LORD OF THE ISLANDS
By Mitchell Jordan
Lord Howe Island is a place that everyone should see, but the cost of doing so and its remoteness mean that many never will.
Is Lord Howe Island a place, or just a place of mind?
I can’t help wondering this throughout much of the two-hour flight from Sydney, which feels like a journey to the edge of the world given that there’s nothing to see but ocean – even when the captain announces that our descent has begun.
But when Lord Howe Island appears, suddenly, without warning, it really appears. There, jutting out of the sea is the omnipotent Mount Gower, the 875-metre mountain that may as well be sky-high for all its grandeur and gigantic presence, which is only amplified by the neighbouring 777-metre Mount Lidgbird.
Part of me starts to think the two mesmerising mountains that define the tropical landscape must keep a protective eye over this paradise that’s home to no more than 350 locals with a cap of 400 tourists at any one point, because it’s hard to imagine a more perfect place than Lord Howe Island.
The crescent-shaped volcanic remnant is not only home to the world’s most southern coral reef, a CBD consisting of a post office, a few shop shops and completely devoid of mobile phone reception, but it’s also a much-needed reminder of how life should be lived.
Island life comes with a different set of rules, mostly unwritten: wave when you pass someone on the road, stick to the 25 km speed limit, no animals are to be brought in from the mainland and if you need to hire snorkelling gear from Ned’s Beach, leave your money in the honesty box.
And, surprisingly, it all works. With a zero per cent crime rate, friendly faces and next to no pollution, Lord Howe Island is arguably the most peaceful place in Australia, perhaps even the world.
The moment I step off the 33-seater plane and am collected by a staff member from my accommodation at Pinetrees Lodge, I’m already under its spell. My phone is nothing but a dead weight in my pocket. Glancing around the lagoon, which sparkles with all shades of blue, I wonder why I even bothered to bring a laptop. Who wants to check email when there’s a coral reef to explore?
At Pinetrees, one of Australia’s oldest family businesses, owner and sixth generation Lord Howe Islander, Dani Rourke, who runs the lodge with her husband, Luke Hanson (a “blow-in” from Sydney), recommends that I take a walk to Little Island.
The path to reach the rocky south-western shoreline involves disappearing under a canopy of banyan trees and kentia palms before I’m looking up at Gowler, which is shrouded by lenticular mist. It’s an eight-hour hike to reach the top, and must be done in the company of a qualified local guide, but I’m quite content to stand here and watch the sunset feeling like I’m the only person on earth.
This could be an all-too fleeting feeling, but throughout my five days here I hike to the top of numerous lookouts, scuba dive and catch sight of coral, turtles and fish without ever feeling the pressure of crowds. Lord Howe Island is a place that everyone should see, but the cost of doing so and its remoteness mean that many never will.
I feel just as lucky to be staying at Pinetrees, where all meals are included (staff will even drop off barbeque packs to wherever you’re planning on having lunch) and there’s a convivial fish night on Mondays that sees guests seated at communal tables and feasting on seafood. For those who just want to relax, rather than conquer nature, Pinetrees has a day spa offering massages and facial treatments, or you could just walk across the road to the lodge’s boatshed for a sunset wine. Once again, there’s an honesty box to pay for your drinks.
Through the eyes of a tourist, it all seems like heaven and easy enough to understand why it’s been voted Australia’s best island. When I chat with Dani again about her life out of the rat-race, she explains that you can’t stay here all year round.
“Really?” I ask, because no one I’ve met over the past week has expressed any desire to return to where they came from. In fact, all I witnessed was rejoicing from those whose flights back were cancelled due to strong winds.
“Well, you need to visit the dentist,” Dani grins (the island has a doctor who works half days from Monday to Friday).
But when I wake on my final morning, melancholy with the knowledge that I’m soon to be thrust back into the belly of the beast and wondering how I’ll ever navigate Sydney traffic again, I’m greeted with good news: my flight’s been delayed by 90 minutes.
“Might as well head to the beach,” a staff member at Pinetrees suggests.
I’m more than happy to follow these orders. Today, the sun’s out at Ned’s and the water is crystal-clear. It might feel like the fastest 90 minutes of my life, but I cherish every second.