Thursday, September 15, 2011

Howe's that?

Another episode in this year of travels (and it's not over yet).

Last week we were lucky enough to visit beautiful Lord Howe Island along with five students from Rosny College who were the winners of the Envirothon competition, run by The Bookend Trust. The students were there to enjoy themselves, learn about the island and help Jenn Lavers, a biologist who works on the local seabirds. We were there....... well, to help, and to visit a place that Jean and I have wanted to see for a long time.

LHI is nearly two hours flying time east of Sydney in a Dash 8 aircraft, which is how Jean and I got there. The students came more slowly in a smaller chartered plane from Hobart, with a couple of intermediate stops.

QantasLink Dash 8 at Lord Howe airstrip.
We were in Row 1 both ways!

The charter plane arrives at Lord Howe.
Head winds on the way, and on the way back.

The island is about 11 km long and nowhere much more than two kilometres wide. The west side is sheltered by the southern-most coral reef in the world, and the south end is dominated by two volcanic mountain peaks, Mounts Gower and Lidgbird, that attract the eye wherever you go. There are 300-odd residents, and tourist numbers are capped at 400 visitors at any time. About 20 km of roads support more bicycles than cars and the speed limit is 25 km/hr. It's a very pleasant environment.

The lagoon, the settlement and Mts Lidgbird and Gower.

The Admiralty Islands, from the north end of Lord Howe.

Birds everywhere, including many of these White Terns.
Definitely in my top ten most beautiful birds.

Main Street, Lord Howe.
So many cars!

Neds Beach dive hire.
No one there, just write your name and put the money in the box.

Lagoon boat.
This one took us snorkelling, and to see the turtles.

We stayed at Pinetrees, a lodge run by families that go back six generations on the island. They fed us superb food, obligingly (but slowly) drove us around in their minibus and packed a huge barbecue for our day out on the south end of the island. September is early in the season, but the weather was kind with blue skies and sun all week until the day we left.

Our unit at Pinetrees.

These hibiscus were to welcome us.

Ah, the food!
Fish every night, and this sushi table on Monday.

We walked the beaches and forests, watched birds, snorkelled in the lagoon, watched turtles through a glass-bottomed boat, watched the shearwaters come into their rookeries at dusk, and fed the huge fish at Ned's Beach.

The students at North Beach.
Needless to say, they had a great time.

Little Shearwater chick.

Big boy: a Providence Petrel chick.
Probably bigger than its parents at this stage.

Wonderful snorkelling, but a bit cool.

A glimpse through the glass-bottomed boat.

Feeding the fish at Neds Beach.
Hundreds of mullet, and huge kingfish.

Green Turtle, through the glass-bottomed boat.

Getting down and dirty.
Dissecting shearwaters, looking for ingested plastic.

Wrangling live shearwaters.
Handle with care: they bite!

Flesh-footed Shearwater.
Just landed and very approachable.

But the students were also there to take part in some research, so they helped to catch and weigh shearwaters, counted sprouting palm seedlings, dissected some dead seabirds to check for plastics in the stomachs, and we did our environmental bit by spending an afternoon pulling weeds in the forest.

Perhaps the two outstanding events were a boat trip around Ball's Pyramid, and the climb to the summit of Mt Gower. Ball's Pyramid is a 550 m sea stack that rises sheer out of the sea south of LHI. It's home to huge numbers of sooty terns, petrels, ternlets and other sea birds, also the "tree lobster", a sort of huge stick insect that was eliminated from LHI in the 1930s when rats finally arrived, but it (literally) clings on in weather-beaten scrub on the Pyramid. There's a plan to remove the rats from the main island, and if that is achieved the tree lobster will return!

Leaving for Ball's Pyramid.

Our destination, 23 km away, as we travel along the eastern shore of LHI.

Island legend, Jack, a relaxed helmsman.
This man has climbed Mt Gower over 1500 times!

Ball's Pyramid, 550 m high.

Approaching Mt Gower.
The summit is behind there somewhere.

Homeward across the lagoon.

We had perfect windless weather for the four hour boat trip. Since it was limited to 8 passengers, the rest of the group, including Jeannie, got a flight in the charter plane around the Pyramid and then back between the main island's twin peaks.

The charter plane, with Jeannie aboard, circles Ball's Pyramid.
Thanks to Ian Hutton for the photo.

All week I had been looking at Mt Gower (875 m) and wondering whether my knees would get me to the top. I knew that some sections required ropes, and from sea level some parts of the climb looked very steep and very exposed. It is only possible to climb the mountain with a guide and we were very ably led by Ian Hutton, a naturalist resident on the island who assured me that there would be very regular stops to look at interesting plants, and the view.

Ian Hutton, island naturalist, who enhanced our visit hugely.

7.30 am, at the start of the Mt Gower climb.
The first challenge was the upper strip of green under the cliffs.

The ledge was quite wide, and the ropes were a comfort.

Rounding the corner into Erskine Valley.
The mist cleared before we got up there.

Mt Lidgbird from the ridge up Mt Gower.
Not the steepest bit.

A long way down.
Ball's Pyramid in the distance.

The start of one of the steeper sections.

We made it!
The summit of Mt Gower.

The camera is pointing straight down!
On the way back down. Oh my knees.

In the event the climb was tough, but achievable. Going up was a grunt, and I was relieved to find that the steep sections were sheltered by the forest, so I wasn't hanging out over the Pacific Ocean. Coming down was harder and I suffered from Gower's Thighs for a couple days afterwards. But it was well worth the climb to see the cloud forest on the summit plateau and the views of the island. We also provided entertainment for many of the endemic currawongs who appeared wherever we stopped, sitting in the trees within arm's reach and eyeing our lunches.

Crafty currawong.
Another LHI endemic.

It's a wonderful island, and a conservation success story. All the cats, goats and pigs that once did so much harm have been removed, and if they can get rid of the rats several species can be re-introduced. The iconic species is the Lord Howe woodhen, a flightless rail that was down to 40-odd individuals confined to the summit of Mt Gower in the 1970s, but which is now so well recovered that you can meet them poking about (very tame) anywhere on the island.

Niall and Vicki and the Traveling Bears, on Transit Hill.

Now I just have to work out how we can afford to go back.