"A CANBERRA BOY IN LORD HOWE ISLAND"
by Dave Wheeler
There are 10 permanent residents in the house and attached flat in which I live, here in the Berra. Eight of the residents are humans and two of them are dogs. We range from ancient me to a 4 year old boy. We also have a steady stream of visitors and persons staying overnight, so most of the time the place resembles a small village. It’s good being part of a tribe as there is always something going on and we can call on each other when needed. But I also love my solitude, and sometimes I like to escape to small, peaceful places by myself. I often go to nearby Gibraltar Falls, but I recently decided I would go a bit further and do a trip to Lord Howe Island, having read about the place and having known several people who have been there.
In describing my time on LHI I will give useful information to any reader contemplating visiting the place, but I hope this yarn will be more than just a travel review, because I will discuss things of a philosophical, political and historic nature that are relevant to my experience and I will compare some aspects of LHI with the mainland of Australia.
When I made my decision to go I booked to leave on the 27/8/14, departing by air from the Berra and connecting to a flight to LHI in Sydney the same day. I was meant to spend 7 nights in LHI.
LHI, which is a part of NSW, lies approximately 660km's directly east of Port Macquarie. It's about 10 km's long and ranges from 2km's to 0.3km's in width. It has a total area of 14.55 square km's, with only about 398 hectares having been settled. The bulk of the island is forested national park. It has a coral reef but is essentially a volcanic island with two large mountain peaks, with the tallest peak being Mt Gower, which is 875 metres high. It has a permanent population of around 300 people and no more than 400 tourists are allowed in at one time.
LHI is a unique part of Australia to the extent that if the archeologists and the diaries of the first Europeans in the area are correct it was not inhabited by anyone prior to it being claimed by Britain, which means that LHI is one of the few parts of Australia that was not stolen. I'm very surprised the Polynesians never found it.
It was apparently discovered, or first sighted, by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, although it was more than likely one of his crew who first saw it, with Ball taking the credit. He commanded "HMS Supply" at the time. It was sighted when he was on the way from Botany Bay to Norfolk Island, and on his return trip he sent a party ashore to claim it as a British possession. The famous Ball's pyramid, a volcanic outcrop located around 23 km's south-east of LHI, was named after Ball, and probably by Ball given my understanding of what drives people who hold positions of authority. The red square on the map below indicates LHI's position, and the aerial photo below the map is of the island.
After discovery the place was settled by numerous people who came and went, including "Shoalhaven Billy," a famous blacktracker who amazed everyone with his skills in a totally unfamiliar environment.
LHI was initially used as a place to supply food and basics to whalers. The whalers also used the island to recuperate after having been at sea for extended periods.
Amongst those who settled permanently on LHI in or around 1853 was a bloke named Nathan Chase Thompson, an American whaler who picked up 2 adult women and a 12 year old girl in Kiribati on his way to LHI. The three were apparently escaping from persons intent on doing them no good. The adult women's names were Botanga and Bogoroo and the young girl's name has been described as Bogue, but apparently her real name was Bogu or Bogi. I will refer to her as Bogu.
Bogu was betrothed to an old Kiribati bloke who held a high position. And because she did not want a smelly, grunting, sweaty old man crawling all over her whenever he wanted his way she understandably did not want to go through with the marriage. Bogoroo and Botanga were assisting her to escape her nightmare, and when Thompson found them they were all happy to accompany him to LHI.
Thompson hooked up with Botanga, but after they had arrived and had lived in LHI for some years she fell off the perch. All however was not lost, because by the time Botanga had expired Bogu had turned 24, so Thompson replaced Botanga by marrying Bogu, and between them they produced 5 kids. The 5 kids also reproduced, and as a result many of today’s permanent inhabitants of LHI are direct descendants of Nathan and Bogu, or are connected to them by marriage. One of the three general stores on the island is called "Thompson's General Store."
Let's put aside LHI and its history for a while and get back to where I was on the 26/8/14, the night before I was to set off to LHI. The first thing I did was set my email on holiday mode and leave the following automatic reply for anyone attempting to email me in the next 7 or so days:
"Dear emailer, I am off to Lord Howe Island and will not be near a computer until the 4/9/14. Unless I am killed in a plane crash or dematerialised by aliens I will get back to you after that date."
Unfortunately on that night Narelle, my dear old border collie, collapsed before me, and when she rose I could see her head was cocked to one side and that she had a bewildered look on her face. She again attempted to move but kept collapsing like a drunken sailor.
I first thought it could be one of several things such as poisoning, her rear legs seizing up on her through arthritis or her having had a stroke, but given that she was not far off 15, which is about 90 in human terms for her breed, I was aware that it could be a larger number of things and that sometimes such ailments are only temporary and heal themselves. I had however, prepared myself psychologically for her inevitable demise, although it was a pity it looked like it might occur on the eve of my trip to LHI.
Pictured above is the late Narelle Wheeler. She lived for another year after my trip to Lord Howe Island, a couple of months short of her 16th birthday.
I considered cancelling my trip, but I was encouraged to leave and told that Narelle would be taken to the vet and cared for if she did not recover by the next afternoon. So the next day I said goodbye to Narelle, thinking I would not see her again, and with a heavy heart I was taken to the Berra’s horrible, privately-owned, oversized aerodrome by Rio, my daughter in law, who lives with us and the rest of the extended family.
I miss the old, small Canberra aerodrome we had when our population was smaller. It had plenty of parking spaces and there was no security bullshit to put up with. Most Australian aerodromes are now privately owned monopolies which are swarming with cops and are very unpleasant places to be.
After she dropped me off I was to discover my flight had been cancelled because of bad weather, so I had to return home and took my connecting flight to Mascot Aerodrome, Sydney, the next day.
When I arrived I was to discover that because of continuing bad weather at LHI the previous flight from Sydney to LHI that morning had been cancelled and they were thinking of cancelling my flight. But, I did board the plane to LHI, which was a small "Dash 8" propeller job, 15 minutes after it was due to take off. We then waited in the plane, with its engines switched off, taking in very stuffy air, for what seemed a very long time. Apparently they were reconsidering going to LHI because the weather was still rough, with very strong winds. Eventually it was decided we would go and the flight did take off.
Large planes cannot land on Lord Howe Island as it has a very small runway.
It was a rough flight, and as we approached LHI we were told that the pilot was considering not landing because of the strength of the wind. The plane did not have enough fuel to return directly to Sydney but they were considering returning via Port Macquarie or Coffs Harbour, a shorter distance away, where they could get fuel. After a bit of circling however, it was decided we would land, or at least attempt to land.
During the flight I got to know Trev, the bloke sitting next to me. He was the headmaster on the island’s only school, and I think he has a total of around 27 pupils ranging from infants to Year 12. He told me he loves his job and that he loves Lord Howe Island and that he has good kids and good parents. Trev was a very nice bloke and a wealth of information. I ran into him several times when I was on the island and I also met his wife and kids.
Trev has a limited term on LHI, so I hope for his sake his next school is not at Mt Druitt or some other toilet in the western suburbs of Sydney. The contrast would be too much for anyone to handle and he would probably end up in a psychiatric ward, mumbling incoherently to himself.
Trev assured me that the landing would be safe as he had travelled frequently to and from LHI, but I thought I did not really need reassuring because I was used to travelling by air. However, when we started to land it was a different story.
As we began our descent but were still across the ocean things got particularly rough. I noticed sitting near me a young, overweight woman, and I began hoping that if we crashed into the ocean and I was alive and grabbing onto something to stay afloat she would be close to me. I hoped she would be close to me because any rational shark would have eaten her before contemplating eating me, as I had far less meat on my bones, and because of my age would be less tasty and would require much more chewing.
I doubt any cannibal would want to eat me nowadays unless he was prepared to have me boiled for a very long time.
But, another jolt of turbulence woke me from my unasked for daydream and then quite suddenly a gust of wind forced the plane to violently twist to about 45%. I was sure we were going to flip right over, and through instinct I grabbed the seat in front of me, which of course would have done me no good at all had the plane crashed.
The pilot managed to straighten the plane, and for a small amount of time we continued on a sort of level direction, until suddenly another gust of wind again forced the plane to veer violently to about 45%, and again I was sure we were going to flip. This again resulted in my amygdala/s making me grab the seat in front of me. Again, the pilot was able to straighten up, and he then took us onto the runway where he landed us safely. After the plane came to rest I never felt so relieved in my life, and I'm sure that anyone selling clean underwear at the time would have made a small fortune.
I asked Trev if he had ever experienced a landing like that one and he said he had not. At a later stage I also asked some locals and others who were on the flight if they had experienced any landings like the one we had, and they also had not. Most of them, like me, were also of the belief that the plane was not far off flipping over, and I was to find that several of the locals had parked near the aerodrome to watch the landing, as they were expecting problems.
Had the plane flipped to 45% like it did as we were landing on the runway it would have definitely taken a wing off. That would have resulted in the plane crashing and bursting into flames, which would have put a real damper on my holiday to LHI, even if I had survived, as I would probably have been horrifically injured.
Had this been the case and had I have received burns to 95% of my body and had some of my limbs been severed, I would have found that running around LHI's beautiful tracks would have been very difficult and not nearly as enjoyable as it was.
Qantas should not have landed the plane at that time on LHI because the strength of the wind made it far too dangerous. And although Qantas will deny that we nearly flipped I am absolutely convinced we came very close to it.
There was an enormous amount of pressure for Qantas to land at the time because of the delays in the incoming and outgoing flights. Unfortunately, because Qantas is now in private hands I believe they are more likely to take risks because of the profit motive, as they do not want dissatisfied customers. Had Qantas not been sold off and remained a government-owned monopoly it would be unlikely they would have landed my flight, as they could have taken the pressure and would have put safety before profit. I am led to believe that since privatisation Qantas maintenance has also deteriorated significantly.
When we were out of the plane and walking into LHI's small aerodrome I felt really good, as I had my feet on terra firma. I also enjoyed taking in the really beautiful scenery, and I enjoyed very much the feeling of the strong wind massaging my body and the cool drizzling rain on my skin. I wouldn't have been dead for quids!
When we were inside the aerodrome's building we were not told where to pick up our baggage, so I asked someone and was told it would come on a trolley car out the front. I stood outside and waited. When it arrived of course I could not find my bag, which concerned me because apart from the obvious inconvenience of the situation the bag belongs to one of my boys who had acquired it when he represented the ACT in rugby league, and it was appropriately marked as such.
I asked one of the people working there, a bloke a few years younger than me, where the rest of the bags were, and he told me they should have all been on the trolley. When I explained that mine was not he told me it may be lost and that they would look into it shortly. The words he said were not impolite but his tone was. It would seem he was under a great deal of pressure because of the cancelled flights and he was suffering from stress as a result. His tone also suggested to me that he thought I was being unreasonable because I was showing concern about having a missing bag.
I was then approached by a friendly local bloke who asked me if I was staying at the Hideaway apartments, and when I told him I was he told me I would soon be picked up by a big Samoan bloke named John, who would take me there. Sure enough, John soon turned up and he told me my bag would have probably been removed at the Sydney aerodrome because they thought there was a possibility they could not land, and as such needed to lighten the load to reduce the amount of fuel that would be used should they need to fly to Port Macquarie.
At a later stage I found that the bags of several other people had also been removed at Sydney and the same occurred to a bloke I met who arrived on a flight after mine. Apparently this is done regularly on flights to LHI when the weather is inclement, but nobody told me. Also, as my bag was clearly labelled, and as such could have been easily identified as mine, they could have told me it had been removed before or just after I arrived at LHI aerodrome, instead of having me look for it in vain, but they did not.
John drove me back to the Hideaway apartments with a nice-natured couple in their seventies from Howlong, near Albury, named Bev and Graham, who had last been to LHI on their honeymoon in 1961. They had the flat next to mine and I got to know them well.
My paternal grandmother went to Howlong Primary at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20'th centuries. Her dad, a farmer who owned a property named “ he Olives", on the Howlong Road, took her into town when she turned 16 and had all her teeth removed and dentures made up for her, even though there was nothing wrong with her teeth. Being a practical bloke he thought it would be easier to have all her teeth removed at once rather than have to take her into town to a dentist every time she had a toothache.
Val, John’s mother in law, an Aussie lady in her 60's, owned the Hideaway apartments, and I have no complaints about my stay there at all. They were spotlessly clean and had everything I needed to look after myself. She also could not have been more helpful and friendly. Other than the flat having cooking facilities, a toilet, a shower and a comfortable bed, it had satellite TV which allowed me to watch ABC television. I could not however, listen to Radio National, which is my usual form of entertainment, as there are no radio broadcasts on LHI other than through the net, which I am told is very slow.
Val soon contacted the aerodrome for me and was told officially that my bag was in Sydney and that it would come the next day, weather permitting. Qantas that night delivered me a small parcel with some cheap pyjamas, soap, a small comb and a toothbrush and toothpaste, so I could shower, clean my teeth and comb around my large bald patch before going to bed. They also gave me a $100 voucher which I could use to buy clothes, although my bag did arrive the next day.I spent the voucher on a feed at a restaurant but the deal did not allow me to receive change.
As it was only about 3:30 pm when I arrived at the Hideaway apartments I decided to do some exploring, so I walked towards the main road near the sea where I was told I could hire a pushbike from "Wilson's Hire Service." There are very few cars on LHI and bikes are the main form of transportation. I met Trev and his kids on my walk and he took me to the said place while we yarned. There was no sign outside Wilson's Hire Service saying when opening hours were so I said goodbye to Trev and walked in, presuming it was open given that it was a week day and only 10 to 4 by the time I had arrived there.
I approached a bloke sitting inside the house who I could see through a window. He would not give me a bike that afternoon and told me to come back the next day, which seemed a bit unreasonable. I’m glad it was a beautiful walk and I enjoy exercise, because otherwise I would have wasted my time. It was also just as well he did not want my money on that day because I was to discover that LHI is such a small place if you are in no hurry it’s better to walk. I’m also of the opinion that if I ever get to the stage of needing the mechanical aid of a pushbike in such a small place I should be given a lethal injection.
That night I went to a restaurant where a supposedly famous Pommie chef who I had not heard of named Tom Kime was cooking and lecturing. The tucker was expensive, insufficient and too spicy for my liking, but the people running it were very friendly and I had a long yarn to an old woman in her late eighties whose husband had died the year before. She began weeping every time she mentioned his name.
Kime rabbited on about wine, using terms used by wine "connoisseurs." From memory he described certain wines as being "wooden," "dry," having a "body," an "aftertaste," etc. He also told us what sort of tucker it's supposed to go with.
I've got nothing against people who feel a need to partially anaesthetise themselves with piss, but they should not need an excuse to do so. I accept that people can develop a taste for certain sorts of wine, but we can also savour the taste of certain fruit juices and prefer some types over others without going on about it. The whole wine-tasting thing is pretentious bullshit engaged in by people who cannot simply accept that their true motivation for wanting to drink wine is their desire to get partially or fully pissed. By convincing themselves they are "connoisseurs" of wine they are able to successfully deny to themselves the fact that they are dependent on alcohol to relieve their pain or to give their lives some sort of meaning. Why they needed to use a drug like alcohol in a place as beautiful and as serene as LHI is beyond me. The following link is to a Guardian article entitled "Wine-tasting. It's junk science." It is worth a read.http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tasting-junk-science-analysis
The next morning I went on an orientation tour in a small bus with an estimated 10 or so others. I prefer to do things by myself normally but I boarded the "Chase 'n' Thyme" bus tour to get to know the general layout of the place and to have a greater background knowledge of LHI, and I am glad I did. Our driver and guide was a good-natured bloke named Peter who was originally from New Zealand but now considered himself a Lord Howe Islander. He told us he was able to live in LHI because he was lucky enough to have married a local girl.
They were a cheery lot on the bus. I first spoke to a nice friendly and noisy couple sitting behind me named Jim and Sue who I had met the night before. They were from Adelaide but originally from Pommieland. Jim, a 67 year old builder, spoke with a strong Manchester accent and Sue was originally from somewhere in the south of England.
After looking at the rest of the busload I was to find that despite the fact that I was only weeks away from my 62nd birthday at the time, I was the youngest person on the tour other than Peter, the driver.
After the fascinating and very enjoyable tour, we went to Peter’s place for a light feed, and I had an interesting yarn with his wife, Janine, a descendant of Nathan and Bogu Thompson, who told me the story of her ancestors. They also had a very entertaining border collie who reminded me of my poor old Narelle.
I had many walks and runs on LHI with the most interesting and enjoyable run being an easy one up a hill and trail referred to as the Malabar to Dawson's Point Ridge trail, (Malabar is the name of a plane that crashed there) which eventually leads to the far end of a beach where some of the first settlers lived. The settlers I refer to were 3 blokes named Ashdown, Bishop and Chapman and their Maori wives, their kids and a couple of brothers in law. They lived, farmed and supplied visiting whalers with basics and tucker.
I did not go up LHI's highest peak, Mt Gower, as going up there without an escort is prohibited and I prefer to do that sort of thing by myself.
The birdlife in LHI is beautiful to look at and listen to. I received enormous pleasure walking down the streets of LHI, where the trees meet overhead, and I made sure I walked at dawn and dusk, where I experienced loud and melodic choruses of birdsong. I focussed on the sound of the bird music and I let it vibrate through my body in rhythm with my steps. It produced in me a type of euphoria.
I was privileged to see several LHI woodhens, which are indigenous to the place. Their population got down to under 20 in the early 80's, but is now back to about 300. They were saved because feral pigs, goats and cats were eradicated from the island and the number of rats was reduced. The LHI woodhen is a small flightless bird of a similar size to a kiwi and resembles it in many ways, although its beak is not as long. I don't know if it's related to the kiwi and therefore I don't know if its similarity is a result of convergent or parallel evolution.
Below is a photo of a LHI woodhen.
LHI had no mammals until they were introduced by Europeans, other than a type of bat, and as the birds simply did not fear predators, both human non-human, because fear was not a necessary trait when there were no predators, they were particularly vulnerable.
LHI also has two species of tern, being the white tern and the sooty tern. Terns are always found in pairs because they say, “One good tern deserves another."
Above are LHI terns. As I have said, they are always found in pairs.
The most common tree on the island would be the kentia palm which is indigenous to the place. There are other interesting trees, such as one which may be a relative of the Morton Bay fig, which spreads its roots all over the place.
I can say unequivocally that LHI is my favourite inhabited place for a variety of reasons, which are, its vegetation, the quality of its air, its birdlife, its visual beauty, it being well cared for, and above all it having a very small permanent population and it taking in no more than 400 tourists at a time. All-in-all I found the general atmosphere of the place charged my metaphorical batteries.
For 5 of the 6 nights I was on LHI I ate at a restaurant called the Pandanus, and I experienced the most delicious squid I have ever eaten in my life, followed by fresh, tender and delicious LHI kingfish. I loved the LHI tucker, as there is nothing better than fresh seafood. By the time we get fish in the Berra it’s usually as old as me, and it's often as enjoyable to eat as a piece of leather.
I have given reasons as to why I am so fond of LHI, but what makes a place likeable or loveable is purely subjective. To explain in more detail, in the same way one person may find another particular person's physical beauty and/or personality pleasing and another person may have a diametrically opposed view of the same person, there is also nothing absolute when it comes to what makes one place preferable to another. Some people I have met have admitted to me that they like the centre of Sydney and they describe the place as being “vibrant," whereas I regard Sydney as one great big un-flushed toilet bowl.
Although I love LHI I met one young bloke there who probably could not wait to get out of the place. The lad in question had flown in with his work for a weekend for some reason. I met him when he approached Val, the lady who owned the Hideaway apartments, and asked her where the young people hang out. Val could not help him and I gave him less hope when I began laughing and told him that at almost 62 I was the youngest person on the bus tour I went on. If he thought he was going to get hold of some "ice" and go to an all-night disco he would have been bitterly disappointed. There are young people on the island and I’m sure they would meet up somewhere, but they are in the minority, and thankfully LHI has no nightclubs.
What I also liked about LHI was that there was not a hint of potential violence. It’s something I’m particularly sensitive to, as it’s all around us on the mainland, and on a few occasions within the last few years while simply walking by myself near my home, which is not in a particularly rough suburb of the Berra, I have had confrontations. But, in LHI I could feel none of it.
This could partly be explained by the fact that there are so many geriatrics there, but it could also be that on LHI you would be very unlikely to meet up with the criminally inclined, or those dependent on drugs other than alcohol. Virtually everyone who goes to the place for a visit would have some sort of regular income and would have enough control of their lives to have been able to raise the money to go there.
As far as the locals are concerned, there is no poverty because there is plenty of unskilled and skilled work available, although I didn't see any advertisements for nuclear physicists or glass blowers at their community notice board. There are also plenty of cashed-up tourists whose money is there for the taking should the locals wish to work for themselves. You would be very unlucky to be confronted by a desperate and disturbed person on LHI.
Of course the mainland of Australia could be almost as peaceful and pleasant as LHI if we were less materialistic, more egalitarian, ensured we had no net increase in our population, were more economically isolationist and the criminally inclined and mentally disturbed were dealt with humanely but appropriately. That however, will not happen within a democracy, as the majority of people are too stupid, too ignorant, too easily manipulated by those with capital, and too subservient to authority to decide what is in their own best interests. A totalitarian regime would be even worse.
When the time came to fly back to the Berra part of me wanted to stay on and enjoy the serenity and another part wanted to return to my family, but I had no real choice in the matter, so off I went. I did not enjoy the flight back because of my experience going there, but it was nice to get home to my family, including my poor old Narelle, who has since improved, but is still by no means 100%.
Narelle died in 2015. This essay was written in 2014.
In summary, would I recommend a trip to LHI?
That depends. If you are a young person who wants action I would give you a definite no, but if you enjoy natural beauty, exercise in fresh air, fishing, eating fresh seafood and resting your mind, there is no better place.
The negatives of going there however are:
1/It is expensive to eat out, and groceries are also very expensive.
2/You may have your flights cancelled going there or coming back because it's not unusual for the place to receive very windy weather. For this reason you should allow for that possibility and make sure you get travel insurance.
3/When flying in a privatised airline like Qantas there is in my opinion a greater chance of having an accident in a place like LHI, because with the pressure of having to make a profit I believe they will be more inclined to land when they should not. And as I have previously stated, I am also led to believe that since privatisation Qantas is less safe because the quality of their maintenance has supposedly deteriorated.
Personally speaking, I will return to LHI when I get the chance and I am glad it has the previously mentioned negatives, because they must deter people from going a second time, and as far as I'm concerned the less people that visit LHI the better.
In regard to the long term future of LHI, although I hope I'm wrong I can't see it being too bright. As I write there are only 400 visitors allowed in at one time, they are not clearing anymore land and landowners are only allowed to build on 15% of their land. If these policies continue LHI will be saved, but I can see pressure from greedy developers and crooked politicians preventing these policies continuing.
While I was sitting in the cafe in the LHI museum the day before I flew out I saw a big fat bloke about my age leaning over and talking to someone sitting at a table near me who looked suspiciously like Simon Crean. They were discussing LHI, and as he was leaving the latter's table I heard him say, "At least there's some development happening." I don't know who he was but he was probably a developer of some kind who could see himself making money if the place became a mini version of the Gold Coast.
It is because of people like him and the fact that the mainland of Australia is now overcrowded and becoming more so I can see the settlement on LHI expanding, more tourists being allowed in and it having more cars on its roads, which will destroy the place.
If you are contemplating visiting LHI I suggest you do so sooner than later.
I would like to thank my old cobber, Boomer, and his wife Rachael, for most of the photos in this yarn. They took them on their trip. I forgot to take my camera when I went. I should be given a name that is different to Billy Hunt.
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