Be­low and be­yond

In and out of the wa­ter on gor­geously wild and pris­tine Lord Howe Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - LOUISE EVANS

OUR snorkelling ad­ven­ture is go­ing swimmingly un­til the huge flat black rock be­neath me sud­denly comes to life. As I try des­per­ately to es­cape from be­ing on top of what is in fact a gi­ant stingray, all I can think of is how Steve Ir­win met his maker.

Luck­ily, nei­ther my maker nor the stingray has the slight­est in­ter­est in me and the ray glides off in the di­rec­tion of the de­serted beach where we’ve aban­doned our pic­nic to snorkel along a vol­canic rock face in search of tur­tles.

We come to learn that the crea­tures in­hab­it­ing Lord Howe Is­land have a habit of star­tling tres­passers. Wade in for a dip at the south end of Neds Beach and you’ll be swamped by me­tre-long fish that gamely dart be­tween your legs, de­mand­ing to be fed. And I have to con­fess that be­ing tail-slapped by fish is laugh-out-loud hi­lar­i­ous (as well as tick­lish).

Take a boat to in­ves­ti­gate the colourful co­ral holes in the pro­tected la­goon or the wider marine park and you’ll come face to face with huge, im­mov­able dou­ble-header wrasse fish, whose dis­tinc­tive bumps make them look as if they’ve head-butted one too many snorkellers.

Pick one of the many scenic bluffs for sun­set drinks and flight­less wood­hens, which look like lit­tle ki­wis, may sud­denly ap­pear from the un­der­growth to peck at your toes. Empty your back­pack at one of the 11 white-sand beaches for a pic­nic lunch and an un­in­vited hunts­man spi­der may well jump out and star­tle you.

Star­tling is ac­tu­ally a good word to de­scribe ev­ery­thing about Lord Howe Is­land — its un­spoiled beauty, fear­less crea­tures, pris­tine azure wa­ters, vi­brant co­ral gar­dens and its prox­im­ity to the main­land (just a two-hour flight east from Bris­bane or Sydney).

As you fly in, you’ll see one of the isle’s big­gest jew­els, the world’s most southerly co­ral reef, which pro­tects an in­cred­i­bly clear and calm la­goon that is per­fect for snorkelling and glass-bot­tomed boat tours. There are also 50 dive sites, lit­tered with caves and vol­canic drop-offs.

One of the rea­sons Lord Howe is so un­touched and pure is be­cause it was World Her­itage-listed in 1982. The is­land is also part of NSW and its sur­round­ing wa­ters were de­clared a marine park in 1998. The hu­man pop­u­la­tion is kept low; there are about 350 res­i­dents and visi­tor num­bers are capped at 400 at any one time to limit the im­pact on flora and fauna. As a re­sult, Lord Howe is like a huge open-air zoo where the an­i­mals, on land and sea, come to gawk at you, not the other way around.

A good way to get a feel for the stun­ning 11km-long land mass, which is just 2km across at its widest point, is to take a boat cruise around the is­land. More than 10 species of seabirds nest here and they make a fright­en­ing racket as they fight for space on the sheer cliffs.

There are good fish­ing spots, too, and the Lord Howe king­fish, with its soft, tasty fil­lets, fea­tures on the menu — along with lo­cal king­fish, tuna and squid — at the chic nine-suite Capella Lodge nes­tled be­low the twin peaks of Gower and Lidg­bird.

If you pre­fer surf­ing, just fol­low the bare­foot lo­cals to Blinky Beach on the east side or past Salmon Beach on the west, de­pend­ing on the winds.

Tourist op­er­a­tors boast about Lord Howe’s crime-free en­vi­ron­ment and how no one locks their sheds or cars. Bi­cy­cles are the main mode of trans­port. In this laid-back, old-fash­ioned place, there is nowhere to take a stolen car or bi­cy­cle, so there’s no point steal­ing. As a re­sult, the is­land’s sole po­lice­man likes to have a chat when he stops tourists to re­mind them to wear their bike hel­mets.

Lord Howe has an in­trigu­ing hu­man his­tory, which can be fur­ther ex­plored at its mu­seum. The first white man to dis­cover Lord Howe was Lieu­tenant Henry Lidg­bird Ball, the com­man­der of the First Fleet ship Sup­ply. In 1788, while sail­ing be­tween Sydney Cove and the Nor­folk Is­land pe­nal set­tle­ment, Ball spot­ted the un­in­hab­ited is­land and named it af­ter Ad­mi­ral Richard Howe. Ball’s Pyra­mid, the sheer rocky spike to the south, he named af­ter him­self.

The first set­tlers were white men, who ar­rived with Pa­cific Is­lander wives. You are left to guess, as you study their glum faces in the mu­seum pho­tos, whether the women were kid­napped or came will­ingly.

Be­ing about half­way be­tween Sydney and Nor­folk, Lord Howe be­came a trad­ing post and pro­vi­sion­ing stop for pass­ing boats and whalers. When whal­ing be­came un­prof­itable the is­lan­ders, some of whom are de­scen­dants of the orig­i­nal set­tlers, turned the na­tive ken­tia palm seedlings into a cash crop that they sold into Euro­pean mar­kets as par­lour palms. But quite re­cently, and con­tro­ver­sially, that nice lit­tle earner also went belly up, leav­ing tourists as the big­gest cash crop.

Be­cause of the limit on visi­tor num­bers, ac­com­mo­da­tion is fi­nite and it is ex­pen­sive. The bot­tom rate at the top-of-the-range Capella Lodge is $650 a per­son a night, which in­cludes full break­fast, three-course din­ner and all drinks and wine, al­though spe­cials and pack­ages are avail­able. There is cheaper ac­com­mo­da­tion, but most of it in­volves some de­gree of self-cater­ing and, be­cause ev­ery­thing has to be shipped in, food, al­co­hol and restau­rants are ex­pen­sive — and there’s a 14kg check-in bag­gage limit on the 32-seater Dash 8 planes that ser­vice the is­land.

Qan­tasLink has a mo­nop­oly and it costs a hefty amount to fly from Sydney or Bris­bane. Yet, de­spite the fi­nan­cial pain, our flight home is full of bliss­fully happy, re­ju­ve­nated tourists who have each paid many thou­sands of dol­lars for one week in paradise. Star­tling as that is, it’s worth it. lord­howeis­ bail­



Snorkelling at Neds Beach un­der the watch­ful eyes of lo­cal marine life

Gower and Lidg­bird peaks from Mount El­iza

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