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June Wilderness Discovery Week

21-Jul-2013

The first day of our inaugural Wilderness Week took us to a remote coastal ridge on the eastern side of Mt Lidgebird. We walked along the normal track to Boat Harbour, a north facing inlet that’s always sheltered, and stopped to ‘play’ on the boulder beach. Those with cameras looked confused and unable to decide where to start – macro, zoom, landscape or portrait. The trick is to be systematic and not get overwhelmed by the place. It’s also a spot where people retreat into their inner child – some pick up rocks and look for crabs, some test their throwing arm, some ‘boulder’ around the foreshore cliffs, and some just sit and stare. There’s a small creek inlet where you can drink perfect mountain water.

We then went off-track to our lunch spot - high on one of the many coastal ridges that extend like fingers around the base of Mt Lidgebird. Very few people have visited this place before – perhaps a few park rangers over the years. It wasn’t easy, and the ‘lawyer vine’ collected some skin, but overall I think everyone would go back to that ridge for lunch (I’d go tomorrow if I were allowed…). As you can see from the photos, it was rugged, remote and beautiful. The landscape felt like southern Tasmania, but the ocean, palm forests and sunshine were clearly sub-tropical.

Our guide, Dean Hiscox from Lord Howe Environmental Tours, told stories along the way about the successful program to eradicate feral goats and pigs from the island. As a young ranger in his 20’s, Dean used to spend weeks in the mountains hunting feral animals. Can you imagine the places he got to? I suspect many of those places had never had a human footprint before (or since). He pointed out routes he’d found along ridge lines, down gullies, under cliffs and around coastal bluffs. Dean even knew where the best remote snorkelling would be.

On the way back, we learnt about the Kentia seed industry and looked at some of the prime seeding areas. From the 1880s, ‘seeders’ would travel to remote Kentia palm groves and harvest seed for the island’s nursery. It was hard work climbing palms, collecting seed, and then carrying hessian sacks full of seed back over the mountains. We only had to carry the remains of our lunch, and that was hard enough.

We arrived back to Pinetrees for afternoon tea, and we all had that look of satisfaction that only a good bushwalk can provide. Hot tea – tick, fresh muffin – tick, comfy chair – tick. Later, the hot shower felt good on scratched legs, and dinner – well – was a ‘fish fry’. For those that don’t know, it includes 5 courses of soup, sushi, sashimi, beer battered local kingfish, salads, an enormous buffet of desserts and a plate of fine Australian cheese. Together with a glass (or bottle) of Pikes Clare Valley Riesling, it was an ideal end to Day 1.

Subtropical forest near Smoking Tree Ridge - Lord Howe IslandSheltered winter conditions at Boat Harbour - Lord Howe IslandLunch below Mt Lidgbird - Lord Howe IslandEast Point and Balls Pyramid - Lord Howe Island

The second day of our Wilderness Week was moody, dark and wet at breakfast. It took some effort to get people motivated. But, as is often the case at Lord Howe, the ‘breakfast showers’ cleared by 10am and the day became a cracker. There were still a few passing showers with patches of blue sky and sunshine, which means one thing – rainbows. As we reached the summit of Kims Lookout, the first patch of sunlight came through. Converging from the opposite direction were dark clouds and showers. All we had to do was wait. The result was a series of rainbows, sometimes double rainbows, with saturated light, dark shadows and blue sky. Standing next to Samantha, our visiting Anmatyerre girl from the outback and watching the sub-tropical world go by, was a real highlight.

By the time we reached North Bay the weather had cleared completely, which made our off-track climb of North Head relatively easy. The view from North Head is one of the best on the island – it’s like an amphitheatre of volcanic peaks surrounding a pristine turquoise lagoon. In spring, the North Head ridge in home to thousands of Sooty terns, and thanks to their fertilisation of the ground, there’s a mat of nitrogen-rich green annual plants (like coastal spinach). The green of the ground cover accentuates the turquoise of the lagoon and cobalt blue of the ocean. Photographers have to remove their polarising lenses, because the colours are just too saturated.

After exploring the high ground, we descended for a BBQ lunch of garlic prawns, Moroccan spiced kingfish and New England veal. Some people did a quick dash to the Gulch and Mt Eliza, but most were happy to relax and watch the fire, before returning to Pinetrees on Dean’s boat.

Learning about turtles - Lord Howe IslandDramatic view from Kims Lookout - Lord Howe IslandThe ridge to North Head - Lord Howe IslandBBQ lunch at North Bay - Lord Howe Island

The third day of the week greeted us with clear skies and a southwest breeze. It was perfect for a snorkelling trip to Erscotts Hole. Our guests were fitted in ‘steamers’ at Dean’s boatshed, before boarding the Coral Princess. The trip from Lagoon Beach to Erscotts Hole (on the outer reef) took about 30 minutes and Dean talked non-stop about the marine ecosystem. We drifted over different sections of reef so Dean could explain variations in coral and fish species, and how they interact. He also talked about the impact of climate change and showed places where marine scientists are running experiments on coral bleaching. The good news is that reefs are recovering faster from small bleaching events than previously thought!

Yes the water was cool, but those who braved the conditions – 19 degrees (think Sydney in early summer) – were rewarded with a stunning view of hundreds of different fish of all shapes and colours. Think of the reef scenes in Finding Nemo, and you’ll have some idea of the experience. Those who stayed on the boat watched Dean, through the glass bottom, hand feed a Double Header and Spangled Emperor.

After lunch, we met local ranger, Sue Bower, who took us on the Minister’s Walk. Before you write down the name, you need to know that the Minister’s Walk is an unmarked route on the east side of Transit Hill, which is impossible to find unless you’re with a guide. It was named a few years ago when the NSW Minister for the Environment visited the island to check on the progress of a number of projects. One of the projects, named ‘The Battle for Transit Hill’ was a successful weeding project to remove invasive Ground asparagus from the native Kentia forest. Sue explained how the project worked and showed us areas where the forest and mutton bird breeding grounds had been restored. Weeding large areas is a thankless task, so next time you meet a ranger say “thanks” and watch how they smile.

Glass bottom discovery - Lord Howe IslandSnorkelling at Comets - Lord Howe IslandA visit with a local ranger - Lord Howe IslandJill Hisco is a great host - Lord Howe Island

On Day 4, we ventured to the east coast of the island, which is rugged, exposed and relatively remote. On a good day (in westerly winds), the east coast is sheltered and warm, but don’t be fooled because it’s a landscape shaped by volcanic eruptions, floods, landslides, cyclones and raw ocean power.

The walk from Pinetrees (on the west coast) to Middle Beach (on the east coast) is like walking back in time. We started among the Norfolk Pines, buildings and gardens of the Lodge, wandered past the Bowling Club and Central School, and linked up with a single track next to the Lord Howe Administration. To the left was the small farm of a local family, complete with cattle, a stable with one horse and vegetable gardens. As we wandered east along the track, seemingly into the lowland kentia forest, one last sign of humans appeared – an opportunistic bush garden. In the early days of human settlement, most families had bush gardens to supplement their home gardens. Typically, they were located on patches of volcanic soil or in small sheltered valleys away from the salty sea winds. They weren’t quite ‘cut and burn gardens’ like you’d see in remote parts of PNG, but they were only used when conditions justified the labour required to clear and plant them.

Once in the forest, we climbed gently towards the sea cliffs above Middle Beach for the first real view of the day – the Admiralty Islands in sheltered ‘offshore’ conditions. Typically, it’s warm and sunny, and we felt like we’d just walked into an equatorial latitude. Just along from the sea cliffs was the start of a unique forest of big Banyan trees and Kentia palms. We found Lord Howe Woodhens foraging around in the mulch, and dodged Shearwater nests (come on a spring evening and you’ll dodge Shearwaters as well). This was Jurassic Park stuff, without the dinosaurs.

One of the highlights of walking around Lord Howe is the fast transition from one landscape to another. There’s no plodding for hours waiting for the next interesting bit. In this case, the Jurassic Park forest abruptly turned to ocean, sea cliffs and coastal heath with views of the mountains and Balls Pyramid. The Clear Place is exactly that. The water, air and forest are absolutely pristine. Below us, down a dangerous track (no, don’t try to find it) were some local fishermen catching 15kg kingfish, trevally and tuna straight off the rocks, but that’s another story.

We continued north along the Middle Beach rock platform, past Jim’s Point and Hell’s Gate, and ended up at Neds Beach for a BBQ lunch. There’s no track or marked route, so we just had to find our way – but it was worth it. As our group wandered through the long coastal grass, I had flashbacks to meadows in the Swiss Alps. After lunch, some people just lazed in the sun, while others went swimming and snorkelling. Yes it was winter, but on Lord Howe Island, that means a water temperature of 19 degrees – just like southern Queensland.

A big banyan - Lord Howe IslandOn the north face of Mt Gower - Lord Howe IslandMiddle Beach rock pools - Lord Howe IslandMiddle Beach rock platform - Lord Howe Island

On the final day, we climbed high on the northeast ridge to Mt Gower. At 875 vertical metres above sea level, Mt Gower is one of the highest vertical climbs in Australia and people come from around the world for the challenge. Make no mistake – the correct word is “climbing”.

The first part of the day was a gentle stroll to Little Island. From the road, we wandered along the west coast of the island below the cliffs and high mountain forests on Mt Lidgebird. Little Island is where the outer reef connects to the island, so in one area you see lagoon, reef (and waves), open ocean and a dramatic mountain backdrop. Think Bora Bora in Tahiti or Kauai in Hawaii and you’ll have some idea of the landscape.

The rock hop from Little Island to the start of the climb was good preparation for the day ahead because there aren’t many steps that won’t move or slide for the next 6 hours, but that’s part of the fun. No, really. The first “pitch” (that’s climbing lingo) is 80 vertical metres from sea level to the base of the Mt Lidgebird cliffs. It’s steep and hard, but the nice Lord Howe guides have installed fixed ropes, and it makes the climb much easier. Once at the base of the cliffs, Dean had a quick lesson in volcanoes and different types of lava. And trust me, you’ll be interested. It’s hard not to be when you’re standing on an extinct one.

The next part of the day is arguably the most spectacular 300 metres of walking in Australia. The Lower Road sounds benign, but there’s no road. Instead, there’s a single track along a ledge with 100 vertical metres of cliff directly below and 300 vertical metres (in some places overhanging) directly above. There’s a rope to hold on to, and it provides most people with the security they need to keep going. It’s hard to imagine the palm “seeders” in the early years of settlement walking along this ledge with 50kg hessian sacks on their backs.

After the Lower Road, we entered Erskine Valley and got our first glimpse of the north face of Mt Gower. The summit was still 700 vertical metres away – a long way up. The stroll through the valley forest was cool and refreshing, and soon we came to Erskine Creek. There aren’t many places left where you can safely drink fresh mountain water straight from a creek, and believe me, it tastes wonderfully of nothing – no chlorine, salt, silt, metal or plastic. The creek is a legitimate destination, and we often take photography guests to the creek for lunch.

On this occasion, we pushed on to the northeast ridge of Mt Gower – another 300 vertical metres above. I don’t need to describe the climb, other than to say that the ridge was a welcome sight. And the sight from the ridge was even better – Mt Lidgebird and its dramatic cliffs, the lagoon, the reef and the cobalt blue ocean. The sight of a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich and a container full of dates and cashews was also pretty good.

It’s funny who you bump into in the middle of nowhere. During our descent we were overtaken by another group that included Flip Byrnes – the great granddaughter of Frank Hurley and Arctic adventurer in her own right. Flip was visiting Lord Howe on assignment for Women’s Fitness Magazine, and she was certainly doing the work for her readers. The article will be out later in 2013.

The beauty about a physically demanding day is that the simple things seem so much better. A flat track – great. A chair – even better. A cup of tea and scones, followed by a hot shower – can it get any better? To appreciate those simple things with real clarity, though, you first have to earn the state of mind, and a day exploring Mt Gower will do it every time. Multiply that feeling by five, and you’ll know how our Wilderness Week guests felt when they left Lord Howe at the end of the week.

The Lower Road challenges most people - Lord Howe IslandDon't step left! - Lord Howe IslandFresh mountain water from Erskine Creek - Lord Howe IslandDean Hiscox on the north ridge of Mt Gower - Lord Howe IslandTired bodies after a climb of Mt Gower - Lord Howe IslandLittle Island boulders - Lord Howe Island 

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