Gasping for breath, I stumble up the path, my feet heavy under the weight of my pack. The morning is still cool, but already my shirt is drenched in sweat. Ahead, I can see an orange trail marker, a message scrawled on it.
"You're nearly halfway," it says.
Normally I'd find this encouraging, but today it's demoralising. The problem? I'm nowhere near halfway. I've only been walking for 20 minutes and still have eight more hours to go.
Quite frankly, I should have seen this coming. Usually when you tell other outdoor enthusiasts about your plans to tackle a trail, they'll get excited and enthuse about its best bits. But when I told people I was tramping the Bay of Island's Cape Brett Track, a strange look came across their faces.
"Bring lots of water," is all they would say.
Now, only a kilometre in, I understand why.
The poetic would describe the 16.5km Cape Brett Track as "undulating." The pragmatic would describe it as "unrelenting". Whereas most trails reward hikers with level stretches of ridgeline after big climbs, Cape Brett doesn't do flat. Instead, its elevation chart bears striking resemblance to a patient going into cardiac arrest.
But these peaks and ridges are part of what makes Rākaumangamanga such an important site in New Zealand—and one worth visiting.
"Our tupuna likened the peaks to the flotilla of waka during the great migration," says Kipa Munro of Ngāti Kuta and a DoC cultural advisor. The headland's crystalline rocks reflected light, he explains, acting as a beacon for new arrivals. Recent archaeological digs at nearby Moturua Island support this narrative; evidence indicates that the Bay of Islands is one of the first places Polynesians arrived in New Zealand, around 1300AD.
Hundreds of years later, Cape Brett's lighthouse served a similar function. First lit in 1910, it was staffed for nearly 70 years, with more than 100 keepers and their families living in isolation at the end of the peninsula. Thanks to Cape Brett's importance to both Māori and European history, it's now been named a Tohu Whenua site — a place that shaped our nation — by Heritage New Zealand.
Seeing it is easier said than done though, as its only accessible by foot or boat. When I finally spot the lighthouse's white facade, the beads of sweat on my face are joined by tears of joy.
I spend the night in the lighthouse keeper's house (now a DoC hut) and the next day, rather than trekking the full way back, I cheat by walking to Deep Water Cove. A short water taxi ride later and I'm back in Rawhiti. In the carpark, I see a couple putting on their packs.
"How's the track?" they ask.
I freeze, not sure how to respond. The Cape Brett Track is unlike any tramp I've ever done. It's not for the faint of heart or the short of breath — and yet, I'd do it all over again.
There's only one real answer to their question: "Bring lots of water."
How to get there: The Cape Brett Track begins at Rawhiti, roughly 40 minutes from Russell. Short on time (or stamina)? The 16.5km journey can be turned into a 5km one by starting at Deep Water Cove. Sea Shuttle Bay of Islands offers pre-booked water transfers for $50.
Parking: Off-road parking is available at 253 Rawhiti Road for $10, payable to an honesty box.
Cost: A fee applies for the section of track running through private land from Rawhiti to Deep Water Cove ($40 adults; $20 children; payable to DoC).
Accommodation: A short walk from the track's start in Rawhiti, Kaingahoa Marae offers shared accommodation and campsites from $15 per night. Just down the road, Bob and Louise Clarke have private rooms for $50.
Booking: The Cape Brett Hut must be booked in advance with DoC ($15 adults; $7.50 for youth aged 11 to 17). Currently the hut has no running water, but new toilets and a water tank are being installed in March 2021. Check with DoC for updates and closures.
Northland's Tohu Whenua sites are dedicated to telling the interwoven stories of Māori and European settlers and how their identities were defined. Cape Brett is the most remote, but most others are easy to access. Here are just three of them.
Clendon House: Built in 1860 in Rawene, Clendon House was the home of Captain James Reddy Clendon, who was present at many of the earliest encounters between Māori and Europeans. When he passed away in 1872, his wife Jane—who was of Hokianga Māori descent — managed to keep the house, despite eight children and a massive debt.
Ruapekapeka Pā: As the site of the last battle of the Northern Wars, the Ruapekapeka Pā is a powerful reminder of the conflict that erupted after the Treaty of Waitangi signing. Located southeast of Kawakawa, the 1.5km loop track takes visitors past the ditch and bank defences used.
Māngungu Mission: On the edge of the Hokianga Harbour near Horeke sits Māngungu Mission, where the largest signing of the Treaty of Waitangi took place. The 1830s mission house is the main attraction, but the cemetery reveals the region's rich and often tragic history of water-faring.