The vast and sparsely-inhabited region of the East Cape Peninsula is cut off from the remaining part of the island by the rugged Raukumara mountain range. Not only is there a great abundance of Maori tradition and culture in this part of the country, but Europeans can also feel a sense of their own history: Captain James Cook first set foot on New Zealand’s soil here in the year 1769.
One aspect makes this region unique in the entire world: It is here that the rays of the morning sun first touch the earth. This phenomenon is brought about by this district’s, and the town of Gisborne’s, extreme easterly position (longitude of 178 degrees east), in conjunction with the international dateline and the earth’s curvature at Gisborne’s latitude (38.40 degrees south). East Cape, with its tranquil landscape of sea and hills, and the leisurely lifestyle of its inhabitants won’t entice those tourists seeking the excitement and nightlife a large city has to offer. But those who prefer to relax in peace can certainly do so in this region.
You can discover East Cape by car on the paved Highway 35, which winds its way around 334 km of scenic coastal countryside, from the town of Opotiki on the north point of the peninsula to Gisborne.
Mount Hikurangi, 1753 m high, is situated on the coast to the north of Gisborne and famous literally round the world because the rising sun’s rays first fall on this region. Interestingly enough, that the Ngati Porou tribe considered it sacred. The Maori word for the Gisborne district is Tairawhiti, meaning “the coast, where the sun shines on the water.”
The summit of Mount Hikurangi will be the first place in the world to be touched by the sun’s rays in the 21st century. An annual First Light Festival has been organized in order to increase the suspense leading up to the final event. It seems more than appropriate that the sun first shines on a place that has more than 22,000 hours of sunshine each year, making it one the sunniest place anywhere in New Zealand.
The Gisborne Region, which embraces the largest part of the East Cape Peninsula, stretches to the north beyond Lottin Point (130 km to the south of Opotiki), to the south as far as the Wharerata Range and from the coast as far as the Raukumara Range. 46,000 people live on the 8300 sq. km constituting this region. 17,000 of them are Maori. Compared with other regions in New Zealand, this is a relatively high percentage, contributing to the fascinating diversity in cultural life and history here.
One of the jewels of East Cape is the 115,103 hectare Raukumara Range, one of the few regions on the North Island with vast areas of remote and pristine countryside, rugged terrain and almost virgin forests.
Hikurangi, the highest non-volcanic peak on North Island, is the most prominent topographical landmark on the entire peninsula. Together with the Honokawa, Aorangi, Wharekia and Taitai mountains, it forms a spectacular mountain range. The Hikurangi plays an important role in many Maori legends and songs. Its name originates in the times before the Maori settled in New Zealand.
Remains of the now-extinct huge moa birds were found at the foot of the mountain. There is also a splendid view of Hikurangi mountain from the coastal road between Opotiki and Gisborne. The Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club owns a lodge on private land on the mountain’s northern slopes. It’s recommended to leave your name at the information office before starting out.