MAD IF YOU DON’T!

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Qantas is offering direct flights from Port Macquarie to Lord Howe Island over an extended season. Susie seizes the opportunity.

Wedge-tailed shearwaters, long-range seabirds, are back from the North Pacific on Lord Howe Island for breeding season. When they fly in from a day foraging the ocean they’re clumsy on the ground and often crash on returning to their nests. Emulating the shearwaters, I crash spectacularly into a clump of kentia palms moments after mounting Campbell Wilson’s hire bicycle. I kiss Lord Howe’s ancient earth hello.

Many a visitor here climbs onto LHI’s traditional transport only to discover a gap of 10 years since they last pushed a pedal proves it’s not entirely true that “it’s like riding a bike: you never forget”. That’s what kind locals assure me anyhow, so my pride, unlike my shins, is unwounded. And Campbell’s brother Craig appears straight-faced when he reminds me they also hire out mobility scooters.

Frankly, I reckon the much-touted means of exploring LHI by bike is for the birds (Lord Howe has 170 species.) The island has some pretty steep slopes, let alone iconic mountains Gower and Lidgbird, that need surmounting daily to enjoy its many delights and varied locations. After wobbling about a while on two wheels I set the bike aside for shorter trips and hire Rodney Thompson’s faded-red Diahatsu, whose appearance qualifies it for Rent-A-Wreck. But let’s not be picky, for rental cars, indeed vehicles of any kind, are strictly limited on LHI to protect the environment. Competition for them among holidaymakers, especially those who’ve recently reassessed their bike-riding ability, is keen. (Consider pre-booking at one of four outlets.) The Terios climbs the hills niftily, getting me fast to places I want a luxury of time to explore on foot: like the astonishingly beautiful 3km-return walk (level, suitable for almost all) to Little Island where the scenic and sensory rewards are breathtaking: tilt your head back 90 degrees at the base of Mts Lidgbird and Gower to take in their frighteningly sheer majesty … picnic at a timber table and benches on a spread of green lawn kept neatly mown … consider yourself in the Garden of Eden. “World Peace”, Miss Universe contestants? It’s right here.        

Oh, the Thompsons and the Wilsons: within days I’m on first-name terms with heaps of them. Some 25 Wilsons and a roughly equal number of Thompsons are found in LHI’s phone book (a few A4 pages stapled together), families of many generations’ standing here. For others than a total philistine it’s impossible not to be captured by curiosity about the island’s culture. Barely beneath an extrovert, welcoming, carefree surface of accomplished, polished hospitality lies an easily discernible cocky insularity and much intrigue. But: be absorbed instead by what’s openly on display at the Museum, lovingly tended by volunteers and remarkably comprehensive. (Allocate half a day.) Marine, ecological, genealogical artefacts, displays and video shows are complemented by local crafts and a range of fascinating LHI history books, one excellent tome just $5. Recommended first on arrival: Ian Hutton’s introductory evening lecture to set the local scene; follow up with dinner on the deck at adjacent Coral Cafe. This strategy will introduce you to LHI’s quaint method of getting guests around after dark: with no street lights, torchlight’s the go. But the tradition is: your lodge drives you to dinner; your dinner host drives you home, both gratis. Perfect!

With tourism LHI’s lifeline industry, visitors are greeted warmly. Soon I’ve met 30 new faces: Lance, Don, Caitlyn, Vicki … I’m adept at the Lord Howe Wave; like Her Maj, I offer the salute as I reccy around one-handed on the steering wheel: “Good morning”, “Nice day”, and so on. (Scratch the surface of this geniality, though, by raising the question of local attitudes to mooted wind-farm power generation or other urgent environmental control issues and you uncover a fierce conservationist – or equally rigid pragmatist.)

The “name thing” started at LHI’s Lilliputian airport where I was met by LHI Tourism and Rebecca from my digs, on behalf of owner Gai Wilson. I’ve been here before, but briefly; this time, with the luxury of a week’s stay, I encounter friendly people everywhere: Julie, charming owner of Ebbtide Apartments, gives me a lift in her van. Karen, ending her Museum shift, takes me to swim at Ned’s Beach among hopelessly beautiful swirling schools of blue trevally and translucent sand mullet. Melissa takes time to show me a banyan-rainforest pathway. (Walk the undergrowth, cycle and picnic freely: no land snakes, biting ants, diving seagulls or swooping magpies here.) Teniele from Tourism is tirelessly determined to ensure my visit’s superb. I eat at The Anchorage in the “CBD” (post office, general store, co-op, hall and two boutiques pretty much does it) with a view through tall Norfolk pines across the impossibly perfect gorgeous blue lagoon to the towering twin mountains. Great food and a terrific bakery of breads, cakes, muffins, wholesome savoury and vegie pies and takeaway lemon-stuffed roast chook. I explore the shops for fashion and knick-knacks: some prices are severe but most have the same printed swing-tags as on the mainland. Failed to pack a new cossie, kaftan? Fret not: the range is good and culling to the best styles has been done for you (unlike scouring the acres at DJs, say.) Sure, prices on LHI for some things are elevated, understandably, considering its remoteness and limit of just 400 guests to sustain tourism at top quality levels. Yet not so for all things: dining-out prices comparable to those at home, attractions at good rates. Self-serve BBQs are everywhere: free gas or wood-fired (timber provided, ready-chipped) and they even clean them after you! Packs of freshly caught ready-filleted fish widely obtainable, naturally. With the gift of Qantas 90-minute flights direct from Port to LHI right through to Easter you can leave home at 11am, fly at noon, be swimming at Lovers Bay by 2. Crazy if you miss the opportunity, at least once in a lifetime.

“Rrrydinfrunnuhyuh!” snarled the Qantas customer “service” officer at Sydney airport. “Food court? Straight ahead!” would’ve done. Our scheduled noon departure ex PQQ was changed to early check-in, travel via SYD, and a snappy 90min direct flight became two hours on the SYD-LDH sector alone. But a sweet flight attendant and apologetic captain soon soothed us on take-off. (We did enjoy a nifty 80-min direct return flight, with LHI Qantas agent Cindy Shick a marvellous ambassador. Invite her to lead customer relations training, perhaps?)    

For the first time Qantas this summer is continuing non-stop flights between Port and LHI without a break, right up to Easter – normally suspended over the two-month Xmas-NY holidays. Comparing fares is difficult but test bookings show small difference flying ex Port or Sydney: no real saving, it seems. But a tremendous saving of time and hassle against flying via Sydney or Brisbane. LHI is, after all, a speck in the mighty ocean subject to strong winds, a tiny runway with nowhere to extend to except into the water. Qantas is admirably fussy about safety, so schedules are sometimes altered. The airline’s said to keep its Dash 8s in service at big cost to cover the route. Problems with sand dunes and potential bird-strike exist; sometimes passengers and hand luggage are weighed within slim tolerance levels acceptable to Qantas standards. Conditions may seem fine for take-off but aircraft need to carry sufficient diversionary fuel to turn round if necessary. (But telling passengers changes are due to “no flight attendants available” is an insult.) Who knows if Qantas will tender for the service next time round? It’s vital for LHI residents, business and tourism: to reach doctors or secondary schools on the mainland, for certain freight consignments. Residents, family and friends enjoy preferential fares and luggage allowances; 14kg is ample for visitors. So let’s treasure the QF service: if the fares are more than average, the value and enjoyment are immensely greater.

THE LOCAL CONNECTION

For Hastings holidaymakers, travelling to LHI is closer than Coffs. And incomparable.

  • Oxley Travel, in new premises on Horton Street in Port Macquarie, is Australia’s leading LHI travel agent.
  • The Island Trader, owned by two LHI families, departs fortnightly from Port, carrying freight including building materials and the mail.
  • You’ll likely be welcomed by Lisa (ex Stunned Mullet), Phoebe (ex Rydges) or Susan (from Willawarrin) and many more Port locals working in LHI hospitality.    
  • Ricardoes tomatoes and strawberries feature on The Anchorage’s menu, picked in person by restaurant owner John Green, who flies in his own aircraft.
  • Other provisions are from Port suppliers like Pye Providores (Phoebe’s family) although much excellent primary produce is harvested or grown on LHI. (Buy it at Top Shop).
  • Some young islanders attend secondary school in Port.
  • J R Richards in Port handles the island’s waste, despatched on the Trader.
  • Leslie Williams is LHI’s MP; Port’s police commander is theirs too.
  • There’s an excellent little hospital, local doctor (whose son won Port’s last Ironman), pharmacy supplies and visiting dentist, but Port hospitals treat many medivacs.

NEXT TIME: Where to stay and eat; secret sandy swimming spots; best attractions: reef walking, SUP, turtle watching, glass-bottom boats; free phones; free rainwater; architecture: the triumph of VJ board.

Susie travelled courtesy of Lord Howe Island Tourism, along with actor Martin Clunes and TV vet Dr Chris Brown one of few travel media privileged to be a guest on the island. She was hosted by John & Kathy Green at Earl’s Anchorage (luxury; peaceful seclusion; highly recommended), Gai Wilson at Somerset Apartments (budget; perfect location; highly recommended); Jan & Bill Shead for fine dining and at Arajilla Retreat Day Spa; Wilson bike & car hire; Chad and Chelsea Wilson: Ocean View Boatshed SUP; Anthony Riddle’s Marine Adventures: snorkelling, turtle and nature tour; Stevie at Coral Cafe; Ian Hutton: reef walk and museum lectures; Dani & Luke for lunch at Pinetrees; Capella Lodge for morning tea. A local family and kids Zoey and Zach invited her to the Golf Club for a farewell Friday night dinner on the deck and awesome sunset viewing on her final evening. Photos: Susie Boswell; Destination NSW; Trevor King.

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