Living large on Lord Howe Island

By Louise Southerden 9 September 2009
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Louise Southerden keeps her carbon footprint small on one of the most eco-conscious places in Australia: Lord Howe Island.

Once upon a time, travelling responsibly meant taking only photographs and leaving only footprints. Now it’s about the size of those footprints, and one of the best places in Australia to keep them small without even trying is Lord Howe Island, 600 km northeast of Sydney. Unless you have access to a boat, the only way to get to Lord Howe is to fly. But arriving by air makes sure you’re properly acquainted with what is widely regarded as the most beautiful island in the entire Pacific, before you even step off the plane.

After gazing out at the featureless blue from my windowseat for two hours, Lord Howe suddenly appeared, like an aquatic oasis. The first things you notice are the twin peaks of Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower, real mountains that dominate the island’s southern end. Then the 6 km-long blue lagoon encircled by the most southerly coral reef in the world. There, below you, are isolated beaches accessible only by sea kayak or on foot, and populated by hundreds of thousands of seabirds. And finally, like an afterthought amidst all this natural beauty, a settlement of 350 locals and just 400 visitors. Even David Attenborough once wrote that Lord Howe is “so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable…Few islands, surely, can be so accessible, so remarkable, yet so unspoilt.” But Lord Howe is not just a pretty face. Because of its isolation, the island is an important site for “in situ” conservation of many rare and endemic species – almost half its 241 native plant species are found nowhere else in the world; the same goes for both the island’s reptiles, a skink and a gecko, and almost a thousand insect species. According to Ian Hutton, Lord Howe’s resident naturalist and author of 10 books on the island, including A Guide to World Heritage Lord Howe Island. “People talk about the Galapagos Islands because of Darwin’s connection, but there’s more diversity on Lord Howe Island and it’s so intact – the island is very much as it was when it was first discovered.”

Sea birds
Within an hour of arriving, we’d ‘rented’ masks, snorkels and fins at Ned’s Beach (by leaving a donation in the honesty box) and were communing with the fishes. There are 11 beautiful beaches on the island, each just a short bike ride from the next. At Ned’s the water was clearer than anywhere else I’ve ever been and tropically warm, thanks to the East Australian Current that swirls down the Australian coast and out to Lord Howe, bringing more than 500 fish species and 90 different corals, a blend of tropical and temperate marine creatures protected within the Lord Howe Island Marine Park. Just by stepping off the beach, we had entered a natural aquarium of butterfly fish and rainbow-coloured wrasse, green turtles and black-tipped reef sharks, stingrays, clownfish, giant clams, corals and 14 kinds of sea urchin.

Lord Howe is also the best place in Australia to see birds. Almost 170 species of seabirds have been recorded living on or visiting the island group, and hundreds of thousands nest there every year. Between September and March, just standing on the beach at dusk you can see hundreds of muttonbirds skid ashore then dash through the palm forest to their burrows.

The day we went birdwatching with Ian Hutton at North Bay, we walked past sooty terns sitting silently on their nests just metres from our sandy feet, then wandered into a dark forest of Norfolk pines where, looking up into the branches, we saw dozens of nesting black noddies, some within easy reach of human hands. All the birds seemed supremely unbothered by us. “That’s one of the really special things about seabirds on Lord Howe Island,” Hutton told us. “The birds have been on this predator-free island for millions of years, so they don’t see us as anything but another bit of nature.”

Lagoon kayaking
One morning my friends and I hired sit-on-top kayaks and paddled 800 m across the sand-bottom lagoon to Rabbit Island (aka Blackburn Island) where we dragged the boats ashore and walked barefoot up a track that led to the island’s highest point – it was good to know there are no poisonous snakes or spiders on Lord Howe. As we walked, we heard an occasional murmur coming from burrows next to the track: muttonbirds. As we paddled back, we saw white manes of spray coming from the edge of the reef; it’s a little known fact that Lord Howe gets excellent surf. There are reef breaks on the outer edge of the lagoon, accessible by boat, and beach breaks like Blinkys (an unpatrolled beach where you’ll find signs asking you to swim between the signs, and a plastic rescue “torpedo” in case of emergency).

It’s too far to paddle to Balls Pyramid, and landing on the island has been illegal anyway since 1986, but a boat trip to this rocky spire 23 km south of Lord Howe’s main island is a must-do adventure. It’s not uncommon to see whale sharks, and the diving is world class, as it is elsewhere in the group, with incredible visibility, so much coral, underwater caves and trenches, even volcanic drop-offs.

Mountain time
Ball’s Pyramid was first climbed in February 1965 by a team from Sydney Rockclimbing Club; adventurer Dick Smith, now an honorary local at Lord Howe, also made an attempt in 1964 when he was just 20 years old. Unfortunately rock climbing on this small rocky island was banned in 1982 in the interests of protecting its delicate ecosystems.

But there’s always Mt Gower, the ‘Everest of Lord Howe’. Although the trek to its summit plateau, at 875 m, can only be done with a guide, it is still widely regarded as one of Australia’s toughest day walks. It takes a full eight hours of walking and clambering, much of the track is unmarked and there are sections so steep that fixed ropes have been put in to help you climb up – and down. It’s a full-body workout and the rewards are worth it. Nothing beats standing on the edge of a cloud forest at the top (Lord Howe is one of only a handful of islands in the world to have true cloud forests) looking down on the entire island, which looks like a topographic model surrounded by sea.

And if you needed any more reasons to love Lord Howe, you have only to look up when the sun goes down. The island is so far from any cities that the night sky is regularly star-spangled, like a desert sky in the middle of the ocean…

The Essentials

» Getting There: QantasLink flies daily from Sydney and Brisbane to Lord Howe Island (website).

» Where To Stay: Earl’s Anchorage is one of the greenest accommodation options on the island. Its sustainable design ideas are based on lightweight construction and energy efficiency; there’s solar hot water, with excess electricity stored in a battery bank, and greywater is treated and recycled on site (website). Pinetrees is the oldest and most central guest house (website). At the luxury end of the spectrum there’s the secluded Arajilla (website) and Capella Lodge, with the best views on the island (website). Camping is not permitted.

» Green Things To Do:
• Islander Cruises and Howea Divers runs SCUBA diving and snorkelling trips and sunset cruises in the lagoon (website).
• Fish-feeding at Ned’s Beach is free; just BYO stale bread and toss it to the metre-long kingfish that come to the shallows every afternoon.
• Go birdwatching with Ian Hutton, visit the website. Or join a Weeding Ecotours (website).
• Pick up a copy of A Rambler’s Guide to Lord Howe Island from the museum and walk the island’s many trails.
• Climb Mt Gower with Sea to Summit Expeditions or take a combined glass-bottomed boat and snorkelling tour with Lord Howe Environmental Tours.
• Arrange a boat transfer to an outer surf reef with Larrup’s Surf Shop, phone within Australia: (02) 6563 2086.
• Learn about Lord Howe’s World Heritage values at Lord Howe Island Museum, open seven days.

» Further Info: Lord Howe Island and Visitor Information Centre, on 1800 240 937 (within Australia) or visit the website.