We had chosen a self-catering apartment, nominally for two people, but the owners were happy to move a third bed in for us. In the event, we tended just to eat lunch at the apartment, and to go to one of the many lodges with a dining room for dinner, since the prices were reasonable, and there was a good choice of places within walking distance of our lodge. Once the sun filtered through the clouds we were able to get a glimpse of our home for the week. The small verandah had room for all of us to sit and admire the view, with a pleasant palm-lined lawn and courtyard immediately in front of us, and the beach and hills in the distance.
We spent the first day just getting acquainted with the settlement: finding out where we could shop and eat; what tours were available for Geoff's mum; where the beaches and walks were. The rain cleared away, and we had a chance to walk around, down to the jetty and along the settlement foreshore. In the distance Mt Gower and Mt Lidgbird towered over the surrounding lowlands, their tops shrouded in mist. Norfolk pines lined the beach road, and high above our heads we could see white terns sitting precariously on eggs laid in the forks of the bare branches.
When we first arrived we had driven in past Transit Hill, near the airstrip and Blinky Beach. We figured that this was a walk that Geoff's mother could do, so all three of us set out, walking about 3 kilometres to the beach before starting the trail proper. This is a nice introductory walk, with excellent forest, great views of the island, and a chance to see some of the birds. The first bit of the trail was a bit steeper than we had anticipated, and a bit slippery, but Geoff's mum managed to slip and slide her way up, with a helping hand to keep her steady, and we climbed up into the forest. The lower part of the forest is lush and thick, but as we got higher the soil dried out out, and the vegetation changed to lower, more stunted trees and bushes by the time we arrived at the viewing platform, on the top of the hill. The view from the platform is excellent, and you can see right out across the Admiralty islets to the north-east.
We walked back into the settlement down the opposite side of the hill, through thick dry forest, to come out into farmland, across a cow paddock, over a stile and back into town. We were very proud of Geoff's mum - there aren't too many 86-year-old women who could have not only managed the rough trail and climb, but who would want to go, and who would thoroughly enjoy the walking. Unfortunately, all of the other trails were too long and difficult for her, but it was nice to take the first walk together.
Our lodge was at the northern end of the settlement, near Neds Beach, and the afternoon saw us out there to feed the fish. Islanders have been feeding the fish at this point for years, and they are so tame they will eat from your hands. We stood in the shallow waves and fed them bread, while the smaller fish brushed around our legs and the larger ones came with a rush and snatched voraciously. Small reef sharks swam with the crowd of fish, but they were a bit too wary to join in. Neds Beach is also home to hundreds of mutton birds, and their burrows lined the road and undermined the surrounding forest.
The weather was still a bit showery, so we spent another day close to the settlement, all three of us walking to Middle Beach and out to Old Settlement Beach, stopping to eat at Trader Nick's. Again, in the late afternoon, we wandered down to Neds, to feed the fish and to snorkel amongst them, but that was a bit strange, as they tended to nibble, and very big fish take very big nibbles! In the evening Geoff and I walked back to Neds to watch the mutton birds come in to land. For such graceful creatures in the air they are terrible on the land. They come in low and fast, hit the earth, and tumble and stumble to an undignified halt, sometimes doing full somersaults before scurrying off into the understorey to find their burrows.
Geoff and I wanted to do some longer day walks, so we packed lunch and headed out to Malabar and Kim's Lookout, while Geoff's mother went on a guided tour of the settlement and surrounding area. The walk to Malabar starts just off Neds Beach, up across a steep grassy paddock and onto a wooded ridge. The view back across the settlement was great at this point, and soon we were high above Neds. Down the other side of the ridge we could look down on the Old Settlement Beach and the wreck of the RAAF Catalina which crashed near there in 1948. The path climbed up into taller, more dense forest, then emerged steep and rocky onto the clear top of Malabar (209 metres). This is right up the north of the island, and affords great views of the Admiralty islets and well as a full view back along the length of Lord Howe to the southern volcanoes. We sat on the top to eat our lunch and to watch Red-tailed Tropicbirds doing acrobatics in the thermals generated by the steep cliffs that plunged into the ocean. The path followed the cliff edge, dropping slightly then climbing up to Kim's Lookout, another wonderful viewing place.
The return route heads back to the settlement from Kim's Lookout, but we branched off on a side track to North Bay, where we walked along the beach and out onto the exposed reef, looking at the clams, corals, crabs and fishes. We didn't climb Mount Eliza, but walked across to Old Gulch, with its steep rocky sides and jewel of a beach. Rather than retrace out footsteps back along the track we set out along the beach and rocks at low tide, and walked back via Dawson's Point and Old Settlement Beach.
Our lodge had bicycles for hire, so the next day we cycled out on the road south, as far as we could go. We were deciding whether or not to climb Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower, so this was a bit of a reconnoitre. We spent the afternoon snorkeling off Old Settlement Beach in the Sylph's Hole, a small, deeper section of the reef, lined with coral and sponges. There was a turtle grazing on the seagrasses in the shallow water between us and the hole, and a lion fish, our favourite reef fish, out in the hole. The Sydney to Lord Howe Island yachting race was on, and the first of the fleet had arrived, so the town was much noisier than usual, with yachties packing out the restaurants at night.
On the next day Geoff's mum had scheduled a full-day trip on one of the boats, so we set out to climb to Goathouse Cave on Mt Lidgbird. We caught the bus out to the start of the track (about five kilometres from the settlement). The initial section of the walk to Smoking Tree Ridge runs through lush forest, with many elkhorn ferns attached to the trees. The track to the cave runs up the ridge, starting fairly flat, but it soon climbs steeply, with beautiful, diverse forest trees shading the path and providing a cool dim passage on what was a hot day. The path continued up the slopes of Mt Lidgbird, getting steeper and turning into a rocky scramble, with chains provided in a couple of places to help with the climb. Just below the cave is another steep scramble with a chain to cling to, then you are up, standing in a huge overhang cave, where there are still signs that the feral goats scramble up here to take shelter. There is a great view north up the length of the island. After exploring the area around the cave we back-tracked down Smoking Tree Ridge, then picked up the trail to Boat Harbour. This is a lovely walk, down a steep descent then into an amazing stand of huge Pandanus trees. We walked down to the Boat Harbour beach.
After eating lunch at Boat Harbour, we set off for the long trek back to the settlement, taking the Rocky Run Walk. This was a fairly rough track, less well used than the other trails we took, and with less spectacular scenery, but it gave us a pleasant alternative route home. We called into Mutton Bird Point, where thousands of seabirds were nesting on the protected (and prohibited) point. As we walked away from the point we disturbed a few feral goats; our first instinct was to think they were kangaroos, forgetting where we were. The trail ended near Blinky Beach, with a three kilometre walk back past the airstrip to the settlement; it took us eight hours from start to end.
On the second-last day Geoff decided to join a party climbing Mt Gower; his mother and I declined. Mt Gower is not considered safe without a guide, and the excursion takes all day, starting quite early in the morning and returning about 5.00 pm. It starts as a stroll along the rocky beach followed by a scramble up a wooded slope to where the guide explains about the Kentia Palm, an endemic plant which with tourism is the basis of the island's economy - there is a thriving trade in palm seedlings to the mainland and the rest of the world. The seeds are collected each year from wild palms in a carefully regulated harvesting operation.
After donning hard hats to protect us from the possibility of falling rocks, the group of about 12 people tackled the most feared part of the ascent - the "lower road". This involved a careful walk along the narrow exposed path on the edge of a cliff, with a 100 metre drop to the ocean. From there the path leads up through the scrub and forest, across Erskine Creek with a pause for a refreshing drink from the clear pools, and up onto the sharp saddle between Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower. The exertion (or the height?) at this point was a bit much for several of the party, who elected not to continue, but wait form the group to return. The steepest part of the climb is from the saddle to the top of the mountain, but the worst sections are provided with ropes to make them a bit safer. The final short section of the walk is relatively easy, since it is across the flat summit to the highest point of Mount Gower. The persistent clouds at this level provide the moisture required to support a fairy forest covered in mosses and ferns, quite unlike the vegetation of lower parts of the island.
All of Lord Howe Island was spread out below the viewing point on the north edge of the summit, a magical place to rest and admire the magnificent view. To complete the scene, several of the island's famous woodhens, down to 30 individuals in 1980 when a very successful captive breeding rescue mission was mounted, appeared from the bushes and scratched in the mosses just a couple of metres from us as we ate our lunch. Their lack of concern over our presence illustrates one of the reasons why they very nearly went extinct when Europeans arrived on the island.
While Geoff was on the mountain, his mother and I spent the morning going for a walk to The Clear Place, an easy, clear track that took most of the morning, giving a lovely walk through palms and banyan trees. We also went down to the Valley of the Shadows, where the filtered sunlight casts mottled shadows on the valley floor. We walked back along the cliff top, avoiding [most of] the muttonbird holes. OK. Geoff's mum did fall down one of the holes, but we agreed to pretend it didn't happen. We spent a lazy afternoon down at The Old Settlement beach, where I went back in to skindive with the lion fish.
Our last day was quiet - just a bit of time to organize and pack, have lunch, then wait for the lift out to the airstrip and the plane back to Sydney, then home to Perth.