait, and when the White boys drew their fishing knives, Max had punched them repeatedly in the face. Grey’s letter painted a different picture, clearing any blame of bait stealing from his boy and accusing Harold White of ‘hurling a filthy epithet (which I refrain from putting to paper).’ He viewed Mr White’s handling of the situation as belligerent and ‘just what you’d expect from a person of his low principles.’
Other problems were encountered when Grey’s wife fell ill, a condition he explained to his superiors as such: “…she is in a very nervous and run down condition, and I wish to have her under a doctors care. She worries and frets over the least thing and I am sorely afraid if I keep her in the Light Service much longer she will have a nervous breakdown.”
Her unwillingness to participate meaningfully in daily life only inflamed the minutiae of the daily chores to the realms of impossibility, deteriorating her relationships with the other families. Other oversights such as not passing on copies of the Auckland Weekly News assumed criminality of substantial proportions. Although the National Archives Marine Department files are filled with detailed diatribes on the trivialities of the personality clashes, the secretaries took an intolerant attitude. “The fact that keepers cannot agree to live on a station in a neighbourly manner will not be treated as a basis for transfer, and if Keeper Grey and yourself are not prepared to so live, the Department will have no alternative but to call on you both to forward your resignations”
Mabel Pollock recalls in the 1930s her initial impressions as ‘grimly impressive….The Cape was a fortress of cliffs of varying grades and steepness.’ School for Mabel, her siblings and the children of the other families amounted to 12 pupils. Miss Annie M. Smith, 65, opened the school in March 1931. The keepers felt privileged to have a certified and trained teacher on the books, especially as her salary was so small. As the buildings were not ready the signal hut made a useful first class-room, with the teacher lodging in the keepers huts.
By the end of 1932 however she had been replaced by Mrs Dunbar, who was less well received. Keeper Samuel Budd complained one of his boys had been treated ‘un-mercifully’. The matter was referred to the Auckland Education Board, but a year later Mrs Dunbar was commended in a report for the good running of the school. How she conducted herself outside the classroom was a different matter. Mrs Dunbar had insinuated Mrs Grey’s food was too starchy. Mr Grey also accused her of climbing out of her bedroom window in her dressing gown to visit Mr Sinclair (principal keeper) in the tower on his 8 pm to 12 pm watch. After Sinclair’s departure, replacement P.E. White also noted her behaviour outside the classroom as dubious. The board responded by appointing a male teacher for early 1934. His first act was to request a toilet, declined by the board who thought the children could continue using the facilities at their dwellings. By 1939 the minimum roll of nine was not met and the school closed.
A very small play area had been excavated by previous keepers, and unbelievably the pupils played rounders at recess. If the ball went over the enclosing fence they were out and if it went over a cliff, the whole team was out. Children swam only on clam days in the bay, fished from the landing block and helped with chores.
Keepers kept their own gardens, terraced into the hillsides and composted with cow manure from the resident bovines. Mabel Pollock’s father was a talented gardener and grew a lettuce 37 inches across and a kumara weighing 130 ounces. Fowls supplied eggs.
Captain Anderson of the Government launch Tainui in the 1950s recalls how on one occasion he summoned a retired Russell dentist with a wooden leg to extract a tooth. Due to his inability to climb the steep hill to the keepers houses the operation was conducted o the landing stage. The patient sat on a banana box and a stingrays wing was initially used as anaesthetic. At this thought the keeper decided cocaine would be preferable. At the moment of extraction a wave smashed onto the rocks and soaked all and sunder, including the observing party.
The station was manned by three crews up until 1955 electrification, when numbers dropped to two. Since 1978 the lighthouse has been fully automated and the light is now sourced from a smaller beacon near the tower. As I listen to the pounding of waves in the restored lighthouse keepers house, now lovingly converted into a DoC hut, I think of these stories and the lives of those hardy folk manning the light. A souped-up toy-like boat roars to the ‘Hole in the Rock’ carting thrill seeking punters for a journey through Piercy Island. Theirs is a world removed from the lives that have passed at Cape Brett.
North Island ▷ Northland ▷ Russell
Best track in New Zealand so far..... bit exhausting, but worth it (landscape, view, nature, hut, less people).
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Awesome, awesome walk at the coast and in nature. Nice hut at the end and beautiful views.
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Maia and Andrew
The hut is a beautiful old cabin. Wooden bunk beds but worth the cramped experience. The walk is pretty tough, but worth the slog.
Clemence and Pedro
Quite exhausting but beautiful. The hut was amazing.
32km to reach the lighthouse, beautiful but really hard to just a lighthouse. We did it in one day nine and a half hours, exhausted for nothing special.
A bloody steep track up and down all the way. Not a beginners track, offering bush and a lot of hills, the last part is quite beautiful (view to the coast and sea). Nice hut to stay in.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍