Behind the Veil
We’re in the eye of an ancient basaltic dike archway, moulded by the winds and ocean over many millennia, and there’s no other way to go now but through.
The third and final bubbling swell pours into the narrow fissure. My teeth clamp hard onto the rubbery plastic breathing tube, sucking in air fast and deep as the ocean’s unseen hand reaches for us once more. The torrents push and pull and rush all around us, yet we move neither forwards nor backwards. Every finned kick and stroke is seemingly useless against the deluge and I’m almost certain I’ll be sucked off into oblivion as we attempt to cross through this veil between worlds.
Then the swell breaks and we’re released, crossing over to the other side to glide through open waters and over a stunning seabed of temperate corals. We’ve just swum through the Eye of Roach, an islet among the Admiralty Islands and the oldest geological formation on Lord Howe Island.
Flashes of bright butterfly fish and iridescent blue hellion wrasse shimmy in and out of coral-crusted fractures. Later on, we enter an ominous cave where the ocean floor disappears from view altogether and I get a close look at a Galapagos whale shark as it idly glides along, unaffected by my presence. Prior to swimming through the Eye my guide, Aaron from ProDive, explains that the archway channels the ocean from both ends, the water rising further to squeeze into the gap. The sea is a blue unlike any I’ve seen before. It’s 16 metres to the ocean floor where we plunge off the boat, yet I find out later that the archway is the shallowest point – just four metres deep at its heart. I dish about my up-close encounter with the Galapagos shark.
“They get a pretty bad write up if you google it,” he chuckles, “but they’re inquisitive, so they’ll come up and have a look. The water is so clear out here they’re not going to mistake you for something that’s on the menu.”
It’s one of the magical anomalies of the world’s southernmost reef. We swim over but a handful of the 500 fish species and 90 types of coral to be found among the reefs here. To the south where the crescent-shaped isle of Lord Howe lies, twin peaks Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower – two thirds of the island’s landmass and the youngest geological formations on the island – are the unmissable bastions and useful for orientating yourself in the unlikely event you’re lost.
For the uninitiated, it’s easy to underestimate the number of things to do on an island that measures just 11 kilometres long and two kilometres wide, but don’t be fooled – the roads that fan out across the landscape lead to more than just sandy beaches and Tiffany-blue water.
Ned’s Beach is home to a friendly mullet population and snorkelling gear is available to rent via an honesty box. The Old Settlement receives regular visits from the local turtles that catch a ride in during high tide and surfers can ride the waves at Blinky Beach. Beyond the golden sands, more than 30 kilometres of root-riddled trails fringed by palms and mellifluous birdsong – ranging from leisurely stroll to lung-heaving climb – snake across the mainland, many with sweeping views of the island. Foodies will adore dining at the restaurants (produce is always local and fresh) or, better still, tucking into a lavish picnic by the water. The isle’s charm lies in its diversity as much as its beauty: a laid-back holiday can be dialled up to an adrenaline-pumping adventure and back again all in a day.
Conservation is taken seriously by the 350-resident island community. The island was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 for its rich biodiversity; 75 percent is protected park reserve and 145,000 hectares of the surrounding oceans are a marine park. Conservation projects include capping the island’s visitors to 400 at any one time, recycling and waste reduction, and the removal of noxious weeds. Native flora and fauna are regularly chronicled and studied by resident naturalists and the island’s history is immortalised by the Lord Howe Island Museum. Ian Hutton, a naturalist of more than 20 years and curator of the museum, explains that the introduction of non-native animals in the earlier years – cats, dogs, pigs and rats – was devastating for the local wildlife. Native flora was destroyed, the endemic woodhen faced extinction, and providence petrels and black woodies were pushed off the island. The Lord Howe Island phasmid was declared extinct, although it was later rediscovered in 2001 on Ball’s Pyramid. The gradual removal of introduced species over time has slowly remedied this issue and not only seen flora and fauna return and survive, but thrive.
“The animals here evolved over millions of years without any predators. This is an example of what the world would’ve been like if mammals hadn’t evolved. That’s why there’s a huge impact once rats or other animals get onto an island because the animals living in isolation have no instinctual mechanism to protect themselves,” says Ian. It’s also the reason why the wildlife is so calm and friendly in the presence of humans.
Much of this endemic flora and fauna can be seen on the longest, toughest and best day walk: Mount Gower. Towering an impressive 875 metres, Gower is Lord Howe’s loftiest peak. Its unmarked trails are only accessible with a licensed guide – of which there are only two on the island. One of those guides is Jack Schick, a fifth-generation resident of Lord Howe Island. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father before him, Jack has been making the challenging 14-kilometre return trek to the summit of Gower on a biweekly basis for more than 20 years. If that wasn’t impressive enough, in the final weeks of 2017 he completed his 2000th hike.
As first light cascades across the island in dreamy golden waves, I arrive at Little Island gate on the south end of Lord Howe at 7.20am sharp to meet him and my fellow walkers. After a brief rundown of the safety procedures, Jack ends his explanation with this: “Hope you enjoy it all and don’t hate me this afternoon.”
While I personally have nothing against Jack post-summit, my burning thighs and stiff knees do. The ‘walk’ begins with a leisurely stroll along the coastline before disappearing into a forest of towering kentia palms. We’re then confronted with a wheelie bin of hard hats which we don to shimmy along the narrow trail of sheer basaltic cliff that traces the rope-lined fringes of Mount Lidgbird. It’s a 100-metre drop into the drink below. It’s not long before we get a taste for the steep ascent, though, and soon we’re clambering over boulders and negotiating steps of thick and twisted tree roots. The beauty here is undeniable.
We emerge from beneath the frond-filled canopy into blazing sunlight. “I like to call this the Wow Saddle,” Jack smiles. He nods his head toward the view behind me. Mount Lidgbird rises up from the ocean, framed by crystal waters on either side. From here, we can see all the way out to Lagoon Beach and I feel my mouth form the word. A bit further along the track, we glimpse the rugged profile of Ball’s Pyramid, too. We’re more exposed now and I feel my skin sizzle as we reach what’s known as ‘The Get Up Place’. A single rope hangs down a sheer wall so high I can’t see its end. The extreme factor is heightened as we cross the thinnest of escarpments to reach it. I swallow hard and remind myself of Jack’s earlier story about his cousin, Phil Whistler, who did the trail at a run – up and back – in one hour and 41 minutes. I grit my teeth and edge my way across.
Our efforts do not go unrewarded as we reach the cloud forest summit. Moss blankets the ground and ferns fan out like enormous green flowers. Jack points out the little mountain palm that, like almost 20 percent of the island’s endemic plant species, can only be found on the upper slopes and the peak of Gower and Lidgbird. Through the foliage, we glimpse the piercing gold eyes and glossy black feathers of a currawong perched high up in the trees, and the elusive brown woodhen probing for worms and insects beneath an umbrella of ferns. The cloud that often passes through the upper reaches of the mountain transforms the forest into an ethereal hinterland pulled from the pages of a fantasy novel. Today’s beaming sun, however, means we miss this beautiful sight. But as we step out from the foliage on Gower’s summit we’re greeted by the most spectacular view of the island and an unrivalled lunch spot.
The next day, I take it easy with a slow walk to the top of Malabar Hill. At the lookout, I can see across the entire island and I can’t help but imagine my next trip here, as though it’s already a done deal. This mindset seems to be a recurring theme of the people I meet on the island; they’re either repeat visitors or have become so deeply enamoured with the island and its lifestyle that they’ve packed up their lives and moved over.
“It’s our fifth time here,” a man from our Pro Dive snorkelling jaunt tells me. And we met a German couple who are staying for the next six weeks!”
The tale that inspires me most though, comes soon after my morning walk. I’ve just returned my bike to the hire shop after a swim at Ned’s Beach, and make for Joy’s General Store for a cold drink. I lament to the cashier that it’s my last day and admit I’m not quite ready to leave. He can sympathise: “I came here for a week in October last year and loved it so much I didn’t want to leave. I’ve actually just deferred my uni degree so I can stay. You only live once, right?”
As I wait to board my flight home, the bloke’s words still ringing in my ears, I think back to that moment in the water on the flipside of the Eye. The swell had begun building again and our group rallied as they prepared to make the cross back over. “You coming through?” Aaron asks as we draw nearer to the arch. I could have taken the boat. But as the swell begins to suck us in, I realise that it’s too late: I’m hooked. And I’d happily stay that way. I smile. I’m ready. “Let’s go.”
QantasLink flies direct to Lord Howe Island from Sydney and Brisbane. Return fares from Sydney start from around USD$658
There are 20 accommodation options on the island ranging from all-inclusive lodges to guesthouses and self-catering abodes. Earl’s Anchorage is a cosy self-catering option with just six bungalows, ranging from one to two bedrooms. Amenities include a fully equipped kitchen, lounge area, private deck, laundry and air conditioning, plus beach towels and bags. One-bedroom bungalows for two start from US$329 during low season.
Find out more about what to see and do during your stay on Lord Howe Island on the local tourism website.
As Mount Gower’s trails are unmarked, you must be accompanied by a guide at all times. The 14-kilometre day walk requires a strong level of fitness, so be sure you’re up to it prior to booking. Walks with Jack Schick from Sea to Summit Expeditions depart at 7.20am on Mondays and Thursdays and cost AU$100 per person.
Reef snorkelling with Pro Dive starts from AU$75. For those looking to take their dive to the next level but who lack the PADI Open Water certification, try the Introductory Drive. It’s a three-hour introduction to scuba that, after some training, will see you reach up to depths of 12 metres in the lagoon. Introductory dives from AU$140.
A novel way to experience the waters of Ned’s Beach is by Aquascooter with Islander Cruises. They’re buoyant and easy to steer, allowing you to cover more ground in a shorter period of time. From AU$60 per person.