Sections of white fence mark areas where parts of the narrow road have washed away slipping into the sea below. To add to the excitement, my teenage son is driving. Like many seventeen-year-olds, Matthew claims he is a superior driver. “Not to worry, chill,” he tells us as we come perilously close to the edge.
We were on our way to the easternmost point on the North Island of New Zealand, and site of the famed East Cape Lighthouse. A 22-kilometer, dead-end road, much of it unsealed, takes you from the small town of Te Araroa out to the lighthouse. Only 1% of tourist visitors actually visit the remote East Cape region of New Zealand. We see only a rare vehicle on the road and no one when we arrive at the lighthouse itself.
The weather, as is typical for New Zealand, is unpredictable. It is clear most of the way out, but as we turn a corner and approach the actual cape area itself, it grows suddenly cloudy, windy and rainy. Then it becomes very windy—not gale force, but close. During our entire stay here in New Zealand, we have had the uncanny ability of timing our arrival at scenic locations during torrential downpours, gales, and generally at times when there is no or limited visibility. This is much the same.
At the end of the road, we park. Despite the stormy conditions, the usual laconic sheep stare at us from nearby fields. More than 700 steps lead up to where the actual lighthouse is located 154 meters above sea level. We bundle up in our raingear and trudge up the steps. The lighthouse, 15 meters high, sits in a small clearing overlooking the vast tumultuous sea.
The lighthouse was built in 1900 and was originally located on East Island, directly offshore from its present location. After that location proved untenable due to earthquakes and landslides, the lighthouse was moved in 1922 to its present location on mainland New Zealand.
Very early lighthouses had fixed lights that did not flash. It was soon, however, recognized that flashing lights made the light more visible and distinguishable from other shoreline lights. Currently the East Cape Lighthouse has a white light that flashes every ten seconds and can be seen for 35 kilometers (19 nautical miles). The color and exact timing of flashes help navigators know which navigational aid they are near.
Originally, the lighthouse light was a paraffin oil-burning lamp with a long wick that required constant trimming by the lighthouse keeper throughout the night to allow it to burn bright. Later this was replaced with a kerosene-burning lamp that required no wick trimming. A lens revolved around the light creating the flashing effect. In earlier days this was run by a clockwork mechanism controlled by weights, which the lighthouse keeper would also have to wind up every hour. Typically, the lighthouse keepers worked four-hour shifts through the night, sitting alone in a cold room, maintaining the light and the rotating mechanism, and keeping a watch out for ships. In 1954 the lighthouse was converted from kerosene to electricity. Originally, three lighthouse keepers manned the lighthouse, then two, then one, and finally in 1985 the lighthouse was fully automated and is now controlled by a computer in Wellington.
But the East Cape Lighthouse location has another claim to fame. It is the first location in the world (if you don’t count lots of small islands) to see the sunrise each morning. Huh? What exactly does that mean?
New Zealand is the country closest to the International Date Line. Hence, if you use that as the start of each world day, the sun hits New Zealand first, and in particular it hits the East Cape region of New Zealand first. Some people drive out to the lighthouse to watch the sunrise for this reason. We weren’t those types of people. How exactly would the sunrise look from the lighthouse compared to other places on earth? Well, it would look exactly the same—but while yawning and staring at the first glint of sunlight from over the horizon, you’d know that you were technically seeing the sun rise before anyone else on earth!
All photos by author except as noted.