It can get cold at Lord Howe, honestly it can. On winter nights when we light the log fire at Pinetrees it gets down to 18 degrees or so. And some days, when I’m waiting at the airport to meet the plane in my shorts, it can feel quite chilly. Like everyone else, Lord Howe Islanders talk about the weather a lot. We say “beautiful day today” or “isn’t it freezing?”… although I once made the mistake of saying “isn’t it freezing?” to Ana, who’s originally from Estonia, and she said “no”. Not surprising, really.
We have a Wilderness Week at Pinetrees this week and we’re taking guests out to some of the most remote parts of the island. We had planned to go walking, but it was so beautiful on the lagoon yesterday that we decided to have an early morning snorkelling trip as well.
Pixie had never been on the glass bottom boat before, and she had a wonderful time. There’s always someone on a boat trip with uncontrollable children, and yesterday that was me. Pixie was sitting next to our guide, Dean Hiscox, from Lord Howe Environmental Tours while he pointed out the different varieties of coral. As soon as he started to explain, she’d say “’Scuse me, ‘scuse me” and he’d say “Yes, Pixie?” and she’d say “Where’s Nemo?”. She did this about fifty times, until I was ready to feed her to the little Galapagos shark. Luckily, Dean is well organised and he quietly produced a stale bread roll and asked her to feed the fish, which kept her quiet for at least two minutes.We saw a big Spangled emperor, some Double headers, beautiful Clownfish (they’re black and white at Lord Howe, not orange like the ones in Finding Nemo) and stylish Moorish idols, which look like they were created by a fashion designer. Shortly afterwards, Pixie said, loudly, “I need to do a wee wee” and Luke had to take off about three layers of clothing and hold her over the side of the boat. For the rest of the trip, she squirmed and wriggled, fell over and giggled and generally had a lovely time. Dean’s dad, Ken, who was driving the boat, kindly asked Elsie to help him and she really enjoyed it until Pixie wanted to join in, helpfully grabbing the throttle.
Lord Howe Environmental Tours is a family business and Dean’s Mum, Jill, is in charge of the boatshed. She’s fantastic with people, outrageously funny, and she just loves the job. Every time Dean gives her a day off, she comes to work anyway. Jill greets the guests, looks after the bookings, answers the questions, helps people with wetsuits and adds her own magic touches. Jill is the one who provides a big tub of water for you to wash your feet in and a towel to dry them off before you put your shoes back on. In winter, she heats up the water. It sounds like a little thing, but sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference between a good day and a great one. Pixie loved the tub of warm water. She put her hands in first, then leaned over and put the top of her head in. Then she climbed in and sat down. After a couple of hours’ snorkelling, sometimes you feel cold to the very core. So Jill also makes big mugs of tea, coffee, Milo and just about every other hot drink you can think of. Jill made Elsie and Pixie a special Milo – one with extra Milo sprinkled on the top. They both loved it, but only Pixie would think of putting both hands in and then rubbing them all over Jill’s perfectly clean windows…
I’m sure Pixie’s behaviour will improve if I stop laughing every time she does something naughty. So, tell me, what terrible things have your kids done recently?
There are a lot of plane nerds at Lord Howe. The airstrip is short and if the weather is looking a bit tricky and the landing might be an “interesting” one, there can sometimes be a hundred people lined up along the airstrip to see the QantasLink plane land. (Yes, I know, it might also have something to do with the fact that there isn’t much entertainment here on a winter afternoon).
I’ve seen the plane-watchers applaud when, despite the difficult conditions, the pilot pulls off a smooth landing. And, very occasionally, the pilot, having seen the audience, will disembark and take a bow. People here often start conversations with “did you see the landing today?”. They all seem to know the details of the comings and goings of the various freight planes and charter planes. We even have a friend, Peter Phillipps, who wrote a whole book about the flying boats at Lord Howe. He loves taking photos of the various planes that visit Lord Howe and, even though he’s run a busy and successful tour business for the last 10 years, he still works one day a week at the airport. I’m almost certain that he keeps the airport job just so that he can get really close to all those planes.
We’ve had a Hercules from Richmond RAAF base at Lord Howe for a few days doing practice landings. The whole process is utterly mesmerising. You can hear the plane long before you see it. As it gets closer and louder, you suddenly see how enormous it is and wonder how it could ever land on such a short strip. It seems to be moving slowly but when it goes past you there’s an incredible noise and a rush of hot air. The landings are even more exciting at night, when the airport’s emergency lights are turned on.When I was a kid at Lord Howe I used to love watching the Hercules do practice landings. The game was to sit on the rocks at the end of the airstrip. It was a scary place to sit, because the Hercules lands at the start of the strip, about 20 metres away. When it landed at dusk, it would approach with the lights off and then turn the lights on at the last minute. As it was approaching, it always looked like it was going to land right on top of us. Usually, someone said something stupid, like: “I’ve never seen it come in this low before…” and we would all start to scream. We were much too scared to run away. So we’d hold on tight to the rocks and each other, close our eyes and scream and the Hercules would fly over our heads with an enormous roar and a huge gush of hot air and after a minute or two we’d all start to breathe again. One day, one of the bigger kids came up with an improvement. For every landing, you had to move up one rock higher. By the time the Hercules finished its practice landings for the night, we were practically sitting on the end of the airstrip. Sure beats Xbox.
Lord Howe Island is part of Australia, indeed New South Wales, but we’re a bit different. While we have no dream of self-government or semi-autonomy (is that how you describe Norfolk Island?), we do have a healthy disrespect for mainland authority. So often, when mainland regulations are applied to Lord Howe, they just don’t work. This list of examples is endless, and includes bans on buying local meat and milk, bag limits for recreational fishing and state-wide fire bans which are enforced on Lord Howe even during periods of cool, rainy weather.If we don’t like mainland authority, what do you think our opinion is of those ‘expats’ who try to impose mainland authority, particularly those who live amongst us? Well, in all honesty, we like them and welcome them into our community. A lot of the time, they have a difficult job to do. We may not like their planning decisions, red tape, or local tax hikes, but at the same time, their kids go to school with ours and we see them every day at the local shop. On the mainland, you don’t get to see the man who refused your garage extension or the woman who fined you for pruning your native tree that you planted in your garden. On Lord Howe, and I guess in other very small communities, you’ll probably sit next to that person when you go out for dinner on Saturday night (and you’ll have to make conversation with them about the weather or the football). Can you feel the tension?
Luckily, we mostly handle the tension with humour, a shrug and the typical Lord Howe smile, and the community continues to function in a relative state of happy harmony. Some people even take the tension on as a way of defusing it. One former Administrator of the Lord Howe Island Board, the local council, made lifelong friends when he called his yappy Sydney silky terrier “FUNIC” – a well-known islander acronym for mainland public servants which means Fairly Useless Non-Islander Clown (or something like that).
Recently, there’s been a mass defection of senior Lord Howe Island Board officers. I’m not sure what’s going on at the Board, but it’s been a bit like the migration of the muttonbirds. One day there seems to be thousands of them, all squawking loudly, and the next they’ve all gone. Is it the number of daylight hours, changes in temperature, gravitational patterns or just an innate sense of needing to be somewhere else? Or is it the typical human motivations of power, frustration, ambition or stress? Whatever the case, there’s enough material for a great novel. The CEO, as the Administrator is now called, took up a high-powered position in Newcastle, leaving the business manager in charge, but only after making a few radical last-minute changes, or so the story goes. The engineer moved back to his old job in Canberra (safely inland), to support the Brumbies and build really big roundabouts. The marine parks manager moved to Groote Eylandt, for some bizarre reason. The works manager is moving to Port Lincoln to run a much larger airport than the one at Lord Howe. I’ve heard that there’s still one more to go, but please don’t say that you heard it from me. Lord Howe gossip is notoriously unreliable. When the Harvard Business School people talk about “complete loss of corporate knowledge”, they could use Lord Howe as a case study.
Meanwhile, the islanders find the mass migration amusing and intriguing, and luckily have some confidence that they can manage their own affairs (as they’ve done since the early 1800s). On Tuesday afternoon when I spotted it, almost all islanders, including the usual stirrers, had been at Michael “Humpty Mick” Thompson’s funeral. So who was responsible for this sign on the official Lord Howe Island Board noticeboard?
Our holiday got off to a pretty slow start. Luckily for you, I didn’t take any photos of the numerous trips to the dentist, doctor and hairdresser which are always a boring but necessary part of our family trips to Sydney. We also spend a lot of our time in Sydney at the supermarket and the local 50 metre pool – again, not very photogenic, but if you have kids, you’ll understand.
On Tuesday we took the kids to Sydney Aquarium in Darling Harbour. I know it sounds a bit strange to take kids who live on a sub-tropical island to see an aquarium. In theory, I could just as easily take them out on a glass bottom boat at Lord Howe to see the southern-most coral reef in the world with its amazing array of tropical and sub-tropical fish. But have you ever tried to keep a 2 year old still for two hours on a small boat with 15 other people? It would be a complete nightmare. The aquarium is great for kids because you can run for two hours and still see most of the exhibits.
There’s so much to see at the aquarium and it’s years since I went there last. Everyone remembers the big grey nurse sharks, but I had forgotten about the dark and murky platypus exhibit, the tiny dancing seahorses that look like they are made of lots of fluttering ribbons, the luminous jellyfish, the little penguins that dive, swim and bask on the rocks and the sole dugong with its sad face, eating fresh cos lettuce for lunch. There was also an amazing Great Barrier Reef exhibit where we saw Nemo, Marlin, Dory, Bruce and Mr Ray all in the one spot.
Almost as much fun was the people watching. There were some very over-excited school groups, a few young couples holding hands, lots of little kids in prams and some with their grandparents. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. The only part of the day that I wasn’t so sure about was the full-on commercial bit (but of course that’s how the Aquarium makes its money...). There was a young woman at the door with a big camera to welcome us and to try to get us all in a photo together (pretty difficult with hyperactive kids, so we managed to get away). Around every second corner there seemed to be another friendly girl with a colourful display of lollies right at toddler eye level. And then, when I thought we had finally escaped, the only exit involved walking through a very large toy shop overflowing with stuffed Nemos, grey nurse sharks and dugongs and staffed by very friendly people who were all trying to sell us the photo they hadn’t managed to take at the entry. Exhausting!
We have a couple more days here – what’s your favourite Sydney excursion with kids?
I love the internet – how did we ever live without it? No piece of information is too unimportant or too obscure to find. I spend hours on YouTube and reading blogs. Yes, you guessed it, mummy blogs. And it’s pretty amazing to be able to order books, clothes, vacuum cleaner bags or even a taxi or a holiday without leaving my desk. I wouldn’t describe myself as addicted to the internet – our internet speed at Lord Howe is a bit slow for that and I’ve never invented a virtual life for myself or done anything with Twitter or Instagram – but I’m amazed and thankful that we have it and I wouldn’t want to live without it.
So imagine my horror last week when our ISP, Reachnet, sent us one month’s notice of termination. Reachnet is pulling out of Lord Howe and dumping its 69 customers. It isn’t economically viable anymore. The service will finish on 31 May 2013.
Big deal, I hear you say, just sign up with another ISP. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. There are three ISPs operating at Lord Howe at present, Reachnet, Activ8 and Clear Networks, the Australian Broadband Guarantee provider. Activ8 isn’t accepting any more customers. Clear Networks can’t pull out, but it isn’t exactly winning awards either.We have a Clear Networks service at Pinetrees (as well as a Reachnet service). Clear Networks drops out frequently, sometimes for 3 or 4 days at a time. Once someone backed a truck into the tower at the southern end of the island, it fell over and the internet didn’t work for 10 days. The speed is so slow that it’s difficult to complete basic tasks. Two bank transfers can take half an hour. It is sometimes quicker just to print out a document and hand deliver it to the intended recipient than to try to attach the document to an email and send it. The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy investigated our complaints about the service and even produced a report, but unfortunately the service has not improved.
At Lord Howe, we still think of the fax machine as a useful and convenient piece of equipment. We have to train new staff members to use it, since many of them were born in the 90s and have never seen a fax machine outside re-runs of Friends. Actually, and this is going to make me sound even older, it isn’t just fax machines that are obsolete for young people. One of our guests told me that she had a 25 year old computer programmer working for her. One day she asked him to post something and he came in with the envelope and asked her where to put the stamp – true story!One alternative to our current internet service is the NBN’s interim satellite service (ISS). Reachnet had been in discussions with the NBN Co and Optus to conduct a trial at Lord Howe using the Optus satellite. The Lord Howe school has an Optus internet service and it’s supposed to be fantastic. They even have video conferencing facilities. But, of course, apart from the school, Optus isn’t accepting Lord Howe customers either. It appears that something has gone wrong, and the Reachnet letter says that the NBN Co could not commit to a start date for the ISS and “cannot assist in the short term”. We will just have to wait until the ISS satellite is ready in 2015 or 2016. Fancy running a business for two years without the internet?
We would like the NBN Co to go ahead with a trial of the ISS on Lord Howe as soon as possible. We would also like Reachnet to continue to provide services to Lord Howe customers until the ISS is operating. If the Optus satellite does not have enough capacity (which is possible) we would like the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to authorise the NBN Co to buy more capacity from our current satellite (GE23). In the future, we may have a mobile phone tower on the island, which would give us much cheaper and more reliable internet. But we love our mobile-free life and I don’t think that Lord Howe is quite ready to join the rat race – do you?
So – this is where I ask for your help… and it would be a BIG favour. Could you please follow this up for me on Facebook, Twitter and by email? Simply ask:
What are the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and the NBN Co doing to ensure that Reachnet customers on Lord Howe continue to have internet access after 31 May 2013?
Can the NBN Co arrange a trial of the ISS on Lord Howe to begin as soon as possible?
Can DBCDE please ensure that Reachnet continues to provide services at Lord Howe until the ISS is working?
Could you do that for me please? Feel free to add colourful language.
Put a FB post on Senator Stephen Conroy’s page (just cut and paste the words above): https://www.facebook.com/senator.conroyAnd one on the National Broadband Network page: https://www.facebook.com/nbngovau
Send a tweet to Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard, using the #NBN hashtag. (It’s taken me half the night to work out how, but I’ve done it).
Send emails to some or all of the following:
- Senator Stephen Conroy (ALP), Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Tanya Plibersek (ALP), Federal member for Sydney (which includes Lord Howe): email@example.com
- Malcolm Turnbull (LIB), Shadow Minister for Communications: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Julia Gillard (ALP), Prime Minister: email@example.com
- Senator Simon Birmingham (LIB), member of Joint Committee on NBN: submit form via http://www.senatorbirmingham.com.au/ContactSimon/tabid/57/Default.aspx
- Luke Hartsuyker (LIB) Shadow Minister for Regional Communications: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Senator Doug Cameron (ALP) head of Senate Committee on Broadband and member of Joint Committee on the NBN: submit form via http://www.dougcameron.com.au/get-in-touch/
- Senator Fiona Nash (LIB): submit form via http://www.fionanash.com.au/ContactSenatorNash.aspx.
Many thanks for your help and support. If you wish to keep reading this blog after 31 May 2013, you may need to get your fax machine out of the garage and send me your fax number.
I’ve always loved the ANZAC Day service at Lord Howe. It’s held every year at 11:00am at the cenotaph on Lagoon Road, just outside the Gower Wilson Memorial Hospital. Lagoon Road is closed off for an hour or so and there’s someone on “point duty” making sure that no one accidentally rides their bike through the service. The crowd starts to gather around 10:45 and almost everyone attends. There are a few seats for the oldies, a microphone and a PA system and an organ on the back of a truck. Sprigs of rosemary are handed around and people mill around on the road and chat until the march begins.
The veterans (and, these days, the children and grandchildren of veterans) march down Lagoon Road followed by the children from the Lord Howe Island Central School. The kids are all wearing the proper school uniform – with bare feet. Together, they march up to the war memorial and there’s a short but very dignified service including prayers led by both the visiting Anglican minister and the Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Chappy. We sing the same two hymns every year: Abide With Me and Recessional, accompanied by Clive Wilson on the organ. The school kids sing a song too. The RSL Sub-Branch President lays a wreath made of hibiscus, as do the School Captains. Sometimes there’s a visiting dignitary to give the ANZAC Day address, but this year it was given by Lisa Makiiti, an elected Lord Howe Island Board member. Lisa’s address was sincere and heartfelt. She spoke about the sacrifice made by the ANZACs and the relevance of the ANZAC legacy today. She also paid tribute to her late brother, Dean Retmock, who served with the RAAF for 25 years and marched every year in the ANZAC Day service at Lord Howe. The service finishes with Advance Australia Fair.
Remember Luke’s 96 year old Uncle Bob? He is interviewed on The Desert War which will be screened tonight on ABC1 at 8:30pm (Sydney time – that’s 9:00pm on Lord Howe). So please tune in if you can!
I thought you might like to see some old photos sent to me by one of our guests, Murray Higgins. Murray visited Pinetrees recently with his wife, Dianne, son and daughter-in-law Neal and Brooke, and grandchildren Ella and Luke. The Higgins family have a long history of Lord Howe holidays: Murray and Dianne spent their honeymoon at Pinetrees in 1968 and Murray’s parents, Doris and Reginald, also honeymooned at Pinetrees in 1937. The whole family are scheming a return visit for Dianne’s 70th birthday in a few years’ time.
Arriving on Lord Howe Island by ship in 1937
I loved talking to Murray about his memories of Pinetrees and Lord Howe. The rest of Murray’s family groaned theatrically and rolled their eyes whenever he talked about Pinetrees in the old days (perhaps they’ve heard some of these stories once or twice before?), so when I appeared with a pen and paper and asked if I could take some notes, Murray was happy to keep talking…
Murray said that he persuaded Dianne to come to Pinetrees for their honeymoon because he’d always loved hearing his parents’ stories about Lord Howe. When they were married, Murray was 26 and working for the Water Board in Sydney (he said he was “quite a formal young man”) and Dianne was 21. After the wedding in Hurstville, the newlyweds spent two nights in a motel in Wahroonga. The flying boat left very early in the morning from Rose Bay (it could only land in the lagoon at Lord Howe on high tide) so they spent the third night “in a grotty little place in Bondi”. The flying boat trip took about three hours and the highlight was the mixed grill served for breakfast. Murray wore a collar and tie and Dianne wore her “going away dress”. When they arrived at the jetty at Lord Howe, they were amazed to see that the whole island had come to welcome the visitors.
Well dressed honeymooners arriving by flying boat in 1968
It’s so easy to forget how much better off we are than our parents were. (I know it doesn’t always seem that way…). In my parents’ generation, people had modest weddings, held the reception at a local restaurant or the family home and honeymooned in motels not too far from home. These days, although we usually live with our partners before we are married, everyone seems to have the big designer wedding and overseas honeymoon. Maybe we don’t realise how lucky we are.
The first Lord Howe islander they met was Mr Morgan, who owned the bike shop. Murray had written a letter to him from Sydney requesting that he reserve bikes for them for 7 days. When they arrived at the bike shop, Murray introduced himself to Mr Morgan and enquired whether he had received the letter. Mr Morgan said: “oh yes, I remember something about a letter now. I think I’ve got some bikes. I’ll just get the cobwebs off them and pump up the tires for you”. Murray said that after that, he took off the tie.
Happy Pinetrees honeymooners in 1968
Murray asked us if he could see the guest register from 1968. We still have most of those records at Pinetrees – nothing was ever thrown away. When we got it out, Murray couldn’t believe that he had signed in as M Higgins (not Mr and Mrs Higgins) and given his parents’ address, not the address of their new home in Engadine. (In his defence, he said that “it was the man’s job to sign things like that, in those days”).
Murray and Dianne made lots of friends at Pinetrees. The whole place was full of honeymooners and one day the whole lodge had a picnic lunch at North Bay. Murray said to me: “you couldn’t do that now, your guests are much older” (but I don’t think he was referring to himself or Dianne). They rode their bikes, swam and walked. They had a BBQ and cooked fish that they had caught the day before. They also met some of the local characters, like Clive Wilson, “who patted Dianne on the bottom and always called her Blondie”.
Lord Howe was an expensive place to visit in 1968. Murray paid $440 for two return tickets on the Sunderland flying boat and 7 nights’ accommodation. If that doesn’t sound like much money, he put it this way: they had $20 left in the bank when they got home.
Murray and Dianne brought their children Neal and Jacqueline to Pinetrees for a holiday in 1986. Murray said: “that was the year of Halley’s Comet and I got the kids out of bed at 4:00am to see it. We went out into the middle of the oval and I told them that this would be the only time in their lifetimes that they would ever see it. They couldn’t wait to get back to bed. I think they said: ‘you can keep it, Dad’”. The family rode bikes, had a trip on a glass bottom boat, went to North Bay and did a half day tour of the island on Jim Whistler’s bus. He said that the kids always remembered that holiday.
Higgins family dinner at Pinetrees in 1986 (nice pants, Murray!)
They visited again with Neal and his wife Brooke in 2008 (before the grandkids were born) and Neal arranged the trip for them this year to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, due to terrible weather on the island, they were two days late arriving and spent the actual wedding anniversary hanging around the airport in Sydney. (Sorry about that!) The attractions of a Lord Howe holiday this time were not so different from 1968 (or even 1937). Four year old Ella loved feeding the fish at Neds Beach, but two year old Luke was a bit scared of them. They both loved the turtles at Old Settlement Beach. Dianne and Murray looked after Ella and Luke while Brooke and Neal did the all-day climb up Mt Gower. Another day, Neal enjoyed a few rounds of golf at the Lord Howe Golf Club.
They grow up so fast - Higgins family holiday in 2008
Murray says that he’s hoping to bring the family (including Murray and Dianne’s daughter Jacqueline and her partner) back to Lord Howe to celebrate Dianne’s 70th birthday in 2017. He said that he is always talking to people about Lord Howe: “they say: ‘it’s expensive, isn’t it? You could almost go to Europe for that’ but we’ve been to Europe, several times. What we want to do is have another holiday at Lord Howe. It’s so laid back, beautiful and peaceful. You can walk, swim or just relax and it’s a real holiday. We love it”.
Three generations of the Higgins family on Lord Howe Island in 2013
I really enjoyed meeting the Higgins family and hearing Murray’s Pinetrees stories. As I drove them to the airport I thought about how privileged I am to be at Pinetrees. I was watching a Rick Stein show about Spain a while ago and he was in a tapas bar in Seville talking about how the owner of the bar buys hams from a farmer, and that his grandfather used to buy hams from the farmer’s grandfather. It’s pretty rare these days to work in a family business, especially one that has been around for as long as Pinetrees. It’s even rarer to be in a family business that has seen generation after generation of guests from the same family – and that’s what makes the Higgins family Lord Howe royalty.
About Dani Rourke
HELP! I have 2 children, 25 staff and up to 85 guests. I was a lawyer for 10 years, but recently escaped. My husband and I moved from Sydney to beautiful Lord Howe Island to run Pinetrees Lodge, which has been in my family for 6 generations. I'm writing about family business, island life and the whole work/family disaster. Did someone say balance?