When the winds stir up and clouds descend, it is an island that offers sanctuary – among other deep-sea and earthy delights.
Words & Photographs by Lucy Howard-Taylor
702 kilometres northeast of Sydney, at the intersection of five ocean currents and a submerged continental rib, thrusts forth the remains of an ancient shield volcano. Eroded over seven million years to one fortieth of its original size, Lord Howe Island rises like a wind-shorn jewel from the waters of the Tasman Sea; eleven kilometres long by as little as three hundred metres wide, a vibrant blue-green, its twin peaks capped in cloud. From the sky, the island almost looks like the mossed jawbone of some long-extinct creature given up by the sea.
It may be less than a two hour flight from the crush of Sydney, but the moment you step from the Dash-8 onto the tarmac of Lord Howe’s only airstrip, there is a palpable sense of remoteness. There is no mobile reception on the island and no traffic lights (with next to no cars, bicycles silently reign supreme), but the lack of modern conveniences one might mistake for essential cannot wholly account for the subtle separation felt upon arriving in this UNESCO World Heritage listed property. It is disarmingly beautiful, in an unruly, enveloping way that robs you of words. But there is a strangeness to this wilderness too, with its opalescent lagoon fringed with coral, its deep green canopies of kentia palms, cowrie-studded beaches and panoply of birds.
Travelling in the middle of winter to a subtropical island and the world’s southernmost coral reef may seem perverse, but Lord Howe wore its wild weather hat well. On the tarmac I was left breathless by a brisk wind that tasted of salt and wet leaves. In bed that first night, with large fronds bashing each other outside my window, the roar of the trade winds was almost animal. During the day rain rolled in with no warning and cleared just as suddenly, leaving everything glistening. A wind cheater was essential, and should you go out at night, a torch: there are no streetlights here and the inky completeness of the darkness, broken by a milky wash of stars, took this city dweller by surprise. First things first, hire a bike, even if like me you cannot ride one. With only 360 permanent residents, a maximum of 400 tourists at any one time and 13 kilometres of undulating scenic road, there is ample opportunity for a novice to practice unobserved. Pack a picnic and ride to the preternaturally still and secluded Old Settlement Beach, where three men, three women and two boys came to live in 1833, trading with passing vessels. Or pop over to Ned’s Beach where you can snorkel among fantastically coloured coral gardens (there is an honesty box for hiring gear), or wade closer to shore and hand-feed swarms of tropical fish with names like Silver Drummer and Spangled Emperor. At dusk, throngs of muttonbirds return to their burrows in the low-lying palm forests nearby. As sunset arrives, their distinctive, searching cries can approach an almost human wailing.
These pristine waters host some of the best diving in the world, with an unearthly sunken landscape of volcanic drop-offs, trenches and caves lined with black coral trees, branching gorgonians and over 90 varieties of luxuriant subtropical coral. For those for whom the prospect of coming face to face with the blue teeth of a Harlequin Tuskfish in an underwater canyon sounds vaguely terrifying, you can charter a glass-bottomed boat instead and enjoy the spectacle dry and unmolested from the crystalline surface of the lagoon.
At the southernmost end of Lagoon Road is the start of the Little Island Track, which follows the shoreline to the black basalt cliffs of Mount Lidgbird. Lord Howe is a walker’s delight and this marked and level track meanders its way past picturesque Lovers Bay and through thickly crowded valleys of soughing kentia palms (keep your eyes peeled and you might see a native woodhen grunting happily in the shadows), to the base of the mountain and its stony shores of calcarenite and dark sea-sculpted rocks. Here, especially between March and October, you will see wheeling clouds of one of the world’s rarest seabirds, Providence petrels, diving over the cliffs as they chatter and return to breed. For the more energetically inclined walker, a climb to the scrubby top of Malabar Hill leads to one of the best views of the island and a dramatic scraggy drop to the sea. Alternatively, sign up for the famous day hike to the summit of Mount Gower, where you will find yourself among the twisted trees and inveterate mist of what the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage actually designates as Gnarled Mossy Cloud Forest, which sounds more enchanted than ecological.
Enchantment is a recurring theme here. As the days pass, I discover that there is something about this island that is both calming and unexpectedly foreign, a wandering otherness that finds its way in on the throats of seabirds and endows plants with a luminous variety of green. The natural landscape is not only astonishingly lush – isolation, topographic peculiarity and igneous soils have spawned a paradise of ferns, palms, orchids and microhabitats – but feels unusually ancient, almost untouchable. Nowhere is this impression more powerful than in the broody Valley of the Shadows, where 20 metre high trees mottle the light. To stand alone amid this silent grove of banyans, their aerial roots muscling to the ground like the suspended legs of giants, is to realise the difference that is Lord Howe Island. It is to approach the primeval and be at home amongst the extraordinary.