by Louise Southerden, ASTW Travel Writer of the Year - Responsible Tourism
First Published: G Magazine, April 2008
It's hard not to be swept off your feet by Lord Howe Island. After two hours of flying over featureless blue, suddenly there it is, an oasis of natural beauty: the twin peaks of Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower that dominate the island's southern end; isolated northern beaches populated by hundreds of thousands of seabirds and accessible only by sea kayak or on foot; a settlement of 350 locals and just 400 visitors; and a long, blue lagoon bounded by the most southerly coral reef in the world.
Even David Attenborough once wrote that it 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 about the island (he was also awarded an Order of Australia medal in 2006 for his contribution to conservation and tourism), "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."
Within an hour of arriving, we'd "rented" (by leaving a donation in the honesty box) masks, snorkels and fins at Ned's Beach and were communing with the fishes. The water was tropically warm, the visibility an astonishing 25 metres. Stepping off the beach, we entered a world of butterfly fish and rainbow-coloured wrasse, green turtles and blacktipped reef sharks, stingrays, clownfish, giant clams, corals and 14 kinds of sea. urchin.
It was like snorkelling through an aquarium. And no wonder: the warm East Australian Current that swirls down the Australian coast flows out to Lord Howe too, where it meets cold southern currents, bringing together more than 500 fish species and 90 different corals. This array of tropical and temperate marine creatures is protected within the Lord Howe Island Marine Park.
Lord Howe is also the best place in Australia to watch seabirds. Almost 170 species have been recorded living on or visiting the island group, and hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest there every year. Between September and March, just by standing on the beach at dusk you can witness a spectacular show: hundreds of muttonbirds skidding ashore then dashing 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 entered 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."
It's tempting, when you find a place like Lord Howe, to wonder: what would it be like to live here? It seems so idyllic. There's no mobile phone coverage and no litter - the morning after the 25h World Heritage anniversary concert, the only sign that a few hundred people had been partying on the grass at Ned's Beach was a couple of pairs of thongs, waiting for their owners to return.
There's also no crime: no room keys, no bike locks and you can leave your belongings safely on the beach while you swim. The locals are friendly too; it's easy to get used to complete strangers waving as you walk or ride by on the island's quiet roads.
It's also something of an eco-community. Green living isn't just a nice idea on Lord Howe; it's part of daily life. The island locals are dedicated to conserving water (supply is rainfall-dependent) and energy (electricity comes from a diesel-powered generator with fuel transported in steel containers to reduce the risk of a spill).
You can go a whole day without seeing a car, or needing one; even local businesspeople get around on bicycles. And transport back to your lodge is included when you dine at any of the island's fine restaurants.
Then there's the recycling system. Every public garbage bin on the island includes a section for food scraps as well as one for recyclables. All the island's organic waste - from homes, restaurants and public bins - plus sewage sludge, and paper and cardboard that has been shredded, go into a Vertical Composting Unit which creates compost that residents use on their gardens. It's the first time such a system has been used in an isolated community with World Heritage status.
Recyclable plastics, aluminium and glass are taken off the island and sold, which helps pay for the freight. Plastics and other nonrecyclables are compacted and shipped to a rubbish tip on the mainland. There's a userpays system to discourage dumping of household junk such as TV sets and old bicycles. And to encourage re-use of containers there's a Co-op store that stocks food and cleaning products.
It's sponsored by the Lord Howe Island Board - the island equivalent of a local council - which reports directly to the NSW Minister for Climate Change, Environment and Water.
Lord Howe also leads the world in the eradication of noxious weeds and feral animals. The Board conducts compulsory inspections of people's properties with the goal of ridding the island of noxious weeds. Teams of six to 12 "weeders" go up into the mountains and hills every day to remove cherry guava, the worst weed on the island.
Thanks to $1.8 million in federal funding, in the last two years, 600,000 cherry guava trees have been removed. Asparagus fern, another voracious weed, is targeted by the island's popular Weeding Ecotours.
Since 1999, there have been no feral pigs, goats or cats on the island either, so species such as the Lord Howe island woodhen, one of the rarest birds in the world, have been able to make a comeback from the brink of extinction. The Lord Howe Island phasmid, the world's largest stick insect, is also on its way back. Since its rediscovery in 2001, it has been in a captive breeding program at Melbourne Zoo and will be reintroduced to Lord Howe when rats are eradicated, sometime in the next few years.
On our last day we climbed Mt Gower (875m), the "Everest of Lord Howe", to experience the island's ruggedness first hand. With much of the track unmarked and sections so steep that fixed ropes have been put in to help you climb up (and down) it's no wonder the walk takes a solid eight hours.
But it's worth it. At the top, we were rewarded with views of Ball's Pyramid, a volcanic sea stack which rises eerily from the sea mist 23 km away, and cool cloud forest - Lord Howe is one of only a handful of islands in the world to have a true cloud forest. It's a miniature fairy glen of mosses, ferns and epiphytes, the kind of place Gollum from The Lord of the Rings might inhabit.
That evening, back .at sea level, I stepped outside to savour the night air and the stars. Oh, the stars! The island is so far from any city that the night was star-spangled like a desert sky. As if I needed another reason to love Lord Howe.
Getting there: Lord Howe Island is 700km north-east of Sydney. QantasLink flies daily from Sydney and Brisbane (www.qantas.com.au).
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 (02 6563 2029, www.earlsanchorage.com.au). Pinetrees is the oldest and most central guest house (02 6563 2177, www.pinetrees.com.au). At the luxury end of the spectrum there's Arajilla (02 6563 2002, www.arajilla.com.au) and Capella Lodge (02 9918 4355, www.lordhowe.com). Camping is not permitted.
Howe to have fun
• Go swimming, snorkelling or sea kayaking, or take a sunset cruise on the lagoon with Islander Cruises (02 6563 2021) and Howea Divers (02 6563 2290 or visit www.howeadivers.com.au).
• Feed the fish at Ned's Beach; BYO stale bread, wade in up to your knees and hand-feed dozens of metre-long kingfish, wrasse, silver drummer and various other species.
• Explore the island's 11 beautiful beaches, all easy biking distance from town. Ned's Beach was voted Australia's Cleanest Beach in 2004.
• Go birdwatching with Ian Hutton: visit www.lordhowe-tours.com.au. For a calendar of mating and nesting seasons for a number of bird species, see www.lordhoweisland.info.
• Walk one of the island's many trails. Pick up a copy of A Rambler's Guide to Lord Howe Island for $10 from the museum.
• Climb Mt Gower (access is with a licensed guide only). Contact Sea to Summit Expeditions (02 6563 2218, www.lordhoweisland.info/services/sea.htmi) or Lord Howe Environmental Tours (02 6563 2214, www.lordhoweisland.info/services/environ.html).
• Scuba dive more than 50 world-class sites, including Ball's Pyramid, with Islander Cruises and Howea Divers (see above).
• Lord Howe Island Museum is open 9am-3pm Mon-Fri, loam-2pm weekends; public talks 5.30pm on Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday.
More info: Call Lord Howe Island Visitor Information Centre on 1800 240 937 or visit www.lordhoweisland.info
On 17 December 2007, the Lord Howe Island Group - comprising Lord Howe Island, Ball's Pyramid, the Admiralty Islands, Mutton Bird Island and surrounding coral reefs - celebrated 25 years of being World Heritage listed.
Weeding Ecotours run from June to August, removing asparagus ferns in the mornings with afternoons free to explore the island. Visit www.lordhowe-tours.com.au for more information.