Colourful history

This stunning loop track with spectacular views takes you through farmland and native bush to the beach where smugglers used to bury whisky in the sand 

3km loop. 1 hour 30 minutes, starting from Urquharts Bay carpark, Bream Head Scenic Reserve, Whangarei Heads.

As you wander along the peaceful winding track from Urquharts Bay to Smugglers Bay it is hard to imagine that guns were once fired from here.

They were test shots, mind, and thankfully only three were ever fired from the Bream Head Gun Battery in 1942, but it was WWII and a time when Japan was cutting swathes through the Pacific and advancing southwards at an alarming rate.

Deliberately disguised as a rocky outcrop, the Gun Battery is worth a stop and still rather cunningly concealed thanks to the site being blasted into the rear of a large boulder. An interesting piece of history is that one of the test shots travelled a massive 19.3km (its rated range was 15.5km).

It is the views and reward of a beautiful beach at the end of the walk, however, that draws most hikers here. The walk begins at Urquharts Bay, traversing farmland along an easy track. To your right is the bay and the distant castle-like turrets of Mt Manaia while Mt Lion (Matariki) rises majestically on your left. Soon after, the oil refinery at Marsden Point comes into view. It’s an industrial scene that will never make a postcard but once you are past this, and the gun battery, you descend through stands of native flax and cabbage trees. The track then takes you on a steady but easy climb to Busby Head through manuka buzzing with bees, and more views out to sea.

According to the Department of Conservation the Bream Head Scenic Reserve is considered one of the top 20 coastal forest reserves in New Zealand due to its unique coastal broadleaf forest and variety of rare flora and fauna. The bird and plant life is bountiful. We saw red-crowned parakeets, oyster catchers, and a family of ducks wetting their feet in the shallows of Smugglers Bay.

Back in the 1860s a considerable trade was carried on by locally owned schooners with the islands of the Pacific and the Coral Sea, the New Hebrides and New Caledonia. According to The Story of Whangarei Heads by W. R. Vallance, a customs revenue cutter roamed the coasts. In those days, writes Vallance, this was a challenge to many men of independent spirit, and dodging customs became a game of interest, excitement and ingenuity. As the swift sailing schooners carrying, among other goods, the whisky of New Caledonia, neared the shores, a keen look-out was kept for the revenue cutter. If no sign of the ‘Government Boat’ was seen in Bream Bay, a quick visit was made to Smugglers’ Cove (as it was known in those days), and cases of whisky were smartly landed and buried in the sand. The fact that this area was settled by Scots, after the Māori, certainly accounts for the demand for whisky.

There is evidence of a long Māori presence with the discovery of a defensive pa on Busby Head where house terraces, food storage pits and a midden have been discovered. It is a special place for the iwi of Te Taitokerau and it’s easy to see why. It’s the perfect place for a swim, picnic or spot of fishing. A shorter 10-minute track also connects Smugglers Bay to the Urquharts Bay carpark if you are short on time or loaded up with picnic supplies.

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