It looked on the verge of collapse, its white skin peeling mercilessly, scarred with patches of rust after years of neglect. But after walking 20km over undulating terrain, the old lighthouse at Cape Brett in the Bay of Islands was a rejuvenating sight.

It didn't matter that the 14m-high icon was surrounded by signs shooing away intruders. After a day-long trek that sapped our energy and thrashed our knee joints, the sheer sight of the lighthouse gave us a renewed spirit of adventure.

And a diminished sense of self-preservation - what else could explain the urge to break in and stand atop a structure that looked as solid as a toothpick replica of the leaning tower of Pisa?

How we broke in is not important, but, on entering, it was clear we had stumbled on a treasure. The steep curving stairwells and antique furniture, along with a musty, character-building scent, gave the interior the feel of a historic playground.

But the real prize came after gingerly ascending the rusty ladders that led to its apex, an excellent platform from which to gaze at the fading colours of dusk shrouding the horizon in fiery orange and misty shades of blue.

It was a just reward - even more so as the lighthouse didn't crumble - after a day that started at an ungodly hour with a drive to Oke Bay, 29km from Russell. At this time of the morning, your mindset is not ideal for tackling what the Department of Conservation calls a "challenging track" for the fit and experienced; boots recommended.

The track meanders through a scenic reserve, over the peninsula's dragon-like spine; the reserve's seven peaks are symbolic of the seven waka said to have come from Hawaiki in the great Maori migration.

We set off and were quickly into a trend that was revisited several more times that day: uphill. The long, steady grind demanded repeated climbs of up to 300m, in the process causing heavy breathing, a number of involuntary breaks and the odd life-segment to flash before our eyes.

But the physical demands were constantly offset by panoramic coastal views and a comforting isolation, set against a backdrop of forest ridges dotted with cabbage trees, sheer cliff-faces and the lazy inlets that make up the Bay of Islands.

We detoured over lush, green grass to Deep Water Cove for a swim and to bask in the sun before the final surge over the 362m Rakaumangamanga. Or rather, the final tip-toe around Rakaumangamanga.

The climb over the track's highest point threatened to be the end of us as the ridge narrowed from both sides.

Our leg muscles felt vulnerable, fragile. Our shoulders ached. But the sheer sight of the cape - and its handsome lighthouse, resplendent in the soft light - was more than invigorating.

The lighthouse has been a public servant from 1906, guiding vessels into the "Hellhole of the Pacific". It continues to stand guard despite retiring in 1978 and being replaced by a hot, young blonde that - and this was the real kick in the guts - operates automatically.

The view from the top looks down on Piercy Island to the northeast and Manawahuna, a cave with the unimaginative yet accurate name of Hole in the Rock.

According to Maori legend you: "Do not disturb the sands of Manawahuna, lest you be lost at sea, lest you die."

We didn't disturb the sands. We were perfectly content in our newfound playground. So enthralled that it was dark by the time we left the lighthouse for the DoC hut - a converted old cottage hailing from an age when lighthouses needed people to operate them.

Once inside, it was obvious that generous people had used the hut; the kitchen, as well as having gas burners and running water, boasted an abundance of abandoned candles, plates, pots and utensils.

The hut also had mattresses that didn't object when we dragged them outside to doze in the open air under a clear night sky. The kaleidoscope of stars was only interrupted by a beam from the new lighthouse every 30 seconds, blazing a 26 nautical mile-trail.

From the hut, concrete steps led down to the sheltered cove where ferries drop in those who prefer to see the lighthouse without the 20km pre-show.

The cove was the perfect setting for a spot of night swimming, star-gazing and, the following morning, snorkelling among snapper and stingray.

This blissful utopia clouded our judgment; we set off mid-morning on the long exit-trudge at the exact moment the skies opened. It's easy to lose someone walking in torrential rain along narrow and exposed ridges. Even accidentally.

If the track had tested us the day before, it provided a new kind of challenge in wet conditions. Half of our tramping quartet had to adjust their gaits to cater for sore limbs. Another almost succumbed to gaping blisters that screamed from each heel.

But we slowly pressed on and eventually emerged, some eight hours later, at Oke Bay with weary smiles and light rain on our faces.

Soon we were bound for Ngawha Hot Springs, leaving the cape - and the lighthouse - as we should have.

Exactly as we had found it.

Checklist

CAPE BRETT

Track
The track starts at Oke Bay, 29km from Russell, off Rawhiti Rd. Park on the roadside or, for a small fee, secure parking is available at Hartwells, Kaimarama Bay. It's a 20km walk so allow a full day.

The track crosses private land from Oke Bay to Deep Water Cove, and a maintenance fee of $30 a adult, $15 a child, is requested.

Accommodation
The Cape Brett hut sleeps 21, mattresses provided. The kitchen has gas burners but the quality of water is not guaranteed. Walkers should carry a water treatment system. Hut fees of $10 a night for adults, $5 for children, must be prepaid.

Further information
Russell Visitor Centre, PO Box 134, The Strand, Russell. Phone (09) 403 9003; fax (09) 403 9009.