The occasion is my parent’s 30th wedding anniversary making it 30 years since they bought that framed sketch of two Providence Petrels looking down from Mt Gower to the lagoon below which has always hung in both the family living room and in my imagination. I've always wanted to go.
This may well be a timely trip as I scan the horizon for Treehouse Landscapes and Handshapes worthy blog material, surely no place in Eastern Australia could come close to boasting the natural heritage that Lord Howe Island does. So I’m sitting on the plane, squinting down at the Tasman Sea, searching for any sign of the island or Balls Pyramid to rise randomly out of the ocean. I'm fidgeting in my seat when the pilot announces an easterly wind and 21 degrees... That's the thing about islands, always offshore somewhere. I'm beginning to froth.
Being reasonably fresh out of University, pre-University drifting and post-University drifting I'm not too well accustomed to the limitations of a 5 night holiday. So without the customary 6 months, I'm going to be hard pressed to fit it all in but I love a physical challenge. Like using all four of my limbs to hold fishing rods, carrying three surfboards to the beach with a kayak roped to my body and dragging behind etc etc! In short, I don't do 'relax'.
Ok, the plan:
-Catch a massive King Fish
-Surf all the islands breaks (most of which are currently unbeknownst to me)
-Climb Mt Gower 875meters, 8 hours return walk
-Climb Mt Eliza
-Kayak the lagoon
-See Balls Pyramid
-Fight a double headed Wrase outside the pub
-Learn/see as many birds as possible with Dad (who is frothing equally as hard about that)
-Do a saltwater fly fishing charter
-Go home feeling I did this place justice, in just 4 and a bit days
Better get an early night!
The deal on LHI
On the World Heritage List since 1982, the group of islands (some 14) rose out of the sea bed through some impressive volcanism waaaaaay back in the day, like 7 million years dude. They reckon she was pumping out juice for a quick 500,000 years and after shutting off the taps and solidifying the elements went to work.... Big time. The wind, waves, rain n that have done their best to wipe this big mob of rock off the planets face but what's left (in our current dynasty anyway) is freaking epic! We are talking a mega hot spot for biodiversity thanks to the isolation of being a good 300kms from mainland, at the meeting point of two ocean currents and pretty well looked after too not to mention mountainous! Apart from being a nesting site for sea birds, home to wood hens and other ground dwellers, there are some pretty wacky fish found here and nowhere else, what them science folks call endemic. Enter the Double Hump Headed Maori Wrase (coris bulbifrons). About as good looking as an 80 year old NRL player, this urchin chewer hangs out in the lagoon and looks as if he could head butt you back to the volcanic making of LHI! But old bulbi-head has a mean trick, by smashing away at the urchins one by one they help maintain the balance between algae (which urchins eat) and coral. Think of them as the UN of lagoon floor resource politics... Pretty cool our good old nature eh!
Speaking of good management, the island is home to one of Australia's best known and most successful species re-introductions after a localised extinction: meet The Lord Howe Island WoodHen (Gallirallis sylvestris)
Around the time mum and dad came here 30 years ago, there was only about 12 left in the wild and that number was shrinking rapidly due to predation by rats and feral cats. Being that the Woodhen is flightless, about the size of a chicken (and probably tastes like one) and evolved in an environment without predators it is no wonder that cats nearly smashed them all. But after a very public "SAVE THE LORD HOWE WOODHEN" campaign in the late seventies and early eighties and a captive breeding program that was so successful, the project wound up in the nineties cos the work was done! More specifically, the bloody cats got shot and the Woodhen were back in black, well.... Light brown. Go conservation!
But the fight isn’t over and they may well have left the best till last! Now it's time for a trip down my own memory lane, about the time I started to froth on conservation and environmental science I heard about the plight of The Lord Howe Island 'land lobster' aka the Phasmid.
The land lobby doesn't look as tasty as their rock ledge dwelling namesakes but they do take the name or be it habitat of 'rock' to a whole other level! Chased out of the main island by cats, rats and all that crap, they ended up clinging for survival on the side of bloody Balls Pyramid of all places.... Imagine! The will to survive, can't fault the commitment.
And it wasn't until an old mate from the Sydney Rock climbers tried to prove his balls where as big as the Pyramids, that he photographed a dead Phasmid whilst attempting a first ascent in 1965. This gave rise to the hope that living populations remained and (being typical of the NSW State Government) they made a speedy plan to investigate further and returned in 2001 to find a whooping three living lobbys, returning again in 2002 (must have been a labour government) found 24 happy n healthy livies, two of which were taken to a secret lab for study! The LHI Board hope that if rats can be eradicated from the main island the then lobby can be rereleased and the hard work of conservation can once again rejoice in their successful reintroduction of a special little creature nearly lost!
Sustaining Lord Howe
By the looks of things, most 'islanders' keep a mean little garden going. I guess they have too really, being an island some 300kms off the mainland and largely dependent on supplies both shipped from Port Macquarie and flown from Sydney or Brisbane. Should one or more of those supply routes get cut... No food. But, they (the islanders) are in a pretty good position to take care of themselves. Think volcanic origins, think good soil. Think island in the pacific, think rain. Combine the two, think Fecundity. Living in Broome, WA we know all too well what's happens when supply routes get cut: Wollies gets empty; people get hungry, hungry people get grumpy.
Despite this, power comes from diesel generators and there is only some talk of solar. But all shops are plastic bag free and there is a strong environmental presence in the islands signage about recycling, reducing and reusing etc. in my fairly thorough missions across the islands walking trails, beaches and lagoons I have only seen one piece of litter and an award for the winning of the Clean Beaches Challenge! That's a bit unfair I thought, with such a small and captive audience to muster for the challenge.... Of course they would win! But let us not forget for a minute that despite the isolation, the tight local population and a control on guest numbers that Lord Howe IS still part of a greater system, a bigger picture known as the world and the world IS getting polluted.
One of the terrible ways you can witness this connectivity is through the islands sea bird population. By day, they roam the open ocean ad by night come back to sleep, rest and feed their chicks. I'm talking primarily about the iconic Shearwaters aka Mutton birds. These birds are capable of covering huge distances across open oceans in search of fish and squid and need isolated rocky islands like Lord Howe as mother ships in this quest. But small pieces of plastic, Styrofoam and other crap can resemble fish and squid all too closely and of course, makes for an easy 'meal'. Once inside the birds gut the plastics do as plastic does and REMAINS thus giving the bird a dangerously deceptive feeling of fullness until they drop out of the sky. This isn't something that World Heritage status alone can even begin to address; this is unfortunately a much much bigger issue.
Have I been here before?
(Well yes, but as an unborn foetus)
It's funny, riding your pushy around the island one sees a mixture of cow paddocks with three feet of lush green grass and a singular cow looking content, turn the corner your in rainforest as thick as thieves. The cow pastures remind me of the Illawarra and Shoalhaven area whilst the jungle a mixture of East Coast Littoral Rainforest and New Zealand's South Island forests. All places that hold special places in my heart. Throw a coral reef on top of that on you have the dictionary definition of unique. The result, so many double takes. Do I know this country or don't I? Well I finally realise that I don't, but I do want to know more! This joint is so intriguing in every sense, like, what’s it like to be a local? To work here? To have grown up here and then had to leave? To be an outsider?
So on the ‘final’ day, up comes the surf! At dinner during one of our first nights the waiter hands me a folder of photos by a local bloke called Isaac. Flicking through its clear that this fella has an affinity for shooting the surf and is most definitely a Kiwi. How could I tell without meeting him? Who else would name a rainbow photo "rain bro"?! Anyway, the waiter says this bloke is washing dishes out the back so I go out to have yarn. Neck minute: t-up a photo session with him and some of the local boys 'down south' on Saturday.
This spot "Little Island"... 'down south' has to pretty much be close to no.1 in my top 5 most incredible places to surf... scenery wise. If any of you reading this have been to the South Island of NZ and more specifically Milford Sound (if not google image it) because surfing beneath the cliffs of Mt Gower and Mt Lidgbird is like surfing at the base of Milford Sound. Only thing is, beneath your feet is a bed of live coral. Overhead are thousands of seabirds soaring on the up drafts and looking into the deep ocean just behind the coral ledge. As the sets rear up, the wall is cobalt blue and at its base where the water draws off the reef the colours are green, orange, red, pink and more blue. The visuals distract you from the job, with a photog in the water and local lads looking on I should be focused on giving it a whack, I just want stand and stare.
The local fellas are plenty friendly and waves are shared equally, the boys even call me into a set. Most the lads work on the weeding team for the LHI Board which sees them working on plots of weed infestation literally on the sides of cliffs, the very vertical faces hanging above the reef we were surfing. As the Noddy Terns swoops low in search of bait fish, one lad mimics its call, almost like a conversation about the days conditions:
Noddy tern: "How's it? Getting a few?"
Local lad: "yeah mate, you?"
Tern: "yeah mate"
All the local kids are on school holidays now which is normally when the fun ends back home as thousands of frothing gremlins descend on the beach to paddle rings around any ‘old’ people… like me. But these kids are different, for starters their not viscous life sucking menaces. They all say g'day, ask you how you are and if you’re enjoying your stay. I get yarning to a few of the young fellas and give them all a block of Treehouse wax, they froth! This one kid ends up thanking me about 7 times over the next few days… I love that. He says his family is moving off the island in two months and are headed for the mainland, I really hope he doesn’t lose that graciousness.
And with the swell comes the weather! And with the weather comes no planes, we are stranded on LHI... RESULT! Apparently this happens all the time and not just for one day but perhaps for 2, 3 maybe more. Stoked I'm not on a flight to Broome, WA tomorrow or else I'd be out of pocket and out of luck. But I've still got a weeks holiday left so I think I'll sit back, chill out and figure out some more things to do whilst I'm 'stuck' on this world heritage island.
Surfing on the edge of Open Ocean: Neds Beach and Blinky Beach.
Again the NZ references… my favourite quote from surfers on NZ’s west coast "100ft and onshore" which means your surfing the 3rd or 4th reform closest to the beach whilst the 'back' is out of ones reach. And it takes a Special kind of surfer to surf a reform, a local. I'm always hopeless in reforms; my east coast upbringing always makes a little cautious and uncomfortable with 10ft sets smashing into islands and bommies out the back. The good ones are always disguised as 4ft walls of white water when in fact, they'll lose that foam once they hit the bank and moments later look nothing like they did before. Whilst, on the other hand, those that rear up free of foam and 'look' like rideable waves reach the bank and Lose their mojo. I just never get it, but I had a crack, cos why not? Flights cancelled, local lads are ripping and you ain't got nowhere else to be plus it's just stunning surfing on LHI! With the birds overhead, the mountains, the lush green vegetation and plenty of friendly faces in the water... I love this place. The winds died down next day but the planes are all thrown out from the one day delay so we are here for another day! YES! Looks like the winds will be westerly for the last day which should open up the famous peaks of Blinky Beach on the east coast…frothing.
Get there! it is incredible. cheers, Tom