From the air, Lord Howe Island’s distinctive contours appear like a Chinese dragon; the beast’s angry head and arcing shoulders writhe out of the ocean and its curved tail flicks at the surface. The torso has been flattened and a runway of skin peeled away. This is the landing strip for the small Dash 8 aircraft that service the island, but only when the creature’s mood permits.
Sometimes planes are grounded for days, and occasionally they come within a whisker of landing before having to abort and return to the mainland, cutting off Lord Howe – a volcanic granule in the middle of the Tasman Sea, 600km off the coast of NSW – from the world. It’s this isolation that makes it so remarkable.
Take off your watches
“We’re now approaching Lord Howe, folks,” says the pilot on descent. “Wind your watches forward half an hour or take them off altogether, you won’t need them.”
He’s right. Technology has no place on World Heritage-listed Lord Howe. There is no phone reception, patchy internet and few cars. What you will find is a unique ecosystem that evolved over six million years, becoming a thriving self-sustained habitat that didn’t see human contact until 1833.
Today there’s a permanent population of about 350 people (visitors are capped at 400), but that’s of no consequence to the wildlife. Walk to the base of Mt Lidgbird, one of the twin peaks that dominate the southern end of the island, and you’ll discover rare providence petrels that have no fear of humans. The birds breed exclusively on Lord Howe and are so tame they can be beckoned out of the sky. Funnel your hands to your mouth, bellow and howl at the heavens and they will drop down to you, flapping at your feet and even landing on your shoulders.
Birds darken the sky
“You should see it in summer, the sky’s black [with petrels], it’s like a swarm of mosquitoes,” says local photographer and guide Kenny Lees. Kenny has lived on Lord Howe for about 15 years, but he’s not so bold to call himself an islander – that’s a title reserved for those born here, some of whom have connections to Lord Howe going back seven generations.
Just by a headland overlooking a beach of boulders, Kenny points out a wheelie bin of helmets for walkers tackling Lord Howe’s highest peak, the 875m Mt Gower, an all-day hike across perilous cliff-line passes. A shorter, but equally chilling hike, leads to a plateau on the shoulder of Mt Lidgbird. The path follows a tunnel of subtropical rainforest, meets the foreshore and then climbs 100m via guide ropes to a basalt overhang lined with palm trees.
“It’s funny when you think about it, it’s just little threads hanging together,” Kenny says of the ropes, which hikers trust with their lives. The trail edges across a cliff, and then there is no trail. You instead scramble over rocks and dead pandanus leaves and limbo under golden orb cobwebs out into a clearing. Looking out over the precipice, you can see to the southern end of Lord Howe, taking in the Admiralty Islands bobbing beyond and The Lagoon cradled in the curve of the dragon’s belly.
Plants and wildlife
On land, Lord Howe harbours more than 300 plant species, a third or those endemic, and 166 species of birds (but only one mammal – a bat). Offshore, the waters are home to the world’s southernmost coral reef, thanks to a warm North Queensland current that flows easterly from the mainland. Tour boat skipper Peter Busteed takes snorkellers across the North Bay marine park, where you can glimpse some of the 100 varieties of coral and 500 species of fish, and see green turtles poking their noses above the surface.
Non-snorkellers can hire bikes (the primary mode of transport) and cycle to Neds Beach, where an old gumball machine dispenses fish pellets, and mullet and bluefish will suck and nibble at your fingers for a feed. You can leave your valuables on the beach; here it is completely safe.
So much to see
After all this, there’s the temptation to flop on the sand and do very little, but there’s even so much to see. There are coral gardens to dive to, grottoes to explore, forests of ancient banyans to marvel at and even a few choice surf spots – all of which you will most likely have to yourself. Unless, of course, you count the wildlife.
In summer, birds rule North Bay. Peter Busteed describes how 100,000 pairs of nesting sooty terns coat the sand. He likens the island – less than 3% of which is above water, and shrinking – to a mini Galapagos. But, like a mythical dragon that assumes many guises, Lord Howe is in a state of transformation.
“In about 150,000 years all this will be gone. I’m going to sell up and get out before then,” Peter says.
Story: Catherine Best.
Published in RoyalAuto Nov 2016