Lord Howe Island is a drug, a potent personality-altering substance. Could this couple waving as they pedal past be the same ones who gazumped your parking space at Coles last Saturday? We are all improved by exposure to it – kinder, healthier, happier
A few swooning coconut palms, a scrap of sand and a lurid sunset and that word “paradise” limps into view. Tired, overworked and underachieving, “paradise” has lost its punch, and so it is that I am left with no single word for Lord Howe Island. Yet from the moment your plane sweeps low over the island’s cliffs, skims across the surf break on the edge of the lagoon and drops you in the shadow of two leaping green volcanic peaks, you’ll be in no doubt. Paradise it is.
Anchored 550 kms due east of Port Macquarie, Lord Howe Island is tiny, barely 11 kilometres from end to end and two across at its widest point, yet rarely is so much crammed into such a tiny pimple of dry land. Within the shelter of the reef on the western side of the island is a shallow lagoon that hosts the world’s most southerly coral gardens. On the eastern side there are surf beaches and sheer cliffs that heave themselves vertically from the sea.
In the interior are dense forests of the miraculous banyan tree, which can span an area of 100 square metres with its root structure of soaring columns. The summit of Mount Gower is richly invested with rainforest and a rustling canopy of kentia palms blankets most of the lower storey of the island.
The sea life is phenomenal. In the surrounding waters, warm and cool currents collide, spawning a wealth of marine life that includes giant clams, sea turtles, clownfish, lionfish, tuna, butterfly fish and a wrasse known as the doubleheader, a species unique to the island’s waters. Walk through Dry Gulch at low tide, scramble around the basalt boulders and there are rock pools that are like no other rock pools you’re ever seen – deep troughs squirming with octopus and darting sea life.
The island is also a biological ark, a perch for exotic species of sea birds in their migratory journeys, which might take them as far north as Siberia. Boobies nest along the windy cliffs, white terns drift like snowflakes among the kentia palm forests and ternlets nest along the base of the cliffs. Lord Howe is the only place on earth where providence petrels breed. One of the greatest concentrations of the fabulous red-tailed tropic bird can be found along the island’s northern cliffs, and so prolific are the shearwaters that a local hazard is stepping into a shearwater’s sandy burrow and twisting an ankle.
Despite these exotic winged creatures, possibly the most fetching of all the island’s birds is the brown, flightless Lord Howe Island woodhen. The woodhen is a rail about the size of a large pigeon that responds to unusual noises by popping out of the undergrowth for a look around. Needless to say, this does not bode well for its survival prospects.
The bird was a favourite menu item for early settlers, who must have considered the woodhen the ultimate in self-delivery meals. By the mid-nineteenth century – just 15 years after the first settlers arrived – the woodhen was found only on the higher slopes of the two southern mountains. By 1973, when only about 30 birds remained on the flat-topped summit of Mount Gower, the decision was made to remove two adult pairs to begin a captive breeding program. Between 1981 and 1983, 85 captive-bred birds were re-introduced to the wild, and thanks to strict controls over cats, dogs and rats, there are now about 250 woodhens on the island – making it the world’s most successful captive breeding program.
So much natural bounty is mightily invigorating. Everyone swims, snorkels, hikes, fishes, bicycles, takes up birdwatching or even golf for the sheer pleasure of whacking a ball around one of the loveliest 9-hole courses in the golf world.
When you arrive, check out the tours advertised on the board opposite the post office. Guided tours often book out several days in advance and it’s just as well to get your name down for fishing, diving, sightseeing, hiking and snorkelling and glass-bottom boat trips.
The island has an excellent network of hiking trails, and while the local tourism board has a wonderful series of leaflets for the do-it-yourself explorer, there are good reasons to take a tour with a local guide, since only a resident expert can unlock the island’s riches. Until a kindly hiker told me, I didn’t realise that the red fruit hanging from the shrubs I passed all over the island were cherry guavas – small, delicious and free for the plucking.
Most challenging of all the island’s walks is the full-day hike to the summit of Mount Gower. This is not for the faint-hearted. After hopping across a beach of ankle-turning rocks, hikers must scramble up a trail that disappears vertically into the forest on the lower slopes of Mount Lidgbird. The next task is to skirt the exposed south-west scarp of the mountain by creeping along a narrow ledge, face to the cliff and clinging to a rope with a sheer drop at your back. After that, the climb through dripping vegetation to the summit of the 875m mountain should be a doddle.
Pick of the island’s lodges are Arajilla Retreat and Capella Lodge. Both offer opulent accommodation, but in terms of scenery, Capella Lodge has it all. Set on a hilltop, the lodge overlooks dipping pastures to the blonde beaches that line the lagoon in one direction and the looming buttresses of mounts Lidgbird and Gower in the other. Although the position is the last word in tranquility, it’s a longish pedal to Ned’s Beach Road, where most of the activities, cafes and restaurants are located.
Near the road’s end in the north of the island, Arajilla Retreat is enveloped by a lush forest of kentia palms where stray beams of sunlight arrow through the canopy. There’s a beach just two minutes away, Ned’s Beach Road is a 10-minute stroll and the lodge is ideally situated for the walks at the northern end of the island.
As well as its birds, its fish, its walks, its quirky island ways, Lord Howe Island is a drug, a potent personality-altering substance.