A Visit to Lord Howe Island
Well off the beaten “Coconut Milk Run” track, I think that Lord Howe Island may well be one of the best-kept secrets in the South Pacific. Located 225 nm Northeast of Sydney and 675 nm Southwest of Noumea, New Caledonia, this ruggedly beautiful island sees relatively few foreign cruisers.
On our second morning out of Sydney, I had the 3 am to 6 am watch. It’s always my favorite, as I love to watch sunrise and the start of the new day. On this particular morning, there was a line of small clouds on the horizon, illuminated by the first light. The sun’s light appeared yellowish orange, and the bases of the clouds a lovely coral pink. What at first appeared to me to be a to be a couple of larger clouds on the horizon gradually became more clearly defined. The sun was rising directly behind the dramatic 2000+ foot peaks of Mounts Lidgbird and Gower, on the south end of Lord Howe Island. We were still 45 nm southwest the island. Shortly afterward, Ball’s Pyramid, the spectacular 1800-foot, solid rock pinnacle lying 13 miles south of Lord Howe, also appeared on the horizon. Mornings like this are what make cruising “priceless.”
Motor-sailing in a light sou’wester, we arrived at the entrance of the lagoon by mid-morning. It was a perfect time to make landfall, as the sun was high enough and more or less behind us. The conditions were ideal for negotiating a shallow reef pass.
We contacted Clive Wilson, who looks after yachts visiting Lord Howe, on VHF channel 12. He’s a native of Lord Howe and knows the back of his hand nearly as well as the bottom-ography of the lagoon. Clive met us at the pass entrance in his sturdy launch and gave us precise bearings through the narrow Erscotts Passage into the lagoon and led us to one of the very beefy guest moorings just south of Rabbit Island. Lord Howe is World Heritage listed and is the site of the southernmost coral reef in the world. Anchoring in the lagoon is not permitted and the use of a mooring is obligatory.
Charts of the lagoon are questionable. Entering or leaving the lagoon at night is not advisable. The track plotted by our chart plotter showed us as having coming in right over a shallow coral reef awash in surf! While we had heard and read that the Lagoon can be quite rolly, but the breeze sea state were slight for the five days we were there and we found it quite calm except for a tiny bit of motion at high tide.
After lunch, Cate, Tim and I splashed the dink and headed ashore for some exploring. Landing was easy on a lovely white sand beach just off “the Settlement,” which lies on a gentle west-facing slope at the northern middle of the island. The hub of the Settlement consists of a post office/espresso café, a diesel powered electrical generation plant, the town hall, a couple of boutiques and a general store/fish and chip shop.
It is apparent that the locals take a great deal of pride in their island. Everything appeared tidy and well manicured. Much of the island looks like a park or botanical garden. We found the locals to be friendly, helpful and laid back.
The primary form of transportation on the island is bicycle. Given that there are only about five miles of road, one would need a pretty compelling reason to own a motor vehicle. As in days past, car doors were left unlocked and keys in the ignition. At every point of interest there was a bike rack. Locks aren’t necessary, and you can just leave the helmet in the basket. No worries!
We rented some sturdy 5-speed mountain bikes at Wilson’s Rentals (Clive’s son) for about $3 US a day. Cycling on the island is easy and pleasant except that it can be very dark at night, and there are few streetlights. B.Y.O. flashlight!
Lord Howe has no indigenous peoples. It was first populated in the early 1800’s as a whaling station, providing fresh water and provisions to passing ships. Many of the 350 current residents are directly descended from the first six settlers. Today, the two main industries are tourism and exportation of Kentia palm seeds, which are shipped worldwide and grown as an ornamental plant. As a tourist destination, it has a great deal to offer.
Only two to three hours’ flight from the east coast of Australia, it has almost all the exotic beauty of the islands of Bora Bora and the Marquesas. One can find pleasant weather, excellent diving, hiking, game fishing, surfing, white sand beaches, a golf course, luxury boutique type accommodations, and fine dining, yet still feel well out of reach from civilization.
What you won’t find at Lord Howe are some of the negative aspects of French Polynesia and some of the other South Pacific islands. The governing board of Lord Howe strictly limits the number of tourist beds to 392, so there is no hype, over development or throngs of tourists. The nearest timeshare salesperson is at least 500 miles away. There appear to be no tribal disputes, crime, pollution, litter, graffiti, poverty or exorbitant prices. Only full–time residents are permitted to own real estate and build homes, so it’s unlikely that it will ever become an exclusive enclave of the rich and famous.
There are miles of hiking trails on the island offering all types of terrain and scenery. Free maps are available and the trails are well marked. We warmed up on Wednesday by hiking up to the cliffs along the north end of the island. In addition to excellent views of the reef in the clear blue waters directly below, we had a spectacular vista of the entire island, the Lagoon, and, of course, the two large peaks towering at the south end of the island.
Each Wednesday afternoon at the Town Hall, there is a showing of “historic films” about Lord Howe Island. The calendar was wide open so we attended. The local “medical officer” showed three short travel log type films made in the forties, fifties and sixties. It is quite interesting to note how little the island has actually changed from the days of being serviced by the Qantas “flying boats,” which landed in the lagoon. Some parts were a bit corny, but entertaining nonetheless.
The following day, starting at 0730, we went on an organized hike led by Jack, a local tour guide. The “walk” was a four-and-a-half mile journey to the top of Mount Gower. At 2840 feet, it is the tallest peak on the island. This was Jack’s 633rd trip to the top, so he knew the way pretty well, and had a “no big deal” attitude that was calming for us newbies. Jack’s father and grandfather both led groups to the top of the mountain before him.
The walk started as a stroll down a dirt road and then graduated to helmet-clad, white-knuckled hand over hand, rope assisted climbing up near-vertical rock walls and traversing cliff-hanging trails that were not much wider than a DD hiking boot. The cracks in the rocks and the dense root structure of the plants clinging to the side of the mountain made for a pretty good natural ladder, but the frequent showers from the previous few days also made the bare spots as slippery as snot. My acrophobia had me desperately clinging to the guide ropes on the steep parts of the ascent.
The vegetation varied from grassy fields to low scrub to palm forest to dense rain forest. All was quite natural and beautiful. Migrant sea birds were plentiful. At one point, Jack put out a call, and dozens of providence petrels literally dropped out of the sky all around us. These birds were definitely built for flying, as their landings were more like a semi-controlled crash. A few became caught in the trees and bushes before making their way to terra firma, where they awkwardly hobbled along on their tiny webbed feet. Ironically, they nest in underground burrows.
These birds seem to have no fear of humans. They came right up to us, ate out of our hands and even allowed us to pick them up and pet them. While they were friendly, they were not quiet. In the air or on the ground, they screeched loudly and endlessly. We were happy to be out of their cacophonous company in short order.
Equally as friendly and fearless were the wood hens. They appeared from time to time along the trail and a pair of them joined us for lunch at the top, happy to quietly eat bread crust from our hands. Because they are flightless, meaty and slow moving, they nearly became extinct at the hands of visiting sailors looking for a fresh alternative to salt beef. Today they are increasing in numbers, much to the chagrin of the locals, whose gardens they like to feed from. Talk about the tables turning!
Jack led the group of 15 hikers at an easy pace, stopping frequently for rest stops. While we were catching our breath, Jack explained to us in detail about the wide variety of flora and fauna on the mountain with the knowledge of a university professor. As we were climbing, the top of the mountain looming above us seemed an impossible goal, but by mid-day, we were at the top, on level ground, enjoying our accomplishment, a spectacular view and our well-deserved picnic lunches.
The climb to the top had bolstered our confidence a bit, so the descent was less of a vertigo inducing affair. Tired, blistered, sore but satisfied, we arrived back at our sea level starting point at 1630, all safe and sound. It was back to the Moonshadow for us, to wash off the head to toe coating of mud.
We rewarded ourselves that evening with a lovely dinner ashore at one of the cool little restaurants. Clive Wilson was kind enough to ferry us to and from the beach so we didn’t have to cycle or walk in the dark. It was an early evening for the crew of Moonshadow.
Lord Howe has a 2600-foot airstrip with an adjacent Australian Bureau of Meteorology station. We popped into the BOM station to pick up some weather information and Nigel, the local meteorologist, was happy to give us weather information as well as a tour. We also arrived in time to view one of the four daily releases of a weather balloon.
We watched while Nigel attached an electronic instrument module to a three foot diameter, hydrogen filled balloon. He then took it outside, released it and aimed a radar-tracking device at the balloon. Inside the station, information such as temperature, dew point, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, and cloud height was being recorded on a computer. All this data would be sent to Sydney for compilation and subsequent forecasting by the weather gurus.
Our favorite weather guru, Bob McDavitt from Met Service New Zealand sent us an email indicating that two lows were brewing in the Tasman Sea and that it would be a good time to leave Lord Howe and head for Noumea. We said our goodbyes and made Moonshadow ready to head back to sea.
The following morning at 0700, Clive Wilson, from a vantage point on shore, once again gave us precise bearings to guide us safely through the pass and into deep water.
With New Caledonia ahead of us, we spent most of the day watching Lord Howe Island slowly disappear behind us. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to visit there again some day.