Travel to Lord Howe Island

There once was a very old cat called Tasman who lived on Lord Howe Island. Actually, it wasn’t that Tasman was so very old — he just lived for a very long time. Lord Howe Island, about 550km off the coast of Port Macquarie, is a World Heritage-listed island, home to the world’s most southerly coral reef, pristine beaches where fish and turtles swim around your ankles and some of the rarest birdlife on the planet thanks to a no-cats policy.

In 1979, all the feral cats on the island were removed. In 1982, domestic cats were banned, although there was a grandfather clause. No new cats were allowed on the island but if you had one you could keep it provided it was desexed. Tasman, already quite a mature cat in 1982, lived until 2004, though there have been some whispers around the island that Tasman wasn’t quite the same cat when he died that he used to be back in 1982.

Pushing any unsubstantiated rumours of surreptitious cat-swapping aside, is it possible that Lord Howe holds the secrets of eternal youth?

Certainly, travelling to Lord Howe can feel like stepping back in time. There are no mobile phones; the island resorts have a no-key policy; surfboard, wetsuit and snorkel hire is by honesty box; there are no traffic lights and, indeed, no traffic — everyone gets around on bicycle and everyone waves. It’s easy to tell who’s a visitor: they’re the ones who haven’t yet mastered the art of waving while riding. There’s no high-rise; in fact, sometimes it’s quite difficult to see the buildings at all, hidden as they are among the kentia palm forests.

As Tasman the cat knew only too well, time moves slowly on Lord Howe. Days are spent doing very little beyond lying around in the sun with a good book, punctuated by a spot of beachcombing, fish feeding, bird watching or sunset staring. Those who crave more activity snorkel the coral, paddle a kayak or climb a hill. The really adventurous set out on an eight-hour trek to the summit of Mt Gower.

At 875 metres, the mountain, along with its 100-metre shorter sister peak Mt Lidgbird, dominates the southern tip of this breathtakingly beautiful island. Wherever you look, its brooding presence is there, sometimes standing tall, proud and naked, sometimes shrouded in cloud. Wherever you go on the island, Mount Gower looms large. The rocky flat-topped peak is on all the postcards, in all the books, its likeness stamped on all the souvenirs, incorporated into most of the logos of the island’s businesses and printed on all the T-shirts; including one I have that says “I climbed Mount Gower, and survived”, a well-earned souvenir of my last trip to Lord Howe a couple of years ago.

Walking to the summit of Mount Gower is not something to be taken lightly. It may well be rated one of the world’s best day walks but it’s also rated a grade 10, which makes it definitely not a walk for the unfit, the faint-hearted, those with a fear of heights or anyone with dodgy knees. Indeed, so fearsome does its reputation become after two days on the island, neck craned towards the far-away summit, that my travelling companion, after expressing her doubts on whether she can make it to the top, conveniently stubbed her toe on a rock while taking a sunset stroll along the beach and declared it broken. There’s no alternative, she said. We must carry on without her. She’ll be OK, she assured us, as she booked herself in for a full-day pamper package at the resort spa.

It’s also not a walk you can do alone; you must climb with a licensed guide, although whether that’s because there is no clearly marked track or because the nearest mountain rescue service is 500km away I’m not sure. We’d signed up with local lad, Jack Shick, a fifth-generation islander who knows everything there is to know about the local flora and fauna and seems to take the mountain in his stride, laconically describing the track ahead as “a whole lot of straight up”. It’s OK for him; he’s done this walk more than a 1000 times.

It all began easily enough as we strode out along the beach just after dawn, merrily chatting among ourselves, a band of a dozen or so eager walkers. It’s a pleasant ramble through a native kentia palm forest, past huge banyan trees trailing long aerial roots, Lord Howe woodhens scurrying across the track to the safety of the undergrowth.

The cute olive-brown flightless bird was on the brink of extinction 25 years ago, one of the rarest birds on earth with less than a dozen nesting pairs left. Those that survived the impact of the introduction of pigs on the island by sailors in the late 18th century did so mainly atop the summit of Mount Gower, where the wild pigs could not reach them. Now that the feral pigs have been eradicated, the woodhen has made a comeback.

But, as we emerged from the forest, the true nature of the walk was revealed as we donned safety helmets and gingerly edged our way along a slippery grass track carved into the side of the cliffs that form the lower section of Mt Lidgbird several hundred metres above the churning waves and rocks below. We gripped the rope bolted into the cliffside as vertigo threatened to overwhelm us. Or at least me. I slipped on the dew-wet grass, landing harmlessly on my bum, but watched in terror as my hard hat crashed and tumbled over the edge, smashing to smithereens on the rocks below. I tried not to think of the outcome if I’d been still attached to that helmet.

Safely across the open expanse, we took a breather while Jack nimbly demonstrated his kentia palm climbing skills (harvesting the seeds is a major source of income for most young islanders) and then readied ourselves for the main ascent. It is, as Jack so succinctly put it at the beginning of the walk, indeed “a whole lot of straight up” — a hard four-hour slog that involves lung-bustlingly long uphill stretches punctuated only by ungainly clamours up and around boulders so large that you need to haul yourself up with ropes permanently anchored into the rock, and scrambles around more cliff-edge ledges with dizzying drops beneath you.

Finally, we arrived at a spot descriptively called “the get up place”. The make-or-break point for many on the walk, it is a long rope-assisted haul up near-vertical rock faces so steep that even feral pigs couldn’t conquer the climb, much to the woodhens’ salvation. I seized on the pigs’ dilemma, trying to convince myself I was “better than your average bush pig” and repeated it to myself as a motivating mantra until I finally dragged myself to the summit where I collapsed in exhaustion just as the cloud cover dissipated and all of Lord Howe Island and its fringing reef shimmered and sparkled below us. “Look ma, I’m on top of the world!” I muttered to myself.

Very big, unafraid currawongs sat and stared, just an arm’s length away, while we devoured soggy beetroot salad sandwiches and sat in silence as we took in the view. All I could think about was the trek down on tired, jellied legs. The descent was more terrifying than the climb, as we swung from branch to branch like brachiating apes, trying to keep our balance as we slipped and slid over slimy tree roots that were so helpful on the way up, now our enemy, threatening to send us skittering over the mountain edge.

We abseiled, without the harness, down the massive boulders, hoping our sweaty palms didn’t lose grip, and stumbled along creek beds with aching knees. I promised myself that if I got back to the resort in one piece it would be roast pork for dinner. “Better than your average bush pig,” I repeated again to myself, as I re-donned the hard hat and negotiated the Mt Lidgbird ledge, trying hard not to look down to the roiling water below, before delving back into the kentia palm forest, safe in the knowledge that the resort was finally within reach. I wearily tried to punch the air in triumph but decided to collapse onto the waiting bus instead, thankful I hadn’t decided to ride the resort bicycle to the meeting point earlier that morning.

It may not be comparable to scaling Everest or Kilimanjaro but it was a day trek that changed my life nonetheless: whenever I am faced with a physical challenge I reassure myself that if I can climb Mount Gower I can do anything. That said, the memories of my tortured muscles the day after my climb are still painfully vivid, so this time I decided to see if I could get some of whatever it was that Tasman had that helped him live to such an improbable old age.

During my last visit I’d tried to stretch my Gower-wrecked muscles in a yoga class in the purpose-built yoga yurt hidden among the kentias and banyans at Arajilla Retreat. This time, I discover, the wooden yoga yurt has been transformed into a five-star spa where the focus is on wellness as much as it is on pampering.

The spa is run by a local couple, Scott Allen and Kim Shead, who are both accredited Ayurvedic consultants, trained in India. As well as the Arajilla wellness centre, Kim runs twice-weekly yoga classes in the town hall where visitors are always welcome. Scott used to be the chef at Arajilla but now concentrates on Ayurvedic massage, Ayurvedic nutrition and Ayurvedic healing.

“Ayurveda is an ancient healthcare system treating the mind, body and soul,” explains Scott as I dither about trying to decide what type of massage I want or whether to simply indulge in a facial or pedicure.

“You can relax on holiday but when you get home you still can’t sleep any better and still can’t handle stress. Total and pure relaxation is learning to detach yourself from the senses that connect us to every little thing we do,” says Scott with the zeal of a true believer. “We do this through meditation and pranayama (yogic breathing), yoga and Ayurvedic treatments like shirodhara (pouring warm oil over your forehead) and marma point massage. We can learn how to master the mind and not let it master us. Not only do the wellness packages help with this but they encourage you to continue when you get home.”

Scott certainly seems to radiate glowing good health and I’m tempted to ask his age to see if, like Tasman, he’s older than he looks but opt instead to quietly submit to a neck and head massage with lots of warm therapeutic oil. Time seems to slow down during the massage and I remain in a rather drowsy, languidly relaxed state for the rest of the day, like a well-fed, pampered cat. Maybe I have managed to stumble onto Tasman’s secret after all.

Five other things to do on Lord Howe

The Clear Place: Not all walks on the island are tough. There’s an easy one-hour return walk through a forest of kentia palms and banyan trees to a lookout called the Clear Place on the north-eastern side of the island.

Kim’s Lookout: A slightly more energetic walk (two hours) heads up the hills behind North Bay to Kim’s Lookout with sweeping views across the island to Mt Gower.

Feed the fish at Ned’s Beach: Pack a picnic dinner and head to Ned’s Beach at sunset, where you can laugh yourself silly as you watch the shearwaters (mutton birds) crash land into the kentia palm forest behind you. If that fails to entertain, wade into the water with a few pieces of bread and create a feeding frenzy with the resident kingfish.

Snorkel the most southerly coral: The lagoon is a marine park containing about 450 species of fish (about one-tenth are unique to the area), 90 species of coral and massive green and hawksbill turtles — and you can snorkel out to the reef from the beach. For those who prefer to stay dry there are also glass-bottom boat tours available.

Yoga: Drop-in yoga classes are held in the public hall on Thursday afternoons (5.00–6.30pm) and Saturday mornings (8.00–9.30am). They cost $12 and mats are provided.

Travel file

How to get there: Lord Howe Island is a two-hour flight from Sydney. Return fares with QantasLink start at about $900. www.qantas.com.au
Where to stay: Room rates at Arajilla Retreat start at $570 per person twin share, and include all meals and selected pre-dinner drinks, airport transfers, snorkel and bicycle hire. Spa and wellness packages are available. Phone 1800 063 928; www.lordhowe.com.au
Climb Mount Gower: contact Jack Shick on (02) 6563-2218 or visit www.lordhoweisland.info/services/sea.htm
More: www.lordhoweisland.info


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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