Aus­tralia's re­mote par­adise isle

Action Asia - - FRONT PAGE - Story by Gabi Steindl

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.

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