No streetlights, no casinos, no high-rise buildings, no glitzy fast cars, very little shopping and only a scattering of superb restaurants. It’s no secret that Lord Howe Island’s chic is a little shabby, and rumour has it that the locals can still leave their doors unlocked.
It was this ’70s retro idealism that lured my partner and I for a trip to one of the last island paradises in the world. Accessed by flights from Brisbane and Sydney on small, twin-prop Dash Eight aircraft, our sense of adventure was heightened by the limited amount of luggage we were able to take with us.
Just 14kg is all that separates you from your homely reality back on the mainland – just enough for fishing rods, a camera, towel, swimsuit and a smile. As we walked across the Sydney runway with fishing rods in hand, we came to a man who said: “Dubbo? To your left.” Then, after noticing our rods, he quickly corrected himself: “Lord Howe, to your right!”
Sheltered by the imposing and lofty summits of Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower, Lord Howe Island sports an impressive lagoon housing the southern-most tropical coral reef in the world. It is also home to many species of plants and animals that exist nowhere else on earth.
There are oddities like a heavy, flightless stick insect known as a phasmid, that was first found on Ball’s Pyramid, a rocky spire that pierces the ocean surface southwest of Lord Howe, in the early 1990s.
Then there’s the fleshy-flowered pumpkin tree that lives on the lofty summits of Lord Howe, but only above an altitude of 500m, and the Lord Howe Island woodhen – a bird that looks like it has walked off the pages of an ancient biological manuscript. Excessive hunting, followed by a scourge of introduced pests, almost drove the woodhen to extinction by the 1980s, but monitoring and breeding projects have successfully brought it back so that encounters with these brown, flightless birds are now common.
A BEACH OF YOUR OWN
There is also a revered rule of thumb observed by the maximum of 400 guests who holiday on the island at any one time – if you come across a beach with someone already on it, just move on and find one of your own…
Accommodation must be reserved and no camping is allowed. Hire cars are pretty much non-existent. Transport is limited to ‘hoofing it’ or pushbikes that are equipped with baskets perfect for carrying snorkelling or fishing gear, with enough extra space for groceries to keep you going for a few days.
Given the speed limit of 25km/h all over the island, two-wheeled hooligans aren’t well catered for. Still, the bikes are in good condition and it is a mostly flat ride to the key parts of the island.
Our stay was at the warm, friendly and recently refurbished Milky Way apartments, on the northern end of the island near the jetty. Characteristic of the rustic charm of most accommodation on the island, the Milky Way has a small restaurant called ‘Over the Moon’, which dishes up a superb Fish Fry two nights a week.
Fish Fries are deeply rooted in the psyche of Lord Howe’s locals and the Milky Way does its in a style like no other – outside in the garden, surrounded by flowering hibiscus on sunset. “Would you like some salad with that fish?” I joked to my partner as he piled a load of Lord Howe’s famous kingfish on to his plate, leaving no room for any leafy greens.
Riding our bikes down to the jetty the next morning, we were just in time to see Lord Howe local, Jack Shick, bringing his vessel Noctiluca around to collect us for a day of bluewater fishing out at Ball’s Pyramid.
The third of Lord Howe’s mountain summits, Ball’s Pyramid – along with Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird – is the cap of a seamount that extends around 1800m to the ocean floor. Extreme depths and its remote location from any major landmass make this spot one of the best bluewater destinations to fish large yellowtail kingfish – a Lord Howe specialty.
Growing to lengths of 2.5 metres, kingfish are the key ingredient of the local fish fries, but many other species–including mahimahi, pigfish, snapper, deep sea trevalla and blue-eye – are all regularly caught. While the Lord Howe Island board specifies that fish caught from charter vessels around the island belong to the boat, nothing can match the thrill of bringing in a 25kg kingfish after it’s waged its violent fight to avoid capture.
FIGHTING THE FISH
Kingfish aren’t the only good-sized fish frequently caught here. Our first catch of the day was a huge snapper, the biggest I’d ever seen, but it wasn’t the last to land in our boat. “Got something!” I yelled, as I attempted to reel my catch in while a few flesh-footed shearwaters alighted on to the water nearby, dipping their heads under to see if there was anything in it for them.
They subsequently flew off in fright as a 12kg opal-eyed cod appeared in the shallows at the end of my line. A little bit more than a mouthful for a shearwater, they returned a little later to collect the scraps as the fish was cleaned.
Having planned another day of fishing for later in the week, we indulged in a day of snorkelling and swimming at Ned’s Beach. As we rode our bikes through a thick grove of kentia palms, we heard a series of four high-pitched whistles piercing the air.
Black-winged petrels, tiny ocean-going birds that normally lead a solitary existence, had chosen this pristine stretch of sand and sea to nest. Engaging in spontaneous aerobatics, we saw a few pairs courting in flight over a tin shed at the southern end of the beach.
An honesty box adorns the entrance to this shed, where, for a meagre $5.50, you can hire some snorkelling gear for the day to explore an underwater garden of boulder corals and iridescent fish. Ned’s Beach is famous for its huge king fish and mullet that congregate happily around tourists as the latter feed them bread.
It’s quite an experience watching kingfish, some the size of small sharks, dart in from the reef for a free feed. Vying for a key position in the feeding frenzy, a flock of black ducks dodge the mouths of hungry kingfish as they try to win a morsel of bread. Ned’s ducks spend their days either joining the fish for a feed, surfing the waves (yes, surfing ducks!) or lounging around on the beach – we couldn’t help but think we’d been born into the wrong species!
Bravado decided our next day’s activities, as we decided to go swimming with sharks. A small school of Galapagos whaler sharks frequent an area called Comet’s Hole, and swim its perimeter like watch guards on permanent duty.
Donning our gear, we jumped overboard from the Islander Tours’ vessel and swam over to the hole, where we found four whaler sharks negotiating the coral edge. Completely unperturbed by our presence, we followed a couple of them, marvelling at the fluidity of their movements. There is plenty of food available in the lagoon for these tiny, snub-nosed reef sharks, so we happily snorkelled around them comfortable in the knowledge that we weren’t going to be their next meal.
Lord Howe’s lagoon is dotted with ‘holes’, or freshwater springs, where the reef’s ecology changes due to altered salinity. These holes are home to an eclectic mix of marine animals that differentiate them from other parts of the reef.
Each is unique. Erscott’s Hole is known for its prolific and spectacular coral growth and, at Sylph’s Hole, two green sea turtles regularly swim in the company of humbug-coloured sea snakes.
Enthralled by the variation of sea life, we took off the next morning to the southern edge of the island, directly under the start of the Mount Gower climb, to explore the underwater world off Little Island and its boulder beach.
A narrow gutter ran through the boulder fields and coral reefs of this spot to the open ocean. Living all over the boulders were thousands of urchins and, like Pied Pipers of the underwater world, we were followed by many fish, eager for us to break one open and give them a feed.
From amid the boulders, a long, soft and suckered leg extended out towards us. An octopus had eyed us from afar, and at first we thought his interest was solely in us – until we realised that another octopus was lurking around the boulders beneath it.
A hot pursuit followed, with both octopus darting off in a myriad of colour changes and ink squirts. After what we’d just witnessed, my partner and I surfaced on the beach and looked at each other incredulously, unable to decide if we’d interrupted a bout of octopus love-making or a lovers’ tiff.
Jack took us back out to Ball’s Pyramid the next day. Young masked boobies followed us out, and then we found ourselves to be a source of great interest to several white-bellied storm petrels.
The size of swallows, petrels wander the oceans covering the same distances as nomadic albatross. Named storm petrels for their habit of hiding in the lee of ships during storms, seafarers used to call them ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’, from ‘Mater Cara’ or blessed Virgin Mary, and regarded their presence as a warning of an approaching storm.
LANDING THE BIG ONE
We ventured further north from our angling spot of a few days ago and dropped our lines. Instantaneously we had strikes and brought in pigfish and mahi mahi. Then, one of the British anglers on board started straining with a particularly huge fish at the end of his line.
It took two men to bring in the 25kg kingfish he’d hooked, but copious amounts of other large fish kept us out there all day – when was it going to end? We only reluctantly went back to the island when the sun sank towards the horizon…
Our aim the next day was to explore the large seabird nesting colonies at North Bay, after a walk over Malabar Hill. We also packed snorkelling gear in case we needed to cool off at the end of the walk.
After watching red-tailed tropicbirds negotiating the thermals off the cliffs to reach their nests, we descended on to North Bay’s palm-and pine-fringed beach. At the western end of the beach, we found thousands of nesting sooty terns.
Feeling totally unthreatened by the few people that visit them, the animals of Lord Howe are tame and while we walked we found ourselves often followed by little, chocolate-coloured, mature sooty tern chicks, old enough to leave their nests, but still too young to fly.
Instead of the ground, several species of birds, including black noddies and white terns, had chosen nearby Norfolk pines to build their nests. Precariously, white terns choose not to build nests, but rather lay their eggs on a flat branch, with no protection. Sadly, if a storm hits during their breeding season, many white terns lose either their eggs or chicks in the high winds and bad weather.
Resolute white tern mothers balance their eggs underneath them and proceed to rear their newly-hatched young in extreme exposure. They are the signature bird of Lord Howe and each spring, when they find a mate, they engage in unified flights across the lagoon, their wings so delicate that when they fly, it is possible to see the entire bone structure of their wings through their translucent feathers. From a distance, they appear like two sheets of paper fluttering in the breeze.
On the edge of North Bay’s reef, the super structure of the rusting 1965 shipwreck The Favourite is silhouetted against a backdrop of turquoise lagoon and misty mountains. Itching to explore it, we threw on our snorkelling gear and paddled out for a look. After swimming over other bits of wreckage, we found what appeared to be the remains of the wheelhouse, now partially submerged. Three-striped butterfly fish now share the underwater apartment block with a large moray eel.
A path of vines and kentia palms leads from North Bay to a rocky cove called the Old Gulch. Hemmed in by the sharpness of soaring sea cliffs, the Old Gulch is inhabited by delicate little grey ternlets, that flew around our heads like halos before landing next to us with their oversized webbed feet. Their comic book antics enthralled us as we spent an hour watching them bumble their way around the rock ledges.
The sun set as we concluded our walk to North Bay. We wandered through the medusalike tendrils of huge banyan trees back to the Milky Way for our last fish fry and reluctantly packed our bags for the journey home.
This is Australia’s answer to the Galapagos. Wild terrestrial and marine creatures approach people happily, with no fear of being caught or hurt and only footprints spoil the beaches. We had definitely succumbed to Lord Howe’s timeless allure and, in fact, we started to plan our next trip to this Pacific paradise the day we landed back in Sydney.
Milky Way Apartments,
Old Settlement Beach,
Lord Howe Island, NSW 2898.
Tel: (02) 6563 2012.
Sea to Summit Expeditions.
Tel: (02) 6563 2218.
Ian Hutton – Nature Guide,
Lord Howe Island Tours,
PO Box 157,
Lord Howe Island, NSW 2898.