The government building in Niue – a South Pacific mini-state that lives in a ridiculous 23-hour time loop behind neighbouring New Zealand

After All: You are invited to a meeting at 5pm... yesterday!

Image credit: Vlad Sokhin/Panos Pictures

Our columnist ponders over some of the amazing global deviations and fluctuations of that important engineering concept – time.

Have you heard the one about the engineer? At work, an engineer was offered a course about time management, but he was too busy to go. Ha-ha-ha.

Seriously, though, I have always believed that engineers were punctual by definition and regarded time as an important engineering concept - but do they?

Well, it depends. Punctuality, it appears, can be conditional on a number of factors, including where you live, for, believe it or not, there are a number of places on our guilty Earth where being on time is much easier said than done. As a punctual person myself, I’ve been meticulously collecting such time-defying (and time-deviant!) places for many years and have managed to visit several of them too. Let me introduce you to some, starting with Australia, where many of our readers are based and where I lived and worked as a senior writer for the Age newspaper some years ago.

My job involved a good deal of travel around that amazing continent-size country spanning several time zones, i.e. areas, defined by longitudes, in which a common standard time is used. Whoever drafted the Australian time zones must have been affected by the Aussie lifestyle principle ‘no worries, mate’ – so many exceptions, exclusions, and other time warps, i.e. deviations from the ‘normal’ time zone arrangements...

If you do a Google search for the current time in Sydney and then in the New South Wales town of Broken Hill, you will see that the latter is 30 minutes behind the state capital. This is because, unlike the rest of New South Wales, Broken Hill observes Australian Central Standard Time (Universal Co-ordinated Time, UTC+9:30), the same time zone used in nearby South Australia (SA). The reason is that when the Australian dominions adopted standard time in the 1890s, Broken Hill’s only direct rail link was with Adelaide, not Sydney.

Broken Hill is regarded as part of SA for the purposes of postal rates and telephone charges. It also used to be a break-of-gauge station where the state railway systems of SA and New South Wales met.

The official time in the tiny town of Eucla, SA, and the surrounding area is 45 minutes ahead of Western Australia (WA) and 45 minutes behind SA. This is because during Eucla’s foundation in 1885, the time difference between SA and WA was 1 hour 30 minutes, so it was decided to set a time halfway between, which gave birth to a new time zone of 45 minutes.

The town of Tweed Heads at the very north of New South Wales merges seamlessly into Coolangatta on Queensland’s Gold Coast. The two states are ostensibly in the same time zone, but New South Wales observes daylight saving, and Queensland doesn’t. That means the twin towns have managed to carve out a peculiar niche where you can celebrate New Year’s Eve twice. Start in Tweed Heads, then stroll over into Coolangatta, and the party starts again an hour later.

I once tried the same trick in Europe by taking a (now-defunct) Sea Cat speed ferry from Calais in France to Dover (one hour behind) shortly after midnight on 1 January 1993. The crossing took 40 minutes – just enough time for me to disembark and join the crowds of English revellers on the promenade for the second New Year celebration!

Looking elsewhere, it is not common knowledge that, despite its vast size, all of India uses one and the same time zone. They observe the Indian Standard Time (IST), which is five and a half hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). As an example, at 12am in an area using UTC, it is 5:30am in India.

Likewise, China, which sprawls across the Asian continent, spanning a sixth of the world’s breadth, is also just one time zone! This means that when it’s, say, 6pm in Beijing, it is also 6pm in Kashgar, 3,000 miles to the west of the capital.

Afghanistan sticks to Afghanistan Time (AFT), with an offset of UTC +4:30, so effectively Afghanistan and China, while sharing a 47-mile boundary, are three-and-a-half hours apart.

Venezuela observes the offset of UTC -4:30 after Hugo Chavez, the former Venezuelan President, decided in 2007 to permanently move the country’s time back by a half hour.

Nepal is 15 minutes ahead of India’s one and only time zone. That means, when it is 12am in Greenwich – at the Prime Meridian – it is 5:45am in the greater Nepal area and Kathmandu.

The Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia takes a week to get from Moscow to Vladivostok, and crosses seven time zones along the way. Yet the train sticks to Moscow time, as do all the stations. So the clock at Vladivostok station can show 9am at dusk.

The Island of Niue, one of the world’s smallest nations, lies between Tonga and the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. Google Maps locator shows the small island nation on one side of the international dateline, while neighbours Tonga, New Zealand and Kiribati sit on the other, which leaves Niue in a ridiculous 23-hour time loop behind Wellington. Anyone who has flown to Niue from Tonga (one-hour flight) loses a whole day of their life, but gains it back on return.

On the surface, the time zone change between Spain and Portugal is conventional – just the one-hour difference. What is unusual is the way you can go back in time.

In the Spanish border town of Sanlúcar de Guadiana, local company Limite Zero offers the option of crossing the Guadiana river by zipline – the only cross-border zipline in the world. The river forms the border between the countries in these parts, so once you’ve landed in Alcoutim, Portugal, you’ve zipwired across a river, a border and an hour back in time. Just as I did that New Year’s Eve across the English Channel, aka Pas-de-Calais.

And lastly, time as such does not exist at all in Mount Athos (population 2,200), a semi-​independent mini-state of Orthodox monks in the north of Greece. The clocks in some of the monasteries are set to midnight at sunset. In others they are set to midday at dawn. This makes fixing any kind of appointment on Mount Athos a pretty hopeless business – a sheer hell for the (allegedly) punctual engineers, of whom, luckily, there are none in the Holy Mountain!

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