Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Lord Howe Island (A very special place)

[Kyle]Lord Howe was in fact so nice that even though we were both bushed from many off-watches with no sleep and both being awake since Ball’s Pyramid, we decided to de-lifeboat the dinghy and get right ashore, just to orient ourselves.

First impressions - Lord Howe Island
Kyle has a young white tern come and take a perch on his hat,
Maryanne gets to see a baby LHI Stick Insect
and we both enjoy an afternoon tipple

We walked down the main road to “town”. The road is basically a really nice, wide, paved footpath that is also used by a three-times hourly pickup truck. Drivers seem happy to slow down to walking speed and weave their way through. The most common form of transport on the island is by bicycle. Almost every guest house has a rack of loaners outside. What they don’t have is room keys. Sure, you get a door, but what would you need with a lock?

We had a walk on the beach and popped our heads into a couple of tour operator sheds, which we exited bristling with brochures and maps with which to plan our stay. Back on the road, we met some wildlife. There were several Tern chicks sitting on low branches, waiting for their parents to return with a meal. I stopped to look at one of them.

The little guy was almost in adult plumage, minus some remaining fluffy down on his head. When I stopped, he gave me that look I haven’t seen since my parrot days. He was looking at me and leaning forward and twitching his little wings like he really wanted to come see me.

I didn’t think he would (or could). He’s a wild bird, right? I turned to see if Maryanne was seeing all of this and when I did, the little guy flew over, hovered over me for a couple of seconds and then landed on my hat! He hadn’t been conditioned to use a finger as a perch, but after a couple of gentle tries from me, he figured it out and happily hopped off of my hat onto mine and then started chirping away at me as if he had come over to share some birdy gossip with me. When he was done, he flew back to his branch to wait for dinner.

We saw several others and while they weren’t as gregarious as my little friend, they seemed perfectly content to let us get in nice and close for a look. Their parents were equally unfazed by us and only seemed wary of humans to the extent that we are big and meaty and might accidentally squish them. As long as they were out of arm’s length, they seemed happy to come over and chatter away to us as well.

We enjoyed being bird spotters (not hard to do)
The white terns are on the the main drag so easy to find
We even get to see parents bringing fish back to their chicks

We walked to the Museum, where we found a lecture schedule that would keep us entertained for a few evenings. Lord Howe has what may be the most endangered insect in the world - a walking stick called a Phasmid. Maryanne asked where on the island we might be lucky enough to find one. Even though the museum was closing in, like, thirty seconds, the guy behind the counter took us into a back room where he brought out three of them in a vivarium. It turns out the phasmid had been eaten to extinction on Lord Howe Island by invasive rats. They were thought to be gone completely until one intrepid climber many years later found a small population living on a tiny ledge on Ball’s Pyramid. Since then, they have had some of them in a breeding program with the intent of re-introducing them to Lord Howe once they are absolutely sure the recent massive rat eradication program there has been successful. At the moment, they have been officially declared rat free, but they are waiting a little longer, just to be sure.

Lord Howe is also free of snakes and, my favorite, free of mosquitos! We walked back to the dinghy via one of the nearby nature trails and even though the sun was about to go down, we were not being mauled by mosquitos. Oh, I love it here! That Phil, he’s the greatest!

The next day, the weather was good, so we decided to do some hiking before a multi-day forecast of rain arrived. Lord Howe has lots of trails. The longest and most grueling is to the top of Mt Gower, which is usually the right-hand peak in photos. For that hike, you must pay for a guide. Since Gower is furthest from town, it was explained to us that the guide keeps up a pretty brisk pace to be able make the round trip in daylight. We remembered chasing our guide up the volcano in the Galapagos and decided we were not up for a whole day of that.

Scenery from the numerous trails
Mt Gower & its neighbour Mt Lidgbird dominate the view

Next in difficulty was the climb up to Goat Cave, most of the way up Mt. Lidgbird, the left-hand mountain in most photos. No guide was necessary, but it still sounded pretty grueling. I wanted to try it, but was worried Maryanne wouldn’t want to climb at the pace I thought we would need to maintain to get back by dark. We often divide and conquer for errands, but rarely on tourist stuff. This time, we made an exception. She would hike one set of trails and I another. That would tick almost all of them off of our collective list and still leave us with a big loop around the north part of the island on another day that we could do together.

The trail to Goat Cave did indeed turn out to be grueling. It started with a long walk to the other side of the airport, which from the dinghy dock essentially traverses the entire inhabited part of the island. Then it goes steeply up a sugarloaf mountain to the intervening viewpoint at Intermediate Hill. The nice thing about sugarloaf mountains is that they gradually level off as you climb. I got great views of the whole island, the lagoon and I could even see Ball’s Pyramid in the distance, just poking out behind Mt. Lidgbird. Then it was down the other side almost halfway back to sea level before starting up Mt Lidgbird itself.

Lidgbird is not a sugarloaf, but is instead a mesa. This means the climb starts out at a reasonable pitch, but then increases inexorably until it’s near-vertical. By the time the trail gets to the cave, the fixed ropes (recycled supply ship mooring lines) are necessary to keep from falling backwards into oblivion. I’m pretty sure Maryanne would have hated this part. I had been pushing myself pretty hard up until then and I was wiped out when I finally reached the top.

Most of the climb was through thick jungle, where not much could be seen but a continuum of trees and vines. Just before the cave, though, the view opens up and you finally see what all of the effort was for. Wow! I could see all of the way over the top of the high northern lobe of Lord Howe and had a good view of the Admiralty Islands beyond. These are a chain of small islets that serve as seabird sanctuaries.

Maryanne did her trail, which started up Intermediate Hill, but then peeled off part way up to go to some viewpoints on the far eastern side, most notably Muttonbird Island, which not only has loads of mutton birds (Shearwaters), but also Australia’s largest Gannet rookery. She came back the long way, which crossed over the ridge to the western side of the island. I came back via the same trail, but she was hours ahead of me. At the museum’s first lecture (seabirds), we compared days. She had walked 17km, I had gone 22. We were tired enough to have been in real danger of falling asleep during the lecture, but luckily our soreness prevented us from getting comfortable enough to do so.

Enough with hiking for a while. Our next thing was snorkeling.

We were delighted to be back in water warm enough for swimming without wetsuits. We spent the next day hitting every highlight of the lagoon’s reef system.

Lord Howe Island has the southernmost coral reefs in the world and we were keen to get a look at them. This is particularly so because as the world’s oceans continue to warm, more and more of the coral closer to the equator is suffering bleaching events from temperature stress and dying off. Coral in cooler higher latitudes has so far fared better, but the crisis is moving poleward. This may be our last chance to see a mostly healthy coral ecosystem before it gets this far. Maryanne knows a lot more about this than I do. Her Marine Biology dissertation was on coral.

Indeed, it was magnificent. There were a few stressed areas, but overall there were huge swathes that were over 90% living, compared to the typical 30-50% we have seen in the Tropics. There was a great variety, too, both of coral and pelagic fish species. We spotted several of the endemic Lord Howe Clownfish, which only exist in this lagoon. We took the dinghy from site to site, marveling at the multi-colored vistas below.

Our swimming tour of the lagoon took us two whole days, ending just after the nick of time with a shivering ride back to Begonia in a rainstorm.

We were blown away with the variety and quality of coral and fish-life in the lagoon

Begonia must have had enough water fall on her that night to fill her to the gunwales had the deck not been in the way. In the morning, it was as if it hadn’t happened at all. The sky was clear and blue and the wind was down to a gentle breeze. This was the day for Maryanne and I to do our northern loop hike.

That took us up to the ridge on that side of the island. The land there slopes upward to the top and then plunges vertically to the sea, offering high views of the Admiralty Islands below. At the highest point, we sat eating our lunch of granola bars while watching Tropic birds soar in the updrafts at eye level just a few meters away. Many of them seemed to be teaching their young to takeoff and land from their nest ledges. It looks pretty hard. Turbulence near the rock face seems to foil even the experienced adults, who have to abort and come back around for another try two out of every three times.

So many birds to see

We had planned to call it a day after the loop trail, but then changed our minds at the end and decided to try to hit every other trail spur we had missed. We capped that off with a trip to Ned’s Beach, where we waded in and fed greedy, swirling fish.

More trails and beaches - more scenery...

We rounded off our time in Lord Howe with two more lectures at the Museum, one on marine life and one on geology.

Phil is right (Maryanne, too). Lord Howe really is one of the world’s special places. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its physical beauty, pristine environment and incredible biodiversity. It has no snakes or marsupials, but in nearly every other category hosts a greater number of species than the entire Australian mainland. Many are found only on Lord Howe.

Lord Howe protects its unique environment very carefully. The island has just under four hundred residents and has a cap on visitors of no more than four hundred on the island at a time. It wasn’t until after we got here that we learned that airfares to the island from Sydney often cost more than going to Los Angeles and have to be booked a year in advance. We are indeed very lucky to have been able to see it.

One more little vignette: When Cyclone Uesi hit the week before we arrived, people went out en masse afterwards to find and rescue chicks who had been orphaned during the storm. Oh, it was tough making that last trip home in the dinghy. We really loved it there.

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