Walkabout on Lord Howe Island

Yolanda Carslaw, The Daily Telegraph, December 30, 2013

Glancing now and then at the swirling ocean far below, I pulled myself up the path, hand over hand on the fixed rope, my feet seeking grip among roots and rock. Had I fallen, I would have landed in a bush of scarlet mountain roses a few feet away rather than in the sea, but it was still a relief to have something to grasp en route to our goal, the highest point on Australia’s most remote and enchanting island.

lord howe island
Photo by Robert Whyte

Along with a dozen holidaymakers, I was halfway up Mount Gower on Lord Howe Island (population 300; guest beds 400), a hunk of igneous rock that juts out of the South Pacific 380 miles from the mainland’s east coast. The day-hike has a reputation as one of Australia’s best. Described as “very hard and demanding” in the tourist-board literature, it is barely four miles each way, yet it takes at least eight hours and can be attempted only with a guide.

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My partner and I had prepared by taking shorter hikes and exploring by bike – the seven-mile-long, beach-fringed island is geared to enjoying nature and the outdoors, with no nightlife or mobile-phone reception. From different viewpoints, we’d admired the 2,870ft mountain, table-shaped and tangled with jungle, standing guard over the turquoise lagoon.

In bright sunshine at 7.30am we met our fellow hikers and our guide, Dean Hiscox, once the island’s ranger. In front of us stood Gower; to our left its neighbour, the rarely climbed Mount Lidgbird. For the first mile we skirted the coast and by 9.30am we had reached Erskine Creek, where we refilled our water bottles and had a breather in a glade surrounded by banyan trees – whose roots, said Dean, spread like tentacles as far as several hundred yards from the main tree.

Nearly half of Lord Howe’s 241 native plants grow nowhere else, and more than 200 bird species visit. The previous day we’d seen hundreds of black-and-white sooty terns gliding gracefully above their breeding grounds, and when we’d paddle-boarded to Blackburn Island, on the lagoon, we’d found it alive with mutton birds nesting in burrows. There are just a handful of mammals, and snakes, pleasingly, are absent: Lord Howe has none of the nasties that usually make me jumpy hiking in Australia, and we saw not a single fly or mosquito.

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Soon the track veered sharply upwards, following a ridge that gave magnificent views over island and sea, framed by curly palms, scaly barks and lilli pilli trees. “See down there?” said Dean, while we were waiting at a mildly tricky part called the “Get-up place”, to “get up”, one by one. “That’s Wolf Rock, where the HMS Nottingham ran aground 11 years ago.” (It was a British ship, too, that “discovered” the hitherto uninhabited island, 225 years ago; 50 years later the first settlers arrived to man a provisioning station for the whaling industry.)

Higher up, we could see Ball’s Pyramid, a 1,800ft sea stack apparently floating in haze between ocean and horizon, where in 2001 Dean helped track down a species of giant stick insect thought to be extinct, having been wiped out on Lord Howe by black rats.

Rodents and weeds remain a problem. Dean explained: “We got rid of goats, though three nannies were missed and they’re living out their days on Mount Lidgbird. Now we’d like to see rats eradicated, and there’s a proposal involving helicopters spreading rodenticides, but it’s political dynamite. Islanders are allowed to own a dog, provided it’s neutered, but cats are banned.”

All of a sudden we were on Gower’s flat top in the cloudforest, thick with island apples, tea trees, pumpkin trees with yellow flowers and delicate, just-unfurling ferns. Best of all, though, were the palms. There are four species endemic to Lord Howe Island, including Howea forsteriana, which is exported, and is the world’s most popular indoor palm. The varieties that grow higher up have distinctive green and silvery trunks, lavish fronds and produce bunches of crimson fruit. Among the vegetation, Dean pointed out burrows of the Providence petrel, an inquisitive bird that has been seen as far away as the Sea of Japan.

As we ate our picnic we surveyed the crescent-shaped island – which is being reclaimed, slowly, by the South Pacific. “What you see,” said Dean, “is 3 per cent of what used to be here.” The millennia-old “original” volcanic island, 20 miles wide and now 300ft beneath the sea, surrounds today’s Lord Howe: its own “edge” drops another 3,000ft into the ocean.

We had nearly 3,000ft of our own to descend – and, as always with mountain walking, going down was the killer. Arms as well as legs got a workout as we lowered ourselves down the paths, grasping rope, tree, tendril or root. The reward, back at sea level? A certificate declaring we had made it, as quaint as everything else on Lord Howe. And for the two of us, having declined the minibus lift that morning: a rather hilly bike ride back to our lodgings.

The details
When to go
The island has a mild climate, with temperatures around 25C in high summer (December to February) and in the teens in midwinter (June to August). Visitors can hike Mount Gower with Dean Hiscox from September to May.

Where to stay Capella Lodge (rooms from A$650/£380, half board), on a small beach with a lagoon at the foot of Mount Gower, has sleek modern suites and a horizon pool. Arajilla (rooms from A$615/£365, full board, minimum stay two nights) is an eco-friendly boutique hotel on Old Settlement Beach, with a spa and gourmet dining. Less luxurious but equally charming is Pinetrees Lodge (five nights for A$1,115/£655, full board), which has tennis courts, a spa and a boat house with an honesty bar.

Where to eat There are about 10 places to eat and shop. Buy picnic food for lunch and eat out in the evenings (Capella Lodge and Arajilla have good restaurants). It is possible to have fresh fish delivered to accommodation.

What to do Go snorkelling on the lagoon. We saw green-blocked wrasse, unicorn fish and tiny reef sharks on a half-day trip with Islander Cruises. People don’t visit Lord Howe Island for the nightlife, but we found the “Bowlo” (bowling club) was the place to be the afternoon of the Melbourne Cup. The island’s museum and visitor centre has displays relating to history and wildlife; also look out for posters advertising film shows, nature talks and other events. The golf course (£25 for nine holes, including clubs) is scenic, well-kept and deserted. Go in late afternoon for the best light; there’s also a weekly barbecue. For details of all the activities above, see lordhoweisland.info .

Fly to Sydney daily with British Airways from London Heathrow Terminal 5, with return economy fares starting at £899. Book at ba.com . For more information, see australia.com

This feature originally appeared in the Australia 2013 issue of Ultratravel, The Telegraph's luxury-travel magazine. Catch up on previous issues here