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Review of the July Wilderness Week

29-Jul-2013

There was no warm up for our July Wilderness Week. On Monday morning at 9am, we arrived at Dean Hiscox’s boatshed and collected wetsuits, life jackets, paddles and kayaks and set forth. The weather was perfect for a kayak expedition to North Bay, and despite a few nerves from those who hadn’t paddled much before, we headed straight for the inside of the reef. You see, local knowledge and a guide go a long way – while the lagoon had a reasonable southerly breeze, the inside of the reef provided shelter and the water was almost glassy. The best bit, though, was that the gentle wind swell pushed us from south to north, all the way to North Bay. It was so easy that our sorest muscles were the ones we were sitting on.

When you talk to sailors about why they take risks and cross oceans in small boats without power, they often say things like “the quiet”, “the isolation”, or “the serenity”. Kayaking is similar (although the people who kayak across oceans are bit, shall we say, different). Kayaking on the Lord Howe Island lagoon is all about quiet, isolation and serenity. The only noise you hear is the sound of your paddle flowing through the water, the breeze, and the occasional inquisitive sea bird that hovers above your head. People have an affinity with water, whether it be a creek, river, harbour, beach, ocean – or more often in the city – a pool or backyard ‘water feature’. If you’ve ever sat next to ‘the water’ and drifted off into daydreams, then you’ll know what to expect from kayaking. At times, you’re very much in the present, concentrating on what you’re doing, and then you drift away into an almost meditative state. Not a bad feeling when you’re on holiday.

Our ‘drift kayak’ along the outer reef was a revelation for people who wanted to learn about marine life. Dean runs snorkelling and coral viewing trips every day, and is probably the most knowledgeable scientist on the island. He talked about different types of coral and fish, and how they interact. He talked about tides, ocean currents and wind patterns. He talked about climate change and coral bleaching (you’ll be happy to know that Lord Howe remains very resilient to the types of changes that have damaged the Great Barrier Reef in QLD), and he talked about sea birds. Somehow, it all seemed more relevant from the quiet exposure of a kayak.

Kayaking to North Bay - Lord Howe IslandPerfect kayak conditions - Lord Howe Island

Of course, there’s an argument both ways, so the next morning we boarded the Coral Princess for some coral viewing and snorkelling on the outer reef. It was a stunning ‘winter’ morning with sun, no breeze, an air temperature of 22 degrees and a water temperature of 19 degrees. The winter light on the lagoon was soft and cast long shadows within the coral.

After drifting over a series of reefs, coral gardens and sea grass beds – and spotting a few turtles, rays and sharks – the adventurous souls snorkelled Erscotts Hole. None were disappointed, and most said it was one of the most amazing things they had ever done. Dean and Ken Hiscox spend hours on the lagoon every day (yes, jobs like that do exist), and even with so much ‘lagoon time’, they still stand in the boat and stare at the view. It’s just not possible to get used to it.

Fansy a swim? - Lord Howe IslandKen and Dean loading the boat - Lord Howe IslandDean snorkelling at Erscotts Hole - Lord Howe IslandDain, Elsie and Pixie - Lord Howe Island

“The most amazing thing they had ever done” comment from Erscotts Hole was an invitation for us to do better, so in the afternoon we took the group to Little Island to experience a few hundred thousand Providence petrels at sunset. On cue, and prompted by some noisy guests, the birds descended from the mountains to investigate the noisy people in bright fleece tops. It’s a David Attenborough experience being overwhelmed by birds in such enormous numbers – and none of them are scared of people, just kind of curious.

Evening stroll to Little Island - Lord Howe IslandSunset from Little Island - Lord Howe Island

While the amazing experiences happened for guests at Erscotts Hole and Little Island on Tuesday, the two humble guides had their own special experience on Wednesday. When we gathered our group for the day’s walk to Kims Lookout and North Head, we quickly realised that we had six women under the age of 40. Now this isn’t unusual in, say, Byron Bay or Bali, but in July on Lord Howe Island, it was the stuff of legend and folklore. Our winter demographic tends to be 20 years older and a bit slower, so by about 11am we were feeling pushed.

And they can eat. Our BBQ lunch of prawns, kingfish, veal and lamb was devoured in minutes. Luckily we had a backup apple and cinnamon cake – still warm – to go with a cup of tea. After lunch we walked the ridge to North Head, where Dean and I exchanged looks which said something like “did the plane to Byron Bay get diverted to Lord Howe?” - such was the pace and enthusiasm of the group. Not wanting to disappoint the girls on what had become a fitness day, we climbed Mt Eliza as well. If only that journalist from Women’s Fitness Magazine was with us – we would have made the cover.

Girl power on North Head - Lord Howe IslandDon't look down - Lord Howe IslandA memorable day for Dean - Lord Howe IslandThe ridge to North Head - Lord Howe Island

Thursday was another beautiful day and ideal for exploring the east coast of the island. Within a short 7 km walk, we sampled a number of unique landscapes and ecosystems, including Banyan and Kentia forests, coastal heath and sea cliffs, rock pools in the intertidal zone, coastal grasslands and pristine beaches. As always, the Middle Beach rock platform was a highlight, and every rock pool was teeming with life. Just when you thought you’d thoroughly explored a pool, something in your peripheral vision would move and you’d discover another Hermit crab or Nudibranch. With Dean nearby, there was always a Latin name (we think he makes them up) followed by an Attenborough style narrative of the life cycle, predatory habits, defence mechanisms and other peculiarities of the species.

It's worth the wet shoes - Lord Howe IslandLearning about marine life - Lord Howe IslandThe Jims Point overhang - Lord Howe IslandClimbing to Jims Point - Lord Howe Island

Dean also speaks Latin on the climb of Mt Gower, as we discovered on Friday. It turns out that most of the plant species on Mt Lidgebird and Mt Gower are endemic to Lord Howe Island, and often guests see something that looks familiar, only to find that it belongs to a different plant family. The plant diversity on the mountains is remarkable. Since the air temperature drops as you go up in altitude, the plant species also change (there’s a lot of altitude between sea level and 875m). There are also different aspects, slope gradients, wind regimes and rainfall patterns, and each landscape zone has a unique range of species.

On this particular climb, we traversed the Lower Road in perfect conditions and reached the north east ridge of Mt Gower for lunch. While descending, we came across another group with someone suffering from vertigo, and it was a good reminder of just how exposed you are on the Lower Road with 300 vertical meters of cliffs above and 100 vertical meters of cliffs below. While it’s not dangerous (so long as you hold on to the rope), it will challenge your senses! And that’s the idea of our Wilderness Weeks – do something new, push a few boundaries, make yourself tired and uncomfortable, and then feel invigorated from the experience.

The Lower Road - Lord Howe IslandNot much room fro error - Lord Howe IslandA breather on Mt Gower - Lord Howe IslandStunning subtropical forest - Lord Howe IslandMt Lidgbird - Lord Howe IslandDown safely - Lord Howe Island 

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