05 March, 2013

Lord Howe Island 2013

Lord Howe Island had long been a desirable travel destination for us, but we had previously put off one of two plans to visit there due to fears of too much wind and rain. Finally, reports by friends and colleagues as to how wonderful the island was persuaded us to take the plunge and plan the better part of a week there. We were not disappointed! We enjoyed almost perfect weather at the end of February 2013, and found Lord Howe to be a delightful place to visit. We were able to hike, bike, swim, and kayak to our heart’s content, and would recommend a holiday here to anyone, but not if they want nightlife!

Lord Howe is 700km north-east of Sydney, and is roughly 10km long from tip to tip. Mountains define the east and west of the island, with the developed area (including the airstrip) occupying only a small fraction of the land area in the narrow middle section. Some 70% of the land area is wilderness. The island is a remnant of a volcano, vaguely crescent shaped, with a large lagoon dominating the south side. In total, there are only 5-10km of roads on Lord Howe, and these were easily traversed in their entirety in one afternoon on a bicycle.

Apart from walking, riding a bicycle is the main means of transport on Lord Howe, certainly for the tourists. There are relatively few motorised vehicles here, but all accommodations and tour operators have a mini-bus or something to transport their guests. The speed limit is 25km/hr but that sedentary pace restriction seems to be rarely honoured by locals going about their business, unless they have tourists on board.

It’s easy to get around Lord Howe by yourself, but we opted for a guided tour so we could appreciate some of the finer details which make this place so interesting. Tours like this appear to be run by long term locals whose history on Lord Howe goes back many generations, and Chase ‘n’ Thyme was no exception. We also did a cruise around the island and to Balls Pyramid on board M.V.Noctiluca. Our skipper, Jack, is deeply entrenched in LHI tourism – not only did he know every seabird by name and where it could be found on this cruise, but he told us that he also leads the trek up Mt. Gower twice a week. No wonder he looked so fit!

Mt. Gower(875m), together with its partner Mt. Lidgbird, are the dominant features of the Lord Howe landscape, and climbing it is the epitome of adventure on the island. There are a lot of marked walks possible on the island, but the route for this one is not even marked on maps and to undertake it requires a guide, and about 8 hours to cover the mere 10km return distance. It is often quoted as “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done” by tourists. We didn’t attempt it, but we did do its “training run” up to Lidgbird’s Goat House Cave, which was tough enough, but assisted by strategically placed ropes in the most precipitous places.

One interesting bushwalk goes up a long ridge to the top of Malabar Hill at the western end of LHI. It offers spectacular views over Settlement Beach and Neds Beach (pic), with Mutton Bird Island in the background. The view at the top is spectacular, with hundreds of red-tailed tropic birds (Amokura) swooping around and into nesting places on the steep windswept cliffs which face Roach Island. This walk passes the spot where an old flying boat crashed in 1948.

Spiders seem to abound on LHI. Luckily there seem to be few dangerous ones, but the Golden Orb Weaver is a large, pretty harmless, species commonly seen because it is prolific and it has a habit of weaving its web across walking tracks. The spider in this picture lives on the ridge up to Malabar Hill and has given himself a spectacular view over Settlement Beach.

Kayaking in LHI’s huge lagoon is a pleasant pastime, especially when the wind is low. We were able to pick up our kayak from Lovers Bay, a pretty little inlet very close to Capella Lodge. This is also a nice little location to have a quiet swim, but the entire lagoon is equally calm and pleasant for children to play safely, or just for sun baking. Another idyllic location is Cobby’s Corner. Surfers go to the northern side of the island, to Blinky Beach at the end of the airport runway, or to the more popular Neds Beach, which is just on the edge of town. At some tides, a surf rolls on to the coral reef which defines the lagoon, and we saw surfers take their tinny out to ride those waves, or just hop in after walking to Little Island, which is the start of the trek to Mt. Gower.

The cruise on Noctiluca gave us a unique appreciation of the island, the amazing cliffs around it, and some of the surrounding islets. Roach Island, off Malabar Hill, is notable for its natural bridge which allows you to peek through to others in this little cluster of so-called Admirality Islands. We saw Boat Harbour, apparently associated with nefarious dealings in the past and rumours of buried treasure.

Most of the half dozen punters on board Noctiluca are there for the bird-watching so half way to Balls Pyramid, Captain Jack entices hundreds of Wedge Tailed Shearwaters to the boat with burley. The chaos as they fly around the boat and dive after the bait is not exactly “free of the hand of man” but very spectacular. Also on the trip jack points out many other rarer species. The birdwatchers are happy with glimpses, but they were impossible for us to photograph. The colour of the water is incredible!

Of course, the highlight is Balls Pyramid itself, like Lord Howe Island, another remnant of a long-ago volcano. It is 562m high, but only 1100m long and 300m across, making it the tallest volcanic stack in the world, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball%27s_Pyramid. It’s a stunning sight, poking straight out of the ocean, as it does.

Apart from tourism, Lord Howe’s main industry appears to be Kentia Palms which are native and endemic here. Kentia Palms have become the world’s most popular decorative palm tree, ideal for indoors or outdoors and adaptable to many climates.

Lord Howe Island conveys the impression of being extremely well managed, and the bureaucratic structure appears to have served the island and its conservation very well. The island is managed by a fairly autonomous Board, on which islanders outnumber the NSW Government appointees. The island is really strong on preserving its natural environment: the latest campaign is trying to eradicate rats which and are blamed for the extinction of numerous endemic species and now threaten native woodhens. It’s probably apocryphal but we’re told that the rats originally swam ashore from a shipwreck! The SS Makambo gets the blame in some artwork we saw.

The resident population is about 350. The Board restricts the number of tourists on LHI to 400 at any one time, and makes it difficult to become a “local”, so the island is pretty quiet. There is a full range of accommodations available for visitors, but we splurged out and stayed at Capella, arguably the best. Capella represents true luxury and fine dining. But what made our stay exceptional is how Capella handled problems. Our Qantas flight home was cancelled due to mechanical problems. Qantas paid our additional accommodation for the night, but not at Capella, which was fully booked anyway. Nevertheless, Capella treated us as their responsibility and provided us with meals and transportation even after we had checked out. Well done Capella, and we have no complaints about how Qantas handled the matter either!

No-one comes to Lord Howe Island for its urban bustle or nightlife. There is a bowling club but no pub. A couple of mini-markets and boutiques serve the local population and tourists. These are replenished on a 2-3 weekly schedule by the Island Trader which comes from Port Macquarie. You pay a premium for anything fresher, or more frequent, all of which has to be flown in (if not grown locally). There are quite a few cafes and restaurants, often associated with accommodation, many of which seemed to be closed during our visit, admittedly not peak season. We had breakfast one morning at the Anchorage Café in town, and were surprised to hear both staff and patrons speaking French. The main part of town spreads out over a kilometre or so from the Museum (well worth a visit, cute café too!) to the shops, and fronts onto Lagoon Beach with its Norfolk Island Pines and lots of white terns.