You have to be pretty dedicated to see sunrise in New Zealand in the summer and I am!
When you search the internet for things to see and do on an East Cape Road trip, one thing that always comes up is a visit to the East Cape lighthouse at sunrise. It is one of the first places in the world to see the sun each day (did you know people flew by Concorde to see the sunrise on Jan 1, 2000!) and the sunrise is supposed to be amazing.
So as dedicated as I am, I was up at 4.30am to a beautiful clear sky full of stars for the 35 minute drive along some less than ideal narrow gravel roads in the dark. Thankfully I only passed a couple of other people going the other way, one being a huge logging truck I had to pull off the road for!
The forecast was looking good the night before, but during the last 10 minutes of the drive, the drizzly mist set in … and it was here to stay 🥲. I climbed the 800 steps to the top of the hill, and the base of the lighthouse and I could not even see the sea right in front of me 🤦🏻♀️. To top it off, I had forgotten to bring the coffee I had made up in my travel mug to bring for the top!
Thankfully I did have my raincoat so I could sit on the wet bench and enjoy the serenity of the moment – the bird dawn chorus and the sea crashing on rocks somewhere below.
Built in 1922, the East Cape lighthouse is situated on the eastern most point of New Zealand. It was originally lit with a paraffin oil burning lamp which was replaced to diesel generated electricity in 1954. In 1971 the lighthouse was connected to the mains power before being fully automated in 1985. It is hard to image that at one time, this was originally a three keeper station as there is little left to indicate there was once housing on the site.
I was so engrossed in the serenity of the moment, I didn’t realise I was getting bitten until it was too late 🤦🏻♀️ why on earth was I wearing shorts? I NEVER wear shorts 🥴😂 Despite the biting insects and cloud I stayed for around 30 minutes hoping for a break in the cloud, but it was not to be. Thankfully I have a couple more sunrise opportunities (none at a lighthouse on the eastern most point though) so fingers crossed I will get one worth the early morning for.
It was nice to be able to see the road and surrounding scenery on the way back though I still had to drive fairly slowly. Firstly, due to animals on the road (horses and hares lol). Secondly due to some damaged parts of the road due to storms the previous week (it was good to see that the repairs were already underway). Lastly due to the stunning scenery – towering cliffs, waterfalls and a beautiful, rugged coastline.
Back in Te Araroa, it was still very early but thankfully the Four Square was opening (for anyone reading not familiar with New Zealand, Four Square’s are a small town supermarket chain) so I managed to pick up a breakfast fit for a Queen – a can of cold coffee and a Ruatoria steak and cheese pie! I had certainly earnt it. I also took the opportunity to top up the car with fuel – seemed to be small town prices at $2.48 a litre, significantly higher than in larger towns! I was grateful that my rental car was a hybrid so was not using too much petrol.
While planning this trip I discovered Te Araroa’s claim to fame it that it is the birthplace of Sir Āpirana Ngata. Born in 1874, he was the first Māori to complete a degree at a New Zealand university, graduating with a MA and a law degree.
Upon completion of his education, he returned to the East Cape and made a great contribution to Māori cultural and economic revival in the area and around the country for which he received a knighthood in 1927. To honour Sir Āpirana’s legacy his face is now proudly printed on New Zealand’s $50 note.
After a quick stop back at my hotel to shower and finish packing, I started on the day’s leg of my journey – from Hicks Bay to Tolaga Bay. Approximately 125km or 2 hours. Again, I had a list of sights and stops on the way and again, not all were 100% successful lol.
My first stop was in the small town of Tikitiki to see “Tikitiki’s jewel” – St Mary’s church. It was built between 1924 and 1926 under the guidance of Sir Āpirana (from Te Araroa). It is a non-denominational church and thanks to Sir Āpirana, it integrates Māori architecture into its design and windows. Today it’s considered a Category 1 Historic Place. Unfortunately, the church was closed and there was no one around so had a look around the outside (which was still nice) before moving on
Some observations about this part of rural New Zealand – horses are a common form of transport for school children (I am all for this – in fact I would happily ride a horse if that was an acceptable form of transport … and if I had a horse). I was also puzzled by the number of derelict houses in these small towns. Perhaps a sign of times with people having to move to the cities for work.
Next up was a stop at Tokomarau Bay, where I had planned to have lunch at the tavern. It was an amazing spot, reminding me of Hawaii with towering cliffs in background. Unfortunately, the tavern, although open, was not serving food. Maybe because it is too quiet or maybe because it is for sale? Either way the only other option was the fish and chip shop!
It’s not surprising there is an obesity problem in some of our rural communities – fried food and pies appear to be the most accessible food!! (Full disclosure, there was a small supermarket, but I didn’t go there 🥴). Fried food in hand, I headed down to the shore to have lunch with a view. It was a beautiful bay and beautiful day, now I had escaped the cloud of the morning. And of course, I am still a week or two early for the pohutakawa to be in flower😂.
Tolaga bay was my destination for the day and upon arrival I went straight to the main attraction – the wharf. Not just any wharf, a 660m long wharf that is believed to be one of the longest concrete wharfs in the Southern Hemisphere. It was built in 1929 to allow large coastal trading ships to off and onload goods to the area before the more modern sealed roads were built. (Apparently there was also one at Hicks Bay and Tokomaru Bay but there is little left of these ones.) Ironically, much of the cargo that was offloaded on the wharf was road building equipment that helped construct the road through to Gisborne, leaving the wharf redundant.
As in Te Araroa, I had struggled to get accommodation in Tolaga Bay. Who knows why – perhaps a combination of there not being much and some places being closed? I ended up at an Airbnb just out of the town on a horse training farm (Uawa Equine on AirBnB)- it was simple but beautiful and peaceful.
Had a relaxing afternoon/evening at my accommodation making friends with the locals – 3 dogs who seemed to take turns at coming over to hang out (although there were probably around 6-7 dogs in total), but my favourites were a little black cat (who was very needy) and a pet lamb.
I attempted to find something for dinner in town but gave up. There was a place calling itself a supermarket, but it was barely a dairy 🤦🏻♀️ and the only other option was fried food again! Instead, I fell back on some good old pot noodles I had stocked up on for just this kind of occasion.
I truly had a great night’s sleep in the peace.