Once was … East Cape

Beachfront Tokomaru

Tokomaru dotterel

Beachfront Tokomaru. I’m hoping the sun is hot enough to run my computer off the solar panel. But it doesn’t look promising. The inverter is squeaking at me in a fussily alarming manner.

It’s not quite 9.00am and the weather is already a welcome contrast to yesterday’s grey chill. This has to be one of my favourite camps  – and competition for top spot is high around the East Cape. I’m parked with door open to the gentle crash of waves on a driftwood strewn beach.

This is one of Gisborne District Council’s freedom camping areas. It’s just a few paces from the water’s edge next to a small skatepark and across the road from what used to be Tokomaru’s commercial centre. Still imposing but deserted buildings once housed the New South Wales ( “chequing accounts”) and Bank of New Zealand operations.

“Once was” seems to be a characteristic of the Cape.

It’s a place that has seen industries come and go –bustling settlements once served by coastal shipping now drift in a dreamy desertion. For visitors it’s part of the charm – but it’s clear locals struggle to make ends meet. Telecom obviously hasn’t invested much here – cell reception was patchy to non-existent until I hit Tokomaru.

I did manage to get texts up at East Cape Lighthouse – but just in one small area and only if I held the phone in a certain direction at the right height. It felt a tad desparate.

I’d spent the previous night at “once was” camping ground. The Eastern Cape Camp is still advertised in the Motor Caravan Association mag –and apparently in Lonely Planet. But the “office” – on an isolated knoll overlooking a windswept beach – is derelict, its ‘honesty box’ holed on both sides. A shame. It proved an amazing park up. And still boasted running water – though little else.

Initially reluctant to park alone without cell coverage in such a deserted looking area, I found a flat place, then got so lost photographing driftwood on the wide sweep of beach below that I forgot to worry. By the time I got back, two young women from the Netherlands had pitched a tent beside my van and, later two German tourists turned up in a camper.

We were all set to do the “first light” thing at the East Cape Lighthouse. But dawn had already broken when I woke up and decided to take advantage of the water to do a quick hairwash before braving another few kms of windy unsealed road and climbing 750 steps (yes, I counted) to the lighthouse.

I was far from first. It was surprising to discover a little bunch of vehicles in the park – and some young German tourists had made sure they were there for dawn by taking sleeping bags and dossing down at the lighthouse base.

All for nought, really. As one noted, walking down with tripod slung over shoulder, “there wass light, somewhere…but the clouds…” It’s my first grey day in this part of the world.

Even overcast, New Zealand’s most easterly point is an impressive place. More amazing, the lighthouse was originally stuck out on Whangaokena – an island that looks far too steep sided to access, let alone support three families of lighthouse keepers.

Surrounded by strong currents, Whangaokena was valued as stronghold and kapata kai (foodhouse) by local Maori. Now it houses only a cemetery, sadly containing three lighthouse children as well as five sailors – one the captain of a ship that foundered there in a 1906 gale. Originally commissioned in 1900, the lighthouse was shifted to its present mainland site a couple of decades later, when slips made the island too dangerous.

first light

I did capture the first sun rays rising over Whangaokena from the access road. By then I was already on a cheap set of camera batteries that didn’t last the distance. The whole East Cape drive is a photographer’s wet dream – from Ohiwa Harbour, south of Opotoki to my current camp.

Last night I went slightly dotty over the local Tokomaru dotterels (their markings are different to the Waiheke clan) and spent so long trying to capture the odd pause in their busy scurrying that I ran both cameras completely out of battery power and this morning had to just click a mental image of the glorious sunrise.

Now my house battery is warning imminent depletion. Some time today, I have to do my GST return. Reality bites. I also have a small novel to write about my East Cape trip so far – but it  might have to wait.

About vjayne

I'm a writer / photographer usually based on Waiheke Island in New Zealand but currently traveling the country in "snail" - my mobile home and office. Along the way, I'm telling stories about the places I see or people I meet and building up a beautiful library of photos - of New Zealand's coastline and mountains, its walking tracks and wildlife. I'm happy to supply illustrated stories to New Zealand and offshore publications. My work background includes editing business and lifestyle magazines, crafting features on topics ranging from management and marketing to frogs and fashion, creating organisational narratives and promotional literature. Please visit my website for more information. www.writeawaycommunications.co.nz
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