"Where the First Sunlight Meets the Earth" East Cape by Kakapo2

East Cape Travel Guide: 66 reviews and 123 photos

The Maori's Sacred Mountain

Never has the East Cape seen more visitors than on New Year's Eve 1999. As the first sunlight meets the earth in this remote region of New Zealand, a kind of pilgrimage took place, hordes of people wanting to be the first ones to welcome the new millennium on Mount Hikurangi.

We generously neglect and ignore the fact that thanks to a change of the International Date Line on 1 January 1995 the sun now first kisses Caroline Island, the eastern-most of the Line Islands which are part of Kiribati, a South Pacific state in Micronesia, somewhere halfway between Hawaii and Australia. This island was even named "Millennium Island" and can now claim the superlative of being the place of each day's sunrise.

We also ignore the fact that Fiji and Tonga are also located further east, as are the Chatham Islands and - of course - Antarctica. But thanks to tilt of the earth's axis the sunrays reach New Zealand first - in summer... But the funniest thing is that in the mid-summer of the Southern Hemisphere the first sunrays reach some eastern mountain ranges on New Zealand's South Island before Mount Hikurangi LOL

So somehow it is fantastic that Mount Hikurangi got the world fame in the celebrations of the new millennium, and that even all New Zealanders have accepted it since ever. And anyway, at least it is correct that New Zealand is the first mainland on earth that sees the sun.

The exact spot for this daily event is Mt. Hikurangi, a 1752m high mountain 60 km south of the East Cape, 80 km north of Gisborne and 20 km west of the little town of Ruatoria. It is the North Island's highest non-volcanic peak, and a sacred mountain to Maori. That is why climbing treks are by permission only from Ngati Porou Outdoor Pursuits in Gisborne. When you have this permit you can stay at an alpine hut on the higher slopes of the mountain, allowing early morning climbers to see the sunrise. Maori regard Mt. Hikurangi as the resting place of Nukutaimemeha, the waka (canoe) of Maui, who is said to have fished up the North Island of New Zealand.

No argument about another superlative of the East Coast: The East Cape is New Zealand's eastern-most point. It is a place of outstanding beauty and loneliness and worth all the way you have to drive from livelier regions.

The traditional East Cape Road reaches from Opotiki to Gisborne via Hicks Bay and the East Cape (342km) - the latter is already a detour from the highway. Although the much shorter inland route (148km) via the Waioeka Scenic Highway is - as the name says - also very scenic, you would miss everything that makes the East Cape unique.

As already the trip along the Bay of Plenty is best around Christmas, the East Cape Road is also most spectacular at this time of the year when the flowering pohutukawa add crimson delights to the colourful seascapes. Even in the peak season you will pass wonderful deserted beaches, and it can happen that you are alone on the 660 m long jetty at Tolaga Bay - which BTW needs funding, as it is rotting away.

Sorry - it will take a while until I will have scanned my photos, so I can illustrate my page in a better way.

More than 100 Marae in Maori Land

Although the East Cape was the place where the Europeans first landed in New Zealand (Captain James Cook in 1769), it remained isolated from the rest of the North Island for a long time, as communication and transport were difficult by the Raukumara Range and the density of the Urewera which now is a national park. This is the reason why still today the region's population has a much higher proportion of Maori than any other area in NZ. They could not have found a better place for filming the movie "Whale Rider" which gives a deep insight into Maori culture and customs. The Ngati Porou, living in the Ruatoria and Tikitiki areas, are the major tribe of the region.

About a third of Gisborne's and more than half of the rural East Cape's population are Maori - compared to their 14% in the whole of NZ. You get to see an incredible lot of Marae (about 100), their meeting grounds with the beautifully carved assembly halls and entrance gates, and cemeteries in the middle of nowhere, on hills overlooking the sea.

But you also see that the people in Maori land are poorer. And this is not all their fault. The "Mobil New Zealand Travel Guide" explains this fact as follows: "The unsatisfactory state of much of the land is largely the result of its abuse by early European lease-holders whose leases contained no compensation clauses for improvements and who let the land run down as their leases came to an end."

Another sad story is that so many Maori artefacts have been taken away from the region and relocated to major museums. The East Cape is said to have produced the country's finest carvings. The war canoe Te Toki-a-tapiri from 1840 is in the Auckland Museum, and in the National Museum (Te Papa) in Wellington you can see The Hau-ki Turanga meeting house from 1844 and the storehouse Nuku te Whatewha. On the other hand nobody cared that many wonderful carvings just rotted away, and missionaries more or less forced Maori to destroy the parts of carvings they considered obscene. If you have a closer look at typical Maori carvings in which all body parts are shown in their natural beauty you can imagine how much of their old pieces of art have remained in the original shape.

Back to Nature

The East Cape is also the place of the world's biggest pohutukawa, named Te Waha-o-Rerekohu (The Mouth of Rerekohu), a Maori chief who once had a storehouse by the tree. It is over 600 years old, has 22 trunks, a girth of more than 20 metres and a spread of more than 40 metres. It stands in Te Araroa - right at the place where you start your trip the the East Cape lighthouse and New Zealand's eastern-most point on the mainland.

A more well-known natural feature of the East Coast is its wine. Gisborne is called New Zealand's chardonnay capital. The Gisborne region and Hawke's Bay further south produce great white wines, thanks to the fabulous climate. You will not find many regions in NZ with milder climate and more sunshine hours. It happens so very often that when watching the weather forecast on TV they seem to have all the sunshine.

But this has also a negative side: This year (2007) it rained so little that many farmers had to sell their stock as there was no food left for winter, and buying food for the cows would have become too costly. Tourists, however, will enjoy the many sunny days.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Remote, lonesome, picturesque, no tourist hordes
  • Cons:So far away... :-(
  • In a nutshell:A rough beauty - well worth the big trip
  • Last visit to East Cape: Mar 1995
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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