Lord Howe Island: Australia’s Last Great Paradise
"In 1849, there were only 11 people living on the island"
The lush green landscape is scattered with native palms, seabirds hover lazily in the air, and the locals appear incredibly relaxed with their lot as they meet and greet at the island's single-runway airport. In a world where tourism operators are desperate to flout even the most tenuous of green credentials, Lord Howe may be the real deal: a UNESCO World Heritage landscape where tourism, residents and nature coexist and, for the most part, do so in a beautifully sustained environment.
Of course, those in charge of this ecotourism success story had an excellent base from which to work. Often referred to as Australia's Galapagos Islands, Lord Howe has a most impressive biodiversity. A birdwatchers' delight, the island is home to over 130 species of birds and reportedly has one of the highest numbers of breeding seabirds in Australia. There's a pristine coral reef housing over 500 species of fish and 90 different corals, while back on land almost half of the 241 plants are found nowhere else in the world.
Lord Howe Island is an irregularly crescent-shaped volcanic remnant situated in the middle of the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, 600 kilometres (370 miles) due east of Port Macquarie on the coast of New South Wales, and about 900 kilometres (560 miles) from Norfolk Island.
The island is little more than 10 kilometres long and between 2.0 km and 0.3 km wide with a total land area of 14.55 square kilometres, of which only 398 hectares lie in the lowland settled area. Along the west coast there is a sandy semi-enclosed sheltered coral reef lagoon. Most of the population lives in the north, while the south is dominated by forested hills rising to the highest point on the island, Mount Gower (875 m or 2,871 ft). The Lord Howe Island Group comprises 28 islands, islets and rocks. Apart from Lord Howe Island itself the most notable of these is the iconic Ball's Pyramid about 23 kilometres to the south-east, the highest sea stack in the world.
This jagged grey pillar of volcanic rock rises 562 metres (1,844 ft) straight out of the ocean and is one of Australia's premier scuba diving and mountaineering sites. To the north is the Admiralty Group, a cluster of seven small uninhabited islands. Just off the east coast is Mutton Bird Island, and in the lagoon is Blackburn or (Rabbit) Island.
Unlike most islands in the South Pacific, Lord Howe Island does not have a history which begins with those early Polynesian migrants who left New Zealand in search of new lands. The first reported sighting of Lord Howe Island was on 17 February 1788 when Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, the dashing commander of the Royal Navy Armed Tender 'HMS Supply' was on its way from Botany Bay with a cargo of 15 convicts (9 male, 6 female) to found a new penal colony on Norfolk Island. On the return journey a month later Ball sent a party ashore to claim Lord Howe Island as a British possession.
Most of the prominent peaks, bays and islands in the South Pacific were named at this time in honour of various bigwigs in the Royal Navy, and Lord Howe Island was no exception, for Ball named the archipelago after the First Lord of the Admiralty, Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe, KG (1726-1799), a distinguished British naval officer, notable in particular for his service during the American War of Independence and French Revolutionary Wars.
Lord Howe Island's history really took off between 1789 and 1791 when the whaling industry reached the Pacific with a fury. Both British and American whalers worked the waters here and eventually formed the first permanent colony in June 1834.
In 1849, there were only 11 people living on the island. But when gold was discovered on the mainland of Australia in the 1850's, the traffic flow of people and goods greatly increased the frequency of stops at Lord Howe Island, where the locals traded fresh produce and meat with passing ships.
As the whaling industry declined in the 1860s, the island received a new interest from the scientific community. Although this was a depressing period for the island's economy, it saw the introduction of the unique flora and fauna of the island group to the rest of the world.
The first tourism boats began arriving in 1883, opening the door to the latest chapter in the history of Lord Howe Island. The service continues to this day with the fortnightly MV 'Island Trader' service from Port Macquarie.
The first plane to appear on the island was in 1931 when Francis Chichester alighted on the lagoon in a Gypsy Moth converted into a floatplane. It was damaged there in an overnight storm but repaired with the assistance of the islanders and then took off successfully nine weeks later for a flight to Sydney.
Along with the increase of trade in the endemic Kentia palm (Howea forsteriana), tourism really picked up by 1932 when the cruise ferry, the SS 'Morinda' opened a regular tourist run to the island. The ship was later replaced by the 'Mokambo', and she in turn by a succession of other vessels.
In 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, tourists began to arrive on Catalina and then four-engined Sandringham flying boats of Ansett Flying Boat Services operating out of Rose Bay, Sydney, and landing on the lagoon, the journey taking about 3.5 hours.
When the Lord Howe Island Airport was completed in 1974, the seaplanes were eventually replaced with QantasLink twin-engined turbo-prop Dash 8-200 aircraft. Today, tourism remains one of the top two sources of income on Lord Howe Island.
If a recipe was used to create today's Lord Howe, it would go something like this: take one pristine island, add a smattering of palm-fringed beaches, hundreds of endemic flora and fauna, and mix well. Then carefully add a burgeoning tourism market, World Heritage listing, 350 residents, and a number of introduced species such as goats, cat and dogs.
Wait 25 years and the results become apparent: the latter ingredients, in both human and animal form, need serious management if all is to progress well. Tourist numbers have long been capped at 400 at any one time, so even when the island is full – as it was during the month that I visited – it is positively serene. Beaches are blissfully people-free; tracks are secluded; and there is no competition at the many enticingly located snorkelling spots.
Residents pay a price to live in paradise: there's a cap on cars (one must leave before another can arrive); and on development. Only 20 new houses are slated to be built in the next 25 years, but there's a further catch; you have to have lived here for 10 years to even enter the ballot to get one.
While the management of people is tight, it's even stricter for non-human creatures. Regulation on introduced plants and animals is key to Lord Howe Island's pristine state, and intruders are dealt with actively. Travelling the narrow, 11 kilometre land mass with local guide Greg Whitfield, I start to grasp an idea of how it all connects.
Abiding by the island's 25kph speed limit, we cruise past the local refuse tip, where 86 percent of the island's waste is composted, reused, or recycled. I later discover this is where Whitfield gets the ingredients to power his bio-fuelled van, thanks to the island's restaurants depositing their used vegetable oil here.
Amid the dense greenery a pecking order becomes apparent. While the native Kentia palms are supported (their cultivation provides the island's second biggest income after tourism), the introduced Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla) are not. "We're encouraged to cut ourselves Christmas trees, or the pines would take over the place," says Whitfield.
Not all the flora is easy to remove, but luckily Lord Howe's appeal is such that tourists will actually pay to come here and do a spot of weeding. While the Lord Howe Island Board, which administrates all the island's needs from composting through to running the airport, and the National Park Reserve runs a more intensive programme. Resident naturalist Ian Hutton's regular week-long weeding trips are extremely popular with tourists and locals alike.
Rob Pallin, owner of Paddy Pallin Adventure Centre, and a recent addition to the island's board, says the weeding programmes kept him coming back every year since 2001. "We've been removing climbing asparagus (an exotic) from large parts of Transit Hill. It's a superb way of enjoying the natural attributes of this incredible place and contributing to the island," says Pallin. "People get a feeling of contributing in the morning, then, in the afternoon you get taken on walks to see the Mutton birds nesting, or to explore aspects of the environment."
But while the thick undergrowth caused by the climbing asparagus actually prevents the Mutton birds from setting up home, to a novice, it just looks like leafy green plant life. "A lot of people who visit Lord Howe don't see the weeds if their eyes aren't trained to do so," agrees Pallin. "But they do see a far greater variety of plants and birds when the weeds aren't there."
With hundreds of endemic species, Lord Howe is teeming with birdlife, but many of the rarest species have only returned to this utopia thanks to the eradication of introduced predators. Pigs and goats, brought by early sailors as a source of fresh meat, ate their way across the island, trampling precious vegetation as they went. Pigs also ate the highly endangered Lord Howe Island Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) and their eggs. Eventually, Mount Gower's cloud-forested peak became the only place in the world the species could be found, and the population dropped below 20 pairs.
"The pigs couldn't get up there to ruin their nests, it was too steep," says UNESCO World Heritage manager Hank Bower, as we stare up at the towering mountain which dominates the southern tip of Lord Howe.
In the early 1980's, however, the pig's free lunch came to an end. They and the goats were eradicated. "It's the beauty of living on a small island," Bower says as we stand on a cliff face watching the Sooty terns glide around us. "You can remove species here that you couldn't in a bigger area. Then you can get some really obvious positive results."
The pigs' demise was just the tonic the flightless woodhens needed. An estimated 250 pairs now forage unthreatened alongside roads that see more bicycles than cars, enjoying the run of the island. We even see some at the tip, perhaps hoping the vertical composter will provide them with an easy meal.
While the return of the woodhens is a daily reminder that eradication of 'exotics' can work. A local law banning domestic cats, put in place in 1982, was probably the more contentious move. On Australia's mainland, where the arguments between cat owners and environmentalists continue unabated (the latter arguing that some species spend their evenings "assassinating" native birds), the fact that Lord Howe is now cat-free is significant.
While locals have alluded to the occasional kitten sneaking onto a Qantas flight via a large jacket pocket, the programme appears to have worked. If Bower sticks around long enough he may yet see the removal of rats from Lord Howe.
Ship rats (Rattus rattus) arrived accidentally, after the supply ship 'Mokambo' ran aground here in 1918 and, according to the island's biodiversity management plan, they've caused havoc ever since. Implicated in the decline or extinction of five species of birds, two species of lizards and the Lord Howe Island phasmid (Dryococelus australis), the rats are now under threat of extinction themselves.
With summer temperatures averaging 25⁰C, and winter only six degrees cooler, not to mention the very short distances to sites of interest, there's a lot more to see and do on Lord Howe in addition to observing the island's unique flora and fauna. Tourist activities include golf (9-hole), tennis, lawn bowls, fishing (including deep-sea game fishing), yachting, windsurfing, kite surfing, kayaking, and a variety of boat trips (including glass-bottom boat tours of the lagoon). Swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving are also popular in the lagoon, as well as off Tenth of June Island, a small rocky outcrop in the Admiralty Group where an underwater plateau drops 36 metres to reveal extensive Gorgonia (sea fans) and black corals growing on the vertical walls. Other diving sites are found off Ball's Pyramid, 26 kilometres away, where there are trenches, caves and volcanic drop-offs.
Bushwalking, natural history tours, talks, and guided walks take place along the many tracks, the most challenging being the eight-hour guided hike to the top of Mount Gower. There are 11 beaches and hand-feeding the metre-long Kingfish (Seriola lalandi) and large Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma lunare) at Ned's Beach is very popular.
Lord Howe Island is probably Australia's last unspoilt island paradise. It was one of the last islands on earth to be discovered, and then by accident. It is the unaccustomed relegation of the primacy of man that makes this island such an oddity. For just as the rights of indigenous people are being recognized and restored in different parts of the world, so on Lord Howe the rights of indigenous nature come first. Long may they all be preserved. It would never be the same without them.