There is something special about witnessing the sunrise, in watching those first fingers of pale yellow light pull at the edges of a blanket of darkness. You don’t have to be a solstice-bothering modern-day Druid to experience the sense of renewal that it brings; dawn is the purest expression of a fresh start, a chance to do things differently, to watch a brand new day begin to unfold.
Perhaps some of this psychological cleansing comes from the fact that you will almost certainly have to put in a bit of effort, or find yourself doing something out of the ordinary, to witness this daily phenomenon. For those of us lucky enough not to work night shifts, seeking out a spectacular sunrise may require an alarm clock, plenty of coffee and a journey in the dark, wrapped up warm.
Does that make it a more satisfying event than sunset, with all its gaudy brilliance, witnessed with friends over a drink, by a beach, as half the world begins its slumbers? Let’s not compare the two. But it’s certainly true that you will be in good company for your early start, as a dawn chorus of birds joins you in salute. They are welcoming the day, just as you are – and as the writers below do, in a celebration of the most memorable sunrises they have experienced around the world.
In 2014 I walked 310 miles across Sudan’s Bayuda Desert – 21 days of suffering and joy. Each moment was shaped by the sun – or avoiding it.
There were six of us in all: me; my friends Will and Lev; our guide Moez; and two Bedouin camel herders. We would wake before dawn, when it was a mere 30C (86F), and start walking. As soon as the sun appeared, the temperature would leap, and we had to stop by 11am to set up some shelter, nap in the shade and guzzle water.
The temperature would peak around midday, at 56C (133F) and we would set out again at 2pm, walking well beyond sunset and relishing every moment of cooler air. Then we would lay down a sheet and just sleep on the earth, until the whole thing started over with the next sunrise.
On our final day, we reached the town of Karima, dominated by the Jebel Barkal mountain and dotted with Egyptian and Nubian archaeological sites. We slept in the desert one last time, in the shadow of pyramids dating back 3,500 years.
I woke before dawn and looked to the east. The sky lightened from purple to blue, and I braced myself for that ferocious fireball, whose rhythm had become my own over the past three weeks. The sunrise felt like a thump to the face, as the fierce heat seared my skin for the final time. The glorious simplicity of the journey overwhelmed me, and tears rolled down my cheeks, evaporating before they fell.
Mont Blanc, France
After six hours in darkness traversing ice fields, confronting glaciers, faces and ridges, I knew we must be close to the summit of Mont Blanc. Any uncertainty I had was about my own stamina. I felt like I had gone from keeping up the pace to plodding. I could barely feel my feet, rubbed raw by rigid rented boots. When an ice bridge collapsed under me and I fell into a crevasse – dangling in fresh air by my safety rope – my overwhelming emotion was relief at having the weight off my feet.
I turned my attention to the banal task of planting one foot in front of the other while avoiding catching the edges of my crampons. Eyes cast down, I barely noticed the sky lightening. But then my guide suddenly stopped and gestured that I sit. He pointed east. I slumped down upon the snow at a precipitous angle, grateful for the breather.
We waited less than a minute before the glint of dawn appeared between jagged Alpine peaks. I squinted, and allowed myself a quiet smile. At that moment, I acutely felt the sun’s force, from its expectant warmth to its ferocious light to its sharp heralding of a new day.
In an instant we were up again and moving. Yet it was that angled, strangely unexpected sunrise that gave me the extra push. Minutes later, we summited, the world sweeping away on either side, as the sun continued to lift higher into the sky.
Michelle Jana Chan
The Surrey Hills
We emerged from the treeline after a pre-dawn hike through the Hurtwood to Holmbury Hill just as the sun was coming up. “What’s that?” asked one of the girls in the group of people I had brought camping, for the first time in their lives, as part of Wild Night Out 2019.I confirmed that we were looking at the same object and explained that the orange globe giving off light so gentle that at that instant it could have been confused with the moon was, in fact, the sun. She paused, and said she had never seen it like that before; then she fell silent and, in that moment, I understood that without the ambient noise, lights and distractions of inner-city life, for the first time she was really “experiencing a sunrise, not just seeing one.
Chyulu Hills, Kenya
The best photographers are all fanatically early risers. The soft, warm light of dawn is worth a fortune in camera equipment and retouching. This is one of the ways that professional photographs are most different from holiday snaps. By the time tourists reach Angkor Wat, say, the professionals have long since departed.
Three years ago, I did a wildlife photography course in Kenya. It was technically challenging and I was determined to impress my tutor, a photographer called David Murray. I worked hard to master the kit, but I also knew from working with lots of photographers over the years that the main thing was to be ready at 5am.
I will never forget the first morning we drove out into the bush around the Chyulu Hills in the cool predawn darkness. It was so magical that I stopped fiddling with my camera settings and just watched. I remember the outline of acacia trees and the picked bones of a cow’s rib cage standing sharply against the black earth. The dawn seemed to rise as though it was on a dimmer switch. The Milky Way disappeared. The nocturnal animals – bat-eared foxes and porcupines – clocked off. Suddenly, I could see Kilimanjaro against a mother-of-pearl sky.
At that moment, our driver and guide, a local Maasai called Konee Kinyakku, spotted three lions eating the carcass of a wildebeest. We were close enough to see the flies and catch a whiff of the meat. What stays with me is the moment one of the lions raised her head, met my astonished gaze with an indifferent look and then carried on with her breakfast.
Not a single sunrise but multiple dawns! I was staying, for an extended period, at the Ganges View at Assi Ghat. The hotel has a large terrace overlooking the river and I was always up early, while it was still dark – something which, at home, happens only if I am heading off on a trip.
Everything is shrouded in fog. The darkness greys and then glows while remaining without definition or shape. You can hear the splash of oars but see nothing of the river: a pure experience of almost-light. The blurry forms of nearby buildings and temples begin to emerge, together with a faint suggestion of differentiation between the wide weight of river and a lighter haze of sky.
Shrouded figures in boats emerge from or disappear into the mist. Then the sun itself appears, not as an object, only as a suggested source of the glow, the faintest pulse of colour in the draining grey. Slowly the opposite bank of the Ganges appears: so empty as to be almost nothing.
On the west side of the river the town is dense with life and belief, beauty and filth. The opposite bank is undeveloped, empty, scarcely created. As the mist fades, the colours of Varanasi blaze forth but during those dawns it feels not as if another day is beginning but as if the world itself is coming into existence, from nothing.
In Northumberland, 2010 began bleak and strange. Snow fell heavily, froze hard and a giant moon rolled so low across the sky it seemed it would crush the trees. Like the pointing in a garden wall, my life crumbled in the frost until the only thing that seemed to be holding it upright was memory.
Early one February morning I caught a bus up the coast, alighting a few stops after the kipper village of Craster and walking across Embleton golf course in the darkness. The heavy door of winter in the North East had creaked briefly open.
The ice had cleared, the wind was almost warm. It was a northern equivalent of the halcyon days of the Mediterranean when, the Ancient Greeks believed, kingfishers, or halcyons, took advantage of a lull between winter storms to lay their eggs in a nest built on the sea.
Not on the North Sea, they wouldn’t. In the gloom you could hear it remorselessly pummelling the shore. I found a stone and sat down on it. I had biscuits and a Thermos of hot chocolate laced with overproof rum. The sun rose shyly above the restless sea, peeping through the dark shreds of Dunstanburgh castle. It grew gradually more confident, filling the air with a brittle, glowing light and something a little like heat. It was my 50th birthday.
It would snow again before the winter ended, but for the first time for what seemed an age, I sensed that somewhere out there, spring was waiting.
New York City, USA
It was freezing winter in Manhattan. All night I waited for my lover to finish work at the reception desk of the Paramount Hotel. We planned to meet at dawn by the Hudson river when her shift was done, so I walked west through Hell’s Kitchen and the bitter end of night.
Garbage trucks patrolled, the frost mingling with their smells of sour milk, gasoline and cooling fryer-fat. Perhaps the prowling chequered cabs were driven by men in dreams. And then there was the mighty Hudson, lacquering as the light came from the east, and I realised with glee I was about to see earth’s mightiest city wake.
First came the helicopters, tracking in from Jersey City, Staten Island and Brooklyn, then small ferries, tentative as cats on the dozing river’s mighty back, then a grumbling tug pushing barges. Now the light was flaring in from the east, pure blue, and the whole army of skyscrapers seemed to rise to meet it, like an army lifting spearpoints to catch the sun’s first rays.
Behind the million tiny windows of Manhattan, its people were getting up. Steam flew in high flags from boilers and the vents in frozen streets. Now came walkers, runners, commuters – and my lover. She was wearing a scarlet beret and she was grinning. We missed the actual sunrise, kissing. Remembering it now, it is as though I saw two miracles. But one of them happens every day.
Qilai Mountain, Taiwan
At 3am I awoke, with the Taiwanese mountains still shrouded in cloud. Rain had battered my tent for hours; my head felt filled with scree, my legs with stone. Still, I laced my boots and threw on my backpack, flashing my torch into the night. Sunrise at the peak was promised to hikers who got there for 6am.
I’m not really much of a mountain climber, but I’m often willing to undergo great physical discomfort in search of a view – and I was hoping to see something at the peak that would astound me: rosy light and a cradle of clouds. The trek took me through a sodden alpine bog, into wind that howled through Yushan cane, up boulders streaming with the downpour. Water squelched in my boots, and the rain did not abate. I reached the peak before dawn, and stood among other hikers to take a photograph with the altitude marker: Qilai South Peak, 3,358m. The flash lit only my face and the clouds around me. When 6am came, there was no view of golden light. Instead, as the minutes passed, pale white filtered through the clouds. Night ever so softly crept away. There was no grand view that day; but it didn’t matter. There was satisfaction, still, in seeing a storm break into day.
Jessica J Lee
The Kimberley, Australia
Out in the wilds of Western Australia’s Kimberley region, I don’t need a watch to know that dawn is approaching. Sleeping outside in my rollaway bushman’s bed, I am alerted by all my senses to its imminent arrival.
It begins with a breeze on my face that, though not yet warmed by the sun, has lost the edge of the night-time chill. In the distance I hear the rising chorus of Torresian crows as they scavenge for food scraps left over by campers. Finally, I open my eyes to see it coming: that blistering shade of red, seamlessly filtering into yellow strands amid the inky darkness – a ribbon of primary colour against a cluster of paperbark trees.
I am following a 410-mile stretch of the unpaved Gibb River Road – once cleaved to drive cattle to the cities, now an adventure of choice for intrepid travellers – with nine others, all still asleep. Last night they sat up late beside the campfire. They won’t miss a sunset, but have never seen the sunrise here in this wild place. Me, I chase the moment the sun arrives, wherever I am on my travels, when the whole world seems to be holding its breath in this life-affirming moment.
The Andes, Peru
My most memorable sunrise launched a career. I didn’t plan to write travel guides and I didn’t plan to start a publishing company. Things happen. And one thing that happened was spotting a promising looking trail on an old German map through the Cordillera Blanca in Peru to the historic town of Chavin. Maybe it still existed? Maybe it didn’t matter that my sleeping bag had been stolen? George and I could walk it in a day, surely?
It was a beautiful, difficult and serendipitous trail, giving a purpose to our travels, and leading, ultimately, to the first edition of the first Bradt guide. But that was hardly a matter of concern as the light started to fail and we realised we still had hours of hiking – not to mention a pass – ahead of us.
Where were we going to sleep? How would I keep warm? All I had was a hand-woven poncho and a sweater. We found a shepherd’s hut full of tiny potatoes. They provided a soft, body-shapeable mattress and the hut was thatched and relatively well insulated. Wrapped in my poncho I slept well until dawn, the freezing icy dawn of the Andes, when it was too cold to do anything but make tea on a Campingaz stove, shiver and cradle our hot mug as we watched the sun touch the snow peaks with pink and slide down their sides to light the foothills.
Then it seemed to pause and survey the valley, delaying the blessing, before rushing down to bathe our hut and us in warmth. And we knew, we absolutely knew, why the Incas worshipped the sun.
Phoebe Smith and Dwayne Fields are raising money to take a group ofunderprivileged young people to Antarctica to see their first polar sunrise; support them at justgiving.com/crowdfunding/wetwo