Lord Howe Island, New South Wales
Early January 2017. For once we’d arrived at an airport with plenty of time to spare and what a blessing that turned out to be. It was the first working day after New Year. Australia was returning from its holidays and going back to work. And then there were all the tourists now trying to leave Sydney, between one and one and a half million of them, according to our taxi driver. So what could make a departure from Kingsford Smith’s domestic terminal, bright and early that sunny morning, any more exciting? Simple. The entire baggage computer system can crash.
Walking in through departures, a sea of people. Queues spiraling off all around the concourse, at least three separate queues that I could see. And none of them moving anywhere fast. We sought advice and I took my place at the end of the recommended queue. 20 minutes ticked by. I’d struck up a good rapport with the couple now standing behind me but advanced less than three feet. Assorted ground staff approached demanding boarding cards but everything relating to our flight was in Mike’s shirt pocket. And he’d long since disappeared. The stress levels were starting to rise.
Nor was the systems failure our only problem. The luggage allowance for Lord Howe Island is minuscule, 14kg. Both our cases were over it but we’d decided to wing it. So to speak. Bad idea. In his travails around the airport information desks Mike had established that the weight rule is rigorously enforced. Any luggage deemed overweight is marked accordingly, with the risk that it could be pulled from the hold. Mine was a bit over, Mike’s was a lot.
So, as it turned out, during his absence Mike had been busy. Next to a luggage weighing machine he’d been offloading some of his stuff into our overflow suitcase (destined for left luggage to await our return). The tripod was turfed out. So was the alarm clock. Some of his clothes. And still the case failed to make the grade. A couple of people were watching him intently from a nearby bench “What on earth have you got in there mate.. that suitcase looks half empty.” Mike explained the Lord Howe problem.
As a last ditch measure my indefatigable Other Half stripped off his shorts, right there in the middle of the airport concourse, switched them for the jeans in the suitcase and pulled on those instead. His audience waited anxiously as the case returned to the weighing machine. “And..??”
And so, eventually, here we were again in a teeny tiny plane with those criss-crossey things.. oh you know the drill, we’ve seen this movie before. Except that this time we were headed out over open ocean, 779 km (484 miles) north east of Sydney. For anyone on board with a sensitivity to flying low over water, especially on landing, the runway at Lord Howe presents something of a challenge. As you can see. Mercifully the Qantas stewardess had spent the earlier part of the flight walking up and down the plane offering wine. Including top ups. Yes, it was before noon. No, I am not sorry. There were mitigating circumstances after all.
The stunning view from Kim’s Lookout
But, oh my, oh my. Was it all worth it? Well of course it was. From just about any vantage point on Lord Howe the landscape is idyllic.
Looking south from Malabar
The island is a volcanic remnant formed over 7 million years ago, about 10km (6.2 miles) long and between 0.3 and 2.0 km (0.19 and 1.24 miles) wide. Incredibly, weathering has eroded the island to just 1/40th of its original size. Lord Howe is dominated by two mountains, Mount Gower the tallest at 875 m (2,871 ft), far right above, and Mount Lidgbird alongside.
We became fascinated by another mountain lying 23 km (14 miles) offshore. You can just glimpse it in the photo above, poking out of the sea centre right on the horizon. Balls Pyramid. Uninhabited but for birds and the last known colony of the Lord Howe Island stick insect.
Closer.. a rather menacing presence in this shot. But perhaps I’ve just read too much Stephen King. The Dark Tower came instantly to mind.
Out there be dragons. Or stick insects.
On Lord Howe we walked and walked and walked. Along the beaches, up hill and down dale. The island has many well marked trails, graded for level of difficulty. Given the nature of the terrain there are many steps and getting to some of the best viewpoints can require a challenging climb.
In some places the paths are so steep ropes are provided to haul yourself up.
Much of the interior of Lord Howe is clothed by trees, a welcome relief from the heat of the sun. Kentia palms (Howea forsteriana), a houseplant for most of us in cooler climes, are endemic to Lord Howe.
The intrepid photographer. Reunited with his shorts.
View north from Intermediate Hill
Around 350 people reside permanently on Lord Howe with tourist numbers restricted to 400 at any one time. Self catering once again here we briefly experienced life as an islander, sharing our little patch of paradise with a horse and a flock of hens. Take a walk in the paddock and the chooks would suddenly appear from all corners like bees to a honey pot. Visitors provide rich pickings it would seem.
The stunning natural beauty and quieter way of life on Lord Howe have been protected since 1982 by its listing as a World Heritage site. You would need islander status to be permitted to build and then only on existing sites, land for development has already been allocated and no more will be released. When a house does come up for sale it is offered to islanders first. Only if it then fails to sell will the property go to the open market. The last time this happened was seven years ago with the property selling for 1.2m AUD (£730,000). With only a couple of small shops for a limited range of provisions (although, importantly, that does include a Bottle Shop), everything here is expensive. Unless it can be produced on the island goods have to be flown in or conveyed by the fortnightly supply ship.
And then there is the wildlife, predominantly birds
The first encounter came as something of a surprise. I heard it long before I found it, an unmistakable call so familiar and yet so seemingly out of place. The Eurasian blackbird. Introduced originally to New Zealand it apparently hopped across the ocean and liked what it found so much it stayed. And why not indeed.
White Terns don’t go to all the fuss of building a nest, they just lay an egg in the fork of a tree or even just a small depression on a branch. The chick has well developed feet, should it need to hang on!
What got me is how trusting these birds are. They were nesting right on the footpath down to the beach.
Do you mind if I pass this way Sir?
Totally unfazed by my hunkering down right next to it.
Although it was probably just as well I didn’t do anything out of turn..
The Common Noddy
“Do you come here often?”
At Ned’s Beach there’s no need for scuba gear to see the fish, or even a snorkel. Nope, just paddle out into the surf and they will come to you. Could the fish food dispenser located in the beach hut have anything to do with it one wonders?
Some of the customers are pretty spectacular
Mutton Bird Point
For me the highlight of the bird watching experience came on our final walk. And we almost missed it. The walk was a long one and weariness was setting in. But the path to the lookout was just a short diversion after all..
See those white specks on the headland? The zoom lens on the bridge camera picked them out.
Constantly squabbling. The noise was quite something.
Now that’s better. A moment of peace.
In the centre, a juvenile
Every so often one of the birds would take off from the headland and give us the once over
Absolute magic. I could have stayed there all day.
Or even all year..
On the journey back to Sydney the weight issue reared its head again, but this time with bells on. At the airport check in desk the suitcases, as you might expect, are carefully assessed. Of course this time we were properly prepared. Or were we? Because for the return flight even the passenger has to get on the scales. Jeans included.
There are two issues confronting the pilot, as it turns out. First off, as we’ve already seen, the runway is exceedingly short. Hence the teeny tiny plane. But secondly there’s limited re-fuelling on Lord Howe. When the plane leaves the mainland it has to have enough juice on board for both the outbound and inbound trips. And thus, on his arrival on the island the pilot needs to make a careful calculation. If there’s more weight than fuel for the return flight something, or someone, has to stay behind..
One thing’s for sure. There’d surely be no shortage of volunteers.
Yours truly was at the front of the queue.