Lord Howe: top things to do in nature’s wonderland

By Carlie O'Connell December 17, 2014
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This World Heritage-listed island is a haven for nature experiences. Here are the top things to do

ONLY A SHORT two-hour plane ride from Sydney, Lord Howe Island is one of Australia’s best kept secrets. World Heritage listed in 1982, which expanded to include the surrounding marine environments in the following decades, Lord Howe is an unspoiled ecological wonderland.

From the cloud forests that adorn twin peaks Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower, to the bustling tropical marine life swarming beneath the surface of the lagoon, numerous beaches and vibrant coral reef, once you arrive you’ll wonder why you hadn’t visited earlier. To top it off, compared to other similarly beautiful tourist destinations around Australia, Lord Howe Island will seem relatively deserted, with only 350 permanent residents and a maximum of 400 visitors at any one time on the 11km-long island.

Here are some of the highlights:

1. Mount Gower hike

The hike up Lord Howe Island’s Mt Gower is not for the faint hearted. Widely regarded as one of Australia’s toughest but most spectacular day walks, its 875m summit can only be undertaken with a licensed guide (mostly due to the sensitive wildlife). The return journey takes between eight and 10 hours through a lot of unmarked track, with some sections so steep that ropes have been fixed to help you climb up. However, all the hard work will most certainly pay off when you reach the top, with stunning views of the island. Some of the flora and fauna of Mt Gower cannot be seen anywhere else in the world; if you’re lucky, you might even see a Lord Howe Island woodhen, an endemic bird brought back from the brink of extinction in recent decades. And an unusual wildlife experience awaits you at the top – the providence petrels almost fall from the sky to your very feet if you make lots of sound. Bookings need to be made in advance for the trek as there’s a limited number of places within each hike. Contact Lord Howe Island Tours.

2. Trail walking

Though the island is small (at just 11km long and on average 2km wide), it is filled with a plethora of walking and hiking trails that ribbon their way through forests and along coastlines. Ranging in difficulty from cruisy sea level hikes through Kentia palm and banyan forests, to more strenuous cliff top hikes to places like the Malabar cliffs, there is something for every ability level. The easier hikes include those to Old Gulch, a short 20 minute return journey; further south, hikes to Intermediate Hill or Little Island both only take roughly 45 minutes from start to finish. More challenging are the Malabar hills and Kim’s lookout walk, a five-hour return journey where at the right time of the year you’re likely to see beautiful avian displays from tropical birds. Similarly, Goat House Cave is a five hour return hike, 6km in total.

3. Bird Watching

With more than170 species of land and sea bird species living on and visiting the island each year, Lord Howe Island is a mecca of bird watching opportunities. From September to May even less avid bird watchers will be mesmerised by the thousands of flesh-footed shearwaters that return to the island each day at dusk after spending the sunlight hours looking for food at sea. The aerial courting display of the red-tailed tropicbirds is similarly spectacular, as they fly in backwards somersaults over one another off Malabar cliffs.

From March to November providence petrels (which Sir David Attenborough admired) can be found in the tall trees of Mt Gower, where if you make loud, strange noises, they will literally fall from the tree tops to your feet. Hundreds of years without predation has made them extremely trusting creatures. Unperturbed by close human contact and encouraged by their own curiosity they will often come to rest on your shoulder or even climb into your lap. The endemic Lord Howe Island woodhen can be spotted year-round in Mt Gower, while sightings of the only other endemic bird species, the Lord Howe Island silvereye are common around the island. Take any of the multiple walking tracks throughout the island and you will be sure to encounter vast numbers of bird species.

4. Scuba diving and snorkelling

The pristine waters that surround Lord Howe Island are brimming with vibrant untouched coral reefs and an abundance of marine life, many of which are unique to the area. The world’s most southerly coral reef boasts more than 90 species of coral and 500 species of fish, which are accessible at 60+ dive sites, it’s little wonder that the area has become a premier diving location, attracting divers from around the world. Nearby shallow dives in the sparkling lagoon are an ideal starting place for beginners, while for those more experienced and adventurous there are dives at Ball’s Pyramid, a 1.25hr boat ride away, and various dives throughout the Admiralty Islands that range from 15m to 40m in depth.

The calm waters of the lagoon are ideal for snorkellers of all ages, with colourful corals and schools of fish just metres from the shore. Snorkelling gear is available for hire from any of the local dive shops, or at Neds Beach you’ll find masks, fins and snorkels able to be ‘hired’ for the cost of a contribution to the ‘honesty box’. Lord Howe Environmental Tours offer a variety of snorkelling and coral viewing tours, including one in a glass-bottomed boat.

5. Surfing

One of the island’s best kept secrets is its excellent surf. Unspoiled and regularly deserted, there are 10 beach and reef breaks across the east and west sides of the island. Blinky Beach has been locally dubbed ‘Champagne Surf’, and is your best bet at good surf close to the island’s shore, while in the right conditions the less predictable Ned’s Beach can also offer great waves. Alternatively the shallow coral reef to the west of the island provides impressive offshore waves that tend to be much more regular and reliable. These more remote breaks can be accessed via boat, or if you’re prepared to put in the hard yards, by paddling or kayaking a kilometre or two. Despite the hassle of excess or oversized baggage, it’s best advised that you bring your own boards along. Otherwise Larrups, a surf shop in the centre of town, has a small selection of boards for hire.

6. Kite surfing

Winter might not be the ideal time for most water sports, but from May to September some of the strongest winds of the year come roaring up Lord Howe Island’s coastline, and these in combination with the shallow reefs keeping water temperatures mild, create optimal conditions for kite surfing. Both flatwater and open ocean kite surfing opportunities are available for the taking, with keen surfers heading to the lagoon, Ned’s Beach or further out to the ocean reef breaks, all the while able to admire the spectacular natural surroundings. Unfortunately kite surfing gear isn’t available for hire on the island, but by purchasing excess baggage when you book your flights, taking your gear along with you shouldn’t end up too costly. The Lord Howe Island Kite Surfing group on Facebook provides regular updates from local guide Dave Gardiner about conditions on the island.

7. Water sports

The calm waters of Lord Howe Island’s lagoon offer perfect conditions for paddle boarding. While the views of the surrounding mountains and rainforests are eye-catching, keep an eye on the ocean floor and through the clear water you’ll be likely to spot passing sea creatures including turtles and vibrant tropical fish. Paddle boards can be hired from a variety of venues including Lord Howe Environmental Tours, Pro Dive and the Hire Shed found at Ned’s Beach.

Another popular way to explore not only the lagoon but the bays, beaches, reefs and smaller islands that surround Lord Howe is by kayak. Make your way out to Roach Island, an islet of the Admiralty group and paddle through the huge narrow arch that slices through the centre of the island. Guided kayak tours around the island can be booked with Lord Howe Environmental Tours, while kayaks and sea kayaks are available for hire from Wilson’s Hire Services, with Pro Dive also offering glass-bottomed kayaks for hire.

8. Cycling

With fewer than 10 rental cars available on the island, walking or biking are the primary, and in many cases preferred, modes of transport for visitors. The 13km of roads and tracks wind through lush rainforests and along blue coastline waters, making cycling a great way to explore the island. Bike racks are scattered around Lord Howe at the beginning of walking tracks and at beaches, meaning that you can spend your day touring the island at your own pace in a hop off hop on style. Bikes can be hired from various services including Wilson’s Hire Services, while some accommodations supply guests with bikes for the duration of their stay.

9. Fishing

Whether you fish occasionally as a hobby or are a veteran of the sea, the waters surrounding Lord Howe provide fishing opportunities for every preference and level of expertise. Protected as a marine park and with no commercial fishing, there are innumerable varieties of tropical fish in abundances rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Travel little more than half an hour from the jetty to go in search for black-, blue- and striped marlin, or try your hand at catching the ‘big four’ in one sitting in the shallow waters of the lagoon: trevally, silver drummer, bluefish and the endemic double-header wrasse. There more than 10 charter fishing boats that operate from Lord Howe Island, and, for full or half-day hire, will provide everything you need from fishing tackle to local knowledge of the area. A catch-and-release policy is encouraged, and there are bag limits that apply to particular fish.

If you’re more interested in cooking Lord Howe’s pelagic wonders rather than catching them, head along to the Greenback Cooking School, where you learn how to handle, process and prepare the fish, and then cook them to restaurant standard.

10. History

With such an obviously vibrant natural environment, Lord Howe Island also has a vibrant history, and it’s one that you can learn more about during your stay if you visit the local Lord Howe Island Museum. First officially recognised as a museum when the RSL Hall was converted in 1978, it has since grown to contain a wealth of collections, displays, resources and information. Located on the corner of Lagoon Road and Middle Beach Road, it will reveal information about the discovery of the island, early settlement, shipwrecks, conservation efforts and much more. From September to May it is open to the public seven days a week 9am to 3pm, while during the remaining months of the year opening hours are reduced.