Australia's remote paradise isle
SQUASHED INTO AN ECONOMY-CLASS WINDOW SEAT while flying home to Western Australia from New Caledonia, I watched puffy clouds drift by, daydreaming of the amazing waves I had scored on my trip. Suddenly, I popped back to reality with a start. Rubbing my eyes, I stared down in disbelief. “What the f**?” Thousands of metres below sat a tiny half-moon of land, brilliant as an emerald against the deep blue of the ocean. I could make out two large mountains at one tip, dazzling beaches down the sides and a coral-fringed lagoon blazing in the most surreal shades of turquoise and aquamarine. I nudged the dude in the seat next to me, gesturing for him to take off his headphones for a moment: “Mate, please have a look. Is there an island down there or am I going crazy?” “Wow! That's amazing, must be Norfolk Island,” he said. “Nah, I reckon we're too far west for Norfolk,” I replied. “We both must be hallucinating then,” he offered, before returning his headphones to his ears and his full attention back to the inflight entertainment. Back on solid ground, waiting at the luggage belt, I pulled up Google Earth and found it: Lord Howe Island, part of New South Wales and about 700km northeast of Sydney, out in the Tasman Sea. I'd never even heard of it. * * * Several months after my chance discovery, I was sat in a 32-seater prop plane bound for Lord Howe. My fascination with this unexpected outpost of Australia was not to be denied, even by a two-day delay to my flight thanks to dense fog over the island. Even without fog, the landing was pretty full-on. The weather was dismal and the plane slipped out of gunmetal skies and plopped down on a super-short strip that started only a couple of metres in from the ocean. Still, I'd snatched my first glimpses of the spectacular peaks of Mt Lidgbird (777m) and Mt Gower (875m) at the island's southern end, as well as the lagoon, 8km long and 1.5km wide, that runs down the western side, bounded by the world's most southerly coral reef. These features are one reason for Lord Howe's World Heritage Site status: its listing cites its remarkably diverse landscape, as well as high levels of endemic flora and fauna. The island, which I knew to be only 11km long and 2km across at its widest point, felt smaller still during the short transfer to my
accommodation. A single main road runs across the middle of the crescent-shaped isle, a few side-streets forking off here and there to form the only settlement. Even ‘downtown' was extremely lush, subtropical in fifty shades of green. The lanes were shaded by palm, pine, banyan and pandanus, with the sweet smell of frangipani and hibiscus hanging in the air, while each mountainous end of the island was cloaked in forest. The island was first sighted on February 17, 1788 by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, commander of the ship Supply. One of the First Fleet, the flotilla of vessels that left England in 1787 to found the penal colony that was the first permanent European settlement in Australia, the Supply was transiting convicts to the penal settlement of Norfolk Island. Ball named the then uninhabited island after British Admiral, Richard Howe, and all its place names recall the First Fleet in some way. Approximately 350 permanent residents call Lord Howe home today. Being allowed to call it home is not easy though: you have to live there for 10 consecutive years to get your islander-status, making you eligible to buy land. Even then, there are only a small number of blocks left for sale. The use of cars kicked in only in the last 10 years with about 250 motor vehicles on the island today, including machinery and minibuses. There's a fleet of seven rental vehicles but bicycles are the best way to get around and I quickly set myself up with one from the bike-stable at Ocean View, established more than 100 years ago as one of the original guest lodges on Lord Howe. As the much-eroded remnant of a seven million-year-old shield volcano, Lord Howe is attended by 28 scattered islets and my first
port of call was the most remarkable of all them: Ball's Pyramid, the world's tallest volcanic sea stack. I headed out 23km southeast of Lord Howe, onboard Greenback – a beamy fishing boat named after the locally prolific yellowtail kingfish (besides a yellow caudal fin, it sports a distinctive greenish back). There a jagged 551-metre shard of rock erupts out of the Tasman Sea. “In the distance it's a fairytale castle wreathed in clouds. It's a medieval fortress, protected by an ocean moat and guarded by a ridge of towering battlements. It seems to drift on the water supported by a shroud of clouds.” So said Australian John Davis, a member of the team to first climb it on February 14, 1965. The Tasman Sea around Ball's Pyramid is renowned for its diving and fishing among the islanders but Mother Nature had a different spectacle in store for me. As I was sitting on the bow, happily staring out to the horizon, a large pod of bottleneck dolphins came up around the front of the boat, playfully swimming along with us. It seemed utterly staged when suddenly one of them launched themselves metres up into the air right in front of me, with the pyramid in the background. It was as though the boat trip was running to some cheesy Hollywood script. Minutes later, I jumped in myself, to freedive in 600m of water of the deepest shade of blue I have ever experienced. It was hard not to succumb to the storyline, me cast as a mermaid, at home in the immense ocean. I couldn't get the big grin off my face until I put my tired bones to bed that evening, still rocking. First thing next morning, I climbed a dune to overlook the east coast's Blinky Beach (named after Captain Blenkinthorpe who landed the first settlers in 1834). Feeling the light offshore on my back, I watched as it stacked up perfect crystalline cylinders of luminous turquoise that broke onto an empty white beach. All this and there were only two surfers out! I rushed to paddle out to the line-up, greeted by a turtle that popped its head up and hung with me for a while. The vibe in the water was all-round friendly: both surfers introduced themselves with their names! Where in the world does that still happen? The throwback feel is everywhere on Lord Howe and it's one of the most captivating charms of this place. There is no mobile phone coverage, no street lights. The daily weather report is written on a blackboard at the tiny museum. The local's milk comes udder-fresh and unprocessed, straight from Gower Wilson's farm, as it has been doing for all of the 78-year-old's working life (restaurants and cafes import pasteurised milk for visitors). Unless posted express, the mail arrives once every two weeks by ship from the mainland. This makes every second Saturday feel a bit like Christmas, when the Island Trader docks on the little jetty in the lagoon, delivering everybody's mail along with bulk-bought fresh produce, goods ordered online and the rest. It's also then that the shelves of the two general stores are replenished with fresh fruits and veggies, ‘luxuries' that can get a bit scarce by the other end of a two-week cycle.
Everybody waves to each other whether travelling by foot, bicycle or car. If you're too lazy to carry your surfboard home, just leave it in the palm forest behind the dunes at Blinky's. Bikes don't need a lock. Simon is the only policeman and it was the greatest feeling to wave to him from the passenger seat, without wearing a seat-belt. Instead of a fine, I got a big wave and smile back. Seat-belts are not compulsory on Lord Howe and the maximum speed limit on the island is 25kph. Up to 400 tourists are allowed on the island at one time, catered for by a few little shops selling clothes, arts, and souvenirs, as well as cafes and restaurants, a four-bed hospital with a GP, three churches, a local radio station, two banks and one ATM. A few wifi hotspots have only been established very recently. After a morning surfing at Blinky's and a quick lunch, it was time to venture out west: heading all of a few hundred metres to the lagoon with my kite. The colour of the water, set against that craggy backdrop, blew my mind. Scoring what was only the first of several sessions out here all on my own, made it even more special. The lagoon is home to over 500 species of fish and 90 species of coral, with new species still being discovered regularly. This makes the snorkelling unreal and I even befriended a beautiful, inquisitive reef shark later on my trip. Waves form at several passes along the 8km stretch of reef that pens in the lagoon. La Meurthe (named after an unmanned ‘ghost ship' that was driven ashore in 1907), at the northwest passage, became my favourite wave-playground. Not far from here is stunning North Bay. I will never forget landing my kite on the pine- and palm- lined beach for the first time, as hundreds of sooty terns and other birds swooped in to check out my giant wing. ‘Wide-awake' as locals laughingly call them, for their piercing cry, that species of tern is the most abundant sea bird on the island, breeding here over summer. There are almost 170 species of sea and land birds living on, or visiting, the island group, and hundreds of thousands nest here each year, including the endemic, flightless Lord Howe Island wood hen. Abundant until the first settlers arrived, they were down to six pairs in 1982 but thanks to local conservation efforts, numbers have risen to about 300 now. Leaving my kite on the shore, I climbed Mt Eliza (147m) to get a view over the whole island. It only confirmed my first impression: it might be small but its rugged geography makes it a treasure trove for hikers, especially those up to cliff-top treks and scrambling up steep, forested slopes. I returned several times to Eliza over the next days to soak up the scene, knowing that its straightforward trail was the merest taste of what lay in store to the south, where that pair of
PLAYGROUND FOR ONE The lagoon down the island’s west side is broad, beach-lined and often entirely deserted.
WHAT A DRAG! At play in North Bay, home to hundreds of sooty terns and other birds, and starting point for the hike up Mt Eliza.
COMMANDING VIEW Lord Howe’s topography grabs your attention as you fly in.
VISITORS TO THE LAGOON The waters around Lord Howe suffer little pressure from fishing so are a haven for marine life of all kinds.