Island of palms and petrels
With its amalgam of coral-reef-fringed lagoon,gentle hills and high volcanic mountains, Lord Howe Island is considered by some the most beautiful island in the world. Its plants and animals bear intriguing similarities to those of New Zealand as well as showing affinities with those of the tropical Pacific and Australia. In recognition of its unique biota, Lord Howe was made a world Heritage site in 1982. But no paradise is without its problems, as these two conservation workers returning from laying rat poison atop one of the southern mountains can attest.
Six o’clock. News and weather time. I snap on the TV, only to find kids’ cartoons. Surely not even Australia screens cartoons at 6 P.M. Then I recall that time here runs half an hour ahead of the mainland, from which the TV signals flow. At 6.30 I try again. Still no luck. Later, I learn that the TV channel we receive comes from the Northern Territory, a place that marches to its own idiosyncratic beat. I never do figure out when to get the news. Time, like much else, is different on Lord Howe Island.
Outside the motel, a gale is blowing. Yesterday, winds gusted to over 100 km/h, but today they dropped sufficiently for the daily 30-seater aircraft to land and take off. I step out into the blustery night. No moon, no stars, no light from other dwellings flickers through the trees; no streetlights, no cars. Gingerly, I make my way along an invisible path towards a phone booth I noticed during the day. Its modest glow soon materialises through the trees, an isolated cubicle of civilisation in the violent dark. I dial my family in New Zealand and am told that it has been raining torrentially since my departure five days previously, and that many of our newborn lambs are dying as soon as they hit the mud.
As I stumble back through the storm, I realise that the wind we are experiencing on the island is coming from the backside of the same depression that is causing problems at home. It is a curious thought. I seem to have travelled a great distance to a place quite different from New Zealand, yet the same cauldron of abominable weather is spanning the gap.
I once saw a video that compressed six months of satellite weather pictures into 30 seconds. Australia was like an island in the middle of a river, splitting the torrent of weather that poured in from the west. Downstream, the divided streams collided, swirling turbulence over hapless New Zealand, a couple of pebbles in the flow. I thought that Lord Howe Island, only a third of the way across the Tasman from the Australian mainland, would be sheltered by the bulk of its neighbour. Not so. “We get storms and fronts sweeping up from Tassie all the time,” locals assured me. Their comments had a familiar ring.
Still, the rain, which seems to come in sudden, fierce bursts, is not persistent, and although locals mutter about the cold, the mercury falls no lower than 13°C. Given that this island is on a latitude that puts it north of the northern tip of the North Island by roughly the same distance that Cape Reinga is north of Auckland, you’d expect nothing less. Our Kermadec Islands are in some ways the New Zealand equivalent of Lord Howe, although Raoul Island is actually considerably further north—on the same latitude as Norfolk Island, which is 1000 km north-east of Lord Howe.
Lord Howe is administratively part of New South Wales, but in many ways it is a very un-Australian island. There are no eucalypts or acacias, no parrots, few reptiles and no possums, kangaroos, wombats or other marsupials. Paralleling the situation in New Zealand, the only native land mammal is a small, rare bat. There is a single species of skink, one gecko, large numbers of arthropods, including 100 species of spider (half of them endemic), and 70 species of land snail, most of them small and endemic. The native flora (241 species, 105 endemic) is predominantly drawn from the Australian mainland (mostly by wind spread), but also from New Caledonia and New Zealand. One other notable attribute is that Lord Howe possesses the southernmost coral reef in the world.
Lord Howe’s ecological problems are the problems of New Zealand: weeds (175 plant species have been introduced), mice, rats and, until recently, feral pigs and goats, these last eliminated with assistance from Prohunt, a Paeroa company. The island once had 15 species of land bird (13 endemic) but nine of these are now extinct, among them a flightless white rail similar to our pukeko and a pigeon resembling our kereru. About 150 species of seabird have been reported from Lord Howe, and while most of these are vagrants, 14 breed on the island, some in spectacular numbers. All this diversity is sustained on an island which, with a handful of nearby rocky islets, covers a mere 1500 ha, 10 km by no more than three—about half the size of Little Barrier Island.
The island was formed by undersea volcanic activity 7 million years ago, and is thought to have originally been about 30 km in diameter. Erosion has whittled away some 97 per cent of the original landmass, and by some estimates it will have claimed the residue in less than 200,000 years.
Lord Howe is the southernmost in a 1000 km-long chain of nine undersea volcanoes. Two hundred kilometres to the north lie Middleton and Elizabeth Reefs, now atolls but once volcanic islands formed as the Australian tectonic plate moved north over the same underlying hot spot which more recently gave rise to Lord Howe. (The Hawaiian islands have formed in a similar way.) Lord Howe’s distinctive natural history resulted in the island being declared a World Heritage site in 1982.
Ramblin’ Ronnie (Ron Matthews)—mid-60s, slightly unkempt, with shorts, a stout stick and a genial manner—conducts walking and talking tours of the central section of the island. While our party—a handful of middle-aged Australians and me, the sole New Zealander—chews on the sweets he hands round, he points out features of the island’s geology from a lookout on Clear Place Point.
Lord Howe is crudely bow-shaped, with the coral reef the bowstring, protecting the west coast within its lagoon. The eastern side has no such barrier and is much wilder and rockier. The island can be divided into three sections. Largest (and youngest) is the southern region, dominated by two very steep, high volcanic massifs. The island’s midriff (where settlement is concentrated) is low, with just a smattering of gentle hills. At the northern end is an outcrop of hills up to 200 m high covered by scrubby bush.
Our jaunt started in the grounds of Lord Howe’s three-bed hospital, close to the lagoon. From there Matthews led us up to low cliffs overlooking the east coast, where we viewed a huge banyan tree. Banyans, a type of ornamental fig (see New Zealand Geographic, No. 35), are the largest trees on Lord Howe. Some are reported to cover a hectare. But they cheat a fair bit. Huge, sprawling boughs send down vertical supporting columns that produce roots and so become additional trunks. One tree may have a dozen trunks. In a banyan grove it becomes impossible to determine where one tree starts and another stops.
Somehow I find banyans decadent trees. They have entirely abandoned that great arboreal imperative of reaching for the sky. Not for them the glorious soaring trunks of kahikatea or redwood. Instead, they have become detestable land-grabbers.
Matthews breaks into my musing with a snippet of lore: “On the mainland, aborigines use the white, sticky sap from figs to attach small feathers to stingless native bees, so they can follow them back to their hives more readily and raid the honey.”
Lord Howe’s forests offer much more than banyans to tantalise the botaniser. One 15 m tree with a trunk over half a metre thick is identified by Matthews as sallywood, Lagunaria patersonia, known in New Zealand as Norfolk Island hibiscus and widely grown as an ornamental. One near my home has been a bushy 5 m shrub for the past decade; I never suspected it was capable of becoming a worthwhile tree. Then there is Macropi per, which we in New Zealand call kawakawa or native pepper, over here known as kava, a shrub with glossy heart-shaped leaves. The Lord Howe species is a subspecies of our own.
The familiar New Zealand genera Coprosma, Pittosporum, Myoporum (ngaio), Melicope (wharangi), Melicytus (mahoe), Pimelia, Mueblenbeckia, Clematis, Corokia and Olearia (tree daisies) all have representatives on Lord Howe. Pisonia brunoniana (parapara), a New Zealand species with an unsavoury reputation on account of its sticky seeds, which can trap small birds, is also here. The endemic Lord Howe silvereye may be a victim.
Few of the more substantial trees have a New Zealand connection. There is a Dysoxylum, similar to our kohekohe, a rare Elaeocarpus (hinau) and a tree they call blackbutt—a distant relation to our taraire. Lignum vitae is the common name for a member of the kowhai genus with very hard wood. Greybark, blue plum, maulwood, cottonwood and hotbark are all larger endemic forest trees on Lord Howe. Conspicuously absent are the podocarpstotara, kahikatea, matai, miro, rimu—and beeches that are so important in New Zealand forests.
Despite a pretty respectable rainfall (1660 mm annually), the forest has a dry, open aspect, and it is easy to walk through—quite unlike the jungly New Zealand bush, choked with tangles of fern, fallen branches, kiekie and supplejack. An abundance of slender, 10 m-tall palms on Lord Howe means there are fewer branches to be shed, and dry palm fronds are easy to walk over, and probably suppress undergrowth.
While I’ve been absorbed in plants, Ramblin’ Ronnie has pulled a hatchet from his pack and whacked open a fallen palm trunk, exposing two or three obscenely large witchetty grubs, larvae of a 6 cm-long longicorm beetle. Immediately, a greedy-eyed Lord Howe currawong (a blacker version of the magpie) materialises and boldly gulps one down. Then another. But it cogitates for a while before tackling a third. Each grub is the size of a chipolata. I suspect that this particular bird obtains a lot of sustenance from Matthews.
Someone asks about the red tape around a few of the palm trunks. “It marks the position of poison bait stations for rats,” Ron explains. Rats arrived on the island from a shipwreck in 1918 and have been a problem ever since. In the 1920s, a bounty was paid for tails, and they became a form of currency, even appearing in church collection plates. There were rumours that local women were breeding rats as a source of extra income.
“We are still trying to get rid of them,” says Matthews, “but nowadays we use Warfarin rather than bounties.”
We pass a scruffy paddock separated from the bush by a couple of electrified wires. In an ancient shed, a man is hand-milking a cow. Most, if not all, island milk comes from similar operations.
“We call it up-to-your-neck milk,” grins Matthews. “Think about it. It’s not `passed your eyes’!” All around the central part of the island are small plots grazed by a few docile cattle, perhaps a hundred animals in total. They are also the island’s beef supply.
A day or two later, while perusing the Lord Howe Island Act (1953)—the document that dictates how things are to be done on the island—I am bemused to discover that kikuyu grass is on the list of noxious plants. Every paddock on the island contains little but kikuyu, and without it there would be a lot of hungry cattle.
A battle lost to a weed? If so, it is a rare victory for the forces of ecological darkness on the island. In other ways, Lord Howe is a model of environmental propriety. Not much of the forest has been destroyed, and the numbers of both residents and visitors are regulated. Pigs, goats and cats—apart from a single, elderly, neutered pet—have been eradicated, and waste and pollution issues are being addressed in creative ways. As on most islands, there have been extinctions of land birds—here caused by hunting rather than predators—but there have also been some major conservation victories.
Fifth-generation islander Clive Wilson takes me to view two of these successes. Beyond the end of the regular road, we head down a narrow track towards Little Island, near the southern end of Lord Howe. Little Island is not an island at all, but a cottage-sized mass of rock on the shore that has been dislodged from the sheer wall of Mt Lidgbird above. Wind is tearing off the sea in ferocious gusts, and within the lagoon behind us squalls are hammering great sheets of water into the air, flinging it about as salty rain. It seems inconceivable that the tall spindly palms about us can withstand the gale, but, bending and flailing, they hold their ground. Above them, out to sea and high up against the basalt cliffs, hundreds of grey birds wheel in the wind. These are providence petrels, one of the island’s conservation success stories.
Suddenly, Wilson cups his hands around his mouth, throws back his head and lets out a prolonged blood-curdling whoop. His action is the more surprising since Wilson is by no means young—perhaps the long side of 70. Undeterred by the clamour of the storm, he keeps on hollering. After about 10 minutes, a slightly puzzled-looking bird crashes down through the trees to land beside us, and Wilson gently picks it up. Although it shows a half-hearted interest in pecking his hand, it is surprisingly relaxed about the change in its circumstances. The bird is dark grey, with black eyes and beak, a little larger than a seagull.
“The providence petrel used to breed on Norfolk Island as well as here,” Wilson tells me, “but it was wiped out there by 1800, hunted to extinction when supplies of other food ran low. That’s how it got its name.”
Until recently, providence petrels continued to breed only on Lord Howe, but recently a few breeding birds have been discovered on Phillip Island, one of Norfolk Island’s offshore islets. Until 15 years ago it was restricted to the inaccessible tops of Mts Gower and Lidgbird by the ravages of wild pigs. “Now the pigs have gone, the petrels are breeding right down to sea level,” says Wilson.
As if to underscore his words, another bird crashes down nearby and disappears into a well-camouflaged burrow. The species breeds during winter. Days are spent foraging at sea, nights ashore in burrows where eggs are being incubated. As the gloom of dusk deepens, the number of birds landing increases. Just how they know where to land so as to be close to their burrows is a mystery, especially once darkness falls.
Providence petrels are not the only birds we have come to see. Clive fishes out a jar of witchetty grubs and ambles back along the track, calling loudly as if summoning an errant pet for its dinner. Sure enough, within minutes a couple of inconspicuous shadows slink from the undergrowth and warily take the handout of grubs. They are woodhens, very similar to our weka in appearance. Flightless and readily taken by man and introduced predators, woodhens declined from abundant to rare well before 1900. By 1970, fewer than two dozen birds survived—again, restricted to the summits of Mts Gower and Lidgbird.
Glen Fraser, a New Zealander, was brought to the island to start a captive-breeding programme with three pairs of woodhens in 1980, and over the next three years 92 young were produced and released. There are now thought to be about 200 birds on the island, probably close to the maximum population possible, for the male birds aggressively defend their 3 ha territories, and not all the island is suitable habitat. Woodhens are now to be found even in the settled part of the island.
Not that the settled part of the island looks especially domesticated. Dismiss any notion of a New Zealand beach resort, with dense ranks of baches, or the palaces of a more upmarket development. You can cycle the entire 11 km of road and still miss the main settlement. Most houses and accommodation lodges are set back in the bush and are only dimly apparent. The central business district consists of a hall, post office, visitor centre, power station and three very modest shops, the largest a small general store with a banking facility in the back. Rarely are more than a couple of cars in view. On the other hand, bicycles are big on Lord Howe. Helmets are mandatory, although seat belts in cars are not. There is a speed limit of 25 km/h, and no car accidents have occurred on the island in recent memory.
Yet cars are not without controversy. Although the Lord Howe Island Board must approve every new vehicle brought onto the island, there are still about 150 among the island’s 350 residents. In a recent letter to the local newspaper, one visitor who had been coming to the island for 60 years complained that “the most beautiful island in the world” was being spoiled by bitumen and motorcars. “For the total length of useable roads,” the writer declared, “Lord Howe Island must have the highest density of vehicles of any island, anywhere.”
Cars are just one facet of the debate over development on the island. In 1953, the Lord Howe Island Act set the number of tourist accommodation beds at 393, and there it has remained, shared among 17 guesthouses. Yet tourism—perhaps 12,000 visitors annually—is the lifeblood of the island, and many residents want the bed number increased.
Although the number of residents is not regulated directly, there are indirect controls. All land is owned by the state, which has issued perpetual leases on blocks up to 2 ha to islanders for residences. At present, no further leases are being given out—stocks of suitable land in the settlement area are exhausted—and there is a moratorium on subdivision of existing leases. All aspects of development are currently under review by the board.
“It is difficult for the children of islanders to return here,” Judy Riddle, one of three elected island residents on the five-person Lord Howe Island Board, explains to me. “Most do their primary schooling on the island, then go elsewhere for secondary education. Eventually, many want to return, and as islanders they have that right, but where can they live apart from with relatives? Leases come up for sale at the rate of about one a year.”
It is even more difficult for an outsider to acquire property. Only after a property has been offered to all islanders at government valuation can it be sold to a non-islander, and that person must then occupy it for six months a year. Islanders used to be those born on the island, although these days expectant mothers are flown to the mainland and a pink or blue nappy denoting gender is flown from the board’s flagpole to celebrate each new birth. Since 1981, ten years of residence on the island confers islander status.
Although the strictures may be irksome, they are understandable. Sandy Beaumont, who runs the visitor centre, comments: “Too many additional residents would put pressure on the island’s resources. They would need water, produce sewerage and rubbish, want more shops, probably want a car. Some people would like more nightlife than the bowling club offers and would even welcome a supermarket. They don’t realise that all those sorts of things would just make us less distinctive, more like the mainland.”
Three hundred and fifty residents and a similar number of visitors already produce a fair amount of rubbish each day, and the issue of how to handle it has exercised inhabitants of the island over the past few years. The old system consisted of a large steel mesh crate behind a relatively remote stretch of beach, in which everything flammable was burned by board staff. Most of the noncombustible rubbish was buried in trenches nearby, although some inorganic material was sent back to Australia for recycling.
It was a simple solution, but some wondered about the propriety of burning rubbish, especially plastics, in a World Heritage area, and others feared that the buried items—including food remains from the guesthouses—were contaminating both groundwater and the lagoon. Rainwater from roofs constitutes the main source of potable water on the island, but when visitor numbers are high and rain infrequent over summer, groundwater may be drawn upon. Septic tanks, the island’s main form of sewage disposal, are also major contaminators of groundwater.
Board staff wondered whether there might be some better method of addressing all these environmental problems, and in 1997, federal and state governments were persuaded to fund a million-dollar biowaste facility for the island. Willson Brown & Associates of Auckland won the contract to install the system. At the time of my visit the new facility was being officially opened, although it was only partially functional.
Built on the site of the old tip, the new VCU (vertical composting unit) consists of a 6 m-high tank into which is fed a soup of minced food scraps, paper fibre and septic-tank material. Waste takes 14 to 28 days to descend the VCU and is drawn off at the bottom as a friable sweet-smelling compost ready for use as a potting mix or soil conditioner. Four tonnes of waste a day can be handled, but four tonnes a week is a more likely load at current population levels.
“By examining what rubbish people were unloading at the tip, we worked out that all but 14 per cent of the island’s waste could be either composted or recycled,” Anne Prince, a Sydney consultant who had been heavily involved in the project, enthused during her speech at the opening. “That is 173 tonnes of the 200 tonnes of waste generated annually, excluding sewage. We believe this is an unprecedented waste treatment level for any developed island.”
Along with the VCU, a new recycling and waste minimisation programme has been introduced, with locals being charged if they don’t separate food scraps from paper and recyclables. A 50 cent levy has been imposed on plastic shopping bags, and shops, shippers and importers are being encouraged to forsake plastic packaging in favour of paper and cardboard, which can be composted.
Still in the offing are the establishment of a food co-operative to purchase bulk food from the mainland (in part to reduce the importation of plastic-packaged consumer packs) and the introduction of collapsible, reusable shipping containers to reduce the use of protective plastic wrapping on cargo. One of the more exclusive lodges has replaced its fleet of luxury vans with rather spartan electric cars and solar panels have also been installed on some homes and the airport terminal.
Lord Howe Island’s first settlers, three Englishmen and their Maori wives, came from New Zealand in 1834. Prior to that date, whalers had regularly called at the island since its discovery by HMS Supply in 1788. The ship’s commander, Lt Henry Lidgbird Ball, named the island for the First Lord of the Admiralty, and gave his own name to a mountain and an islet.
In 1841, the three original families sold out to some Australians, who encouraged more settlers in succeeding years. Many of today’s families can trace their ancestry back to the Thompson family, who came to the island in the 1850s.
Early life was hard, with settlers dependent on selling local commodities—such as mutton bird feathers for stuffing mattresses—to passing whaling boats. Consideration was also given to using the island as a penal colony or quarantine station, but these schemes came to nought.
When whaling ceased in the 1870s, life grew even tougher. Relief came from an unexpected quarter. During the 19th century, it had become fashionable for affluent Europeans to grow exotic plants, and one of the most popular became the Lord Howe Island thatch palm, also known as the kentia palm. It was attractive, hardy, and found only on Lord Howe. Collecting and exporting seed brought a gradual prosperity to the island, and today the industry is one of the financial mainstays of the island board, and provides useful income and employment to a number of islanders. Many harvest seed each autumn, selling it to the board’s nursery, which exports seedlings.
Larry Wilson, a member of another of the island’s prolific founding families, is a quiet, compact man who has managed the board’s palm operations for years. “About nine million kentia palms are sold annually. They are the world’s most popular indoor palm,” he tells me. “Two or three million of them come from here, but they are now also grown on Norfolk Island, in New South Wales, and a few in the USA. We send most of our plants to Holland, where we have been dealing with the one family of buyers for 40 years, and a minority go to Japan and the USA. From Holland they are distributed throughout Europe.”
Seeders, as the collectors are known, bring sacks of the date-sized fleshy red seeds to the nursery, where they are fumigated, dried (to improve germination) and planted. Most seedlings germinate after eight months, and are airfreighted as bare-rooted plantlets. They take a further two years to reach 1.5 m in height, and interior landscapers love them because they can handle bad air, low light, air conditioning and dry soil and still look great.
Outside the nursery I meet the main seeder, Rex Byrne, a lithe individual who has been a full-time gatherer for about 14 years. “I’m just a blow-in,” he admits cheerfully. “Came over in a 19 ft yacht solo from Brisbane years ago and liked the place.”
Byrne can shinny up a 10 m palm in seconds. Getting the long stalks of seeds takes a minute, and then comes a descent which makes a fireman coming down a pole look staid. There is a strong smell of hot rubber. Byrne gives a modest smile, and shows me his climbing gear. There is not much to it. His boots have slabs of motorcycle tyre cemented to their sides. “The brand of tyre is real important,” he grins, “but even so they don’t last too long.” The rubber pads provide traction on the way up and braking for the descent. He also has a short, tough strap that he wraps around his boots to stop his feet splaying too far apart.
Climbing is accomplished by pushing up with the feet, hanging on with the arms, then pushing up again, but it happens so fast that it’s hard to see exactly what is taking place. It must be strenuous work, although Byrne makes it look effortless. I ask how many palms he climbs a season—March to July. He doesn’t have a clue, but says that early in the season you have to climb 15 to 20 trees to a get a bushel of seed, and late in the season, when there is less seed about, maybe 50 trees. That many trees may take three hours or more to harvest. Last year he brought in a quarter of the island’s 1000-bushel harvest, which could mean 7000 or more ascents. Seeders earn an average of $150 per bushel, and more for seed from the less accessible parts of the island.
There are actually four species of endemic palm on Lord Howe, but few seedlings from the other three are sold. Two of these species are confined to higher altitudes on the southern mountains, where, along with a suite of other plants that flourish in a cooler, wetter environment, they make up a distinctive “goblin” forest. The summit of Mt Lidgbird is small and off-limits to visitors, but locals regularly escort parties of visitors up Mt Gower.
I decide to put an ascent on my agenda, but since Mt Gower is considered a tough climb, I get in a little training. Each day I puff my way up Malabar, a 207 m hill at the north end of the island. The forest in this area has a scrubby aspect. One of the commonest plants is akeake, Dodonea viscosa, a shrub well known in New Zealand. From a distance the hillsides look exactly like those you might see in northern New Zealand, say around Te Paki, with the same windswept, twiggy look, but the constituent species are unfamiliar.
By the time I get to the top of Malabar, I’m a sweaty wreck, and am less than sanguine about the thought that Mt Gower is four-and-a-half times higher. I stare out to sea in the direction of Norfolk Island, which, though 1000 km away, is the nearest thing Lord Howe has to a neighbouring island.
There are affinities between the biota of the two islands as well as between their human inhabitants. Both islands have a strong heritage of independence, and some intermarriage has taken place. Norfolk, which was the site of early penal settlements, was abandoned, then in 1856 given by Britain as a larger home to the Pitcairn Islanders, has some measure of self-government. Australia claims the territory as its own, but the Pitcairn descendants maintain that they are not Australians. Although a little larger than Lord Howe, Norfolk has been much more modified by human occupation (it has 2000 inhabitants) and the topography is gentler.
There is nothing gentle about the back of Malabar. At my feet almost sheer basalt cliffs—home to dozens of nesting tropic birds in summer—fall 200 in to the waves. I head west along the ridge to Kim’s Lookout, and then descend a many-stepped track to North Bay.
It is low tide when I reach the beach, so I explore the reef which makes landfall here. Underfoot the going is very rough, with many irregular blocks of basalt and calcarenite (an unusual sedimentary rock formed from coral and calcareous grit) interspersed with chunks of long-dead coral.
Relatively little grows on top of the rocks. The commonest seaweed is a Caulerpa, which resembles bunches of small, green grapes. Underneath the larger rocks is an array of encrusting organisms not dissimilar to what one would encounter in northern New Zealand—sponges, ascidians, bryozoans, tube worms and the rest. Large brittle stars and colourful small fish make speedy exits. Several species of sea urchin, one
with whitish-grey spines and another with 20 cm needle-sharp black spines, radiate menace. A handsome gastropod, related to our cat’s eye but 75 mm across, a 20 cm red sea slug and a few smallish giant clams remind me that I am in waters somewhat warmer than New Zealand’s. But as for live coral, I see not a skerrick.
One small gastropod, Hinea brasiliana, which is a rarity in northern New Zealand, proves common on the beach here, and is the only marine species I immediately recognise as common to Lord Howe and home. This strikes me as curious. Many marine creatures have long-lived
larval stages which could be wafted to northern New Zealand by trans-Tasman currents, yet there seem to be greater similarities among terrestrial organisms, which should have found it more difficult to bridge the gap.
A good example lies on the beach at my feet: shells of the large terrestrial flax snail Placostylus, washed down to the shore by a flood. These snails are found in northern New Zealand, New Caledonia, parts of Melanesia, and Lord Howe (but not mainland Australia). Their eggs are like a small bird’s egg, and the creature roams over just a few metres per year. Placostylus can spread only via land connections, so how did it get here? I have no idea.
Next day, cruising the lagoon in Dean Hiscox’s glass-bottomed boat, there is coral aplenty to admire, some of it disconcertingly close to our fragile hull.
“See those fish down there?” says Hiscox, pointing beyond the gorgeous surge wrasse and peculiar double headers. “We call them ‘neighbour fish.’ If you arc unlucky enough to catch one, give it to your neighbour to eat. They feed on large algae and taste strongly of iodine.”
Although most of the lagoon is only 1-3 in deep, there are a few deeper pockets, which are particularly rich in marine life. Several on the boat don wet suits and dive overboard to explore one of these areas, while an assistant feeds broken sea urchins to greedy fish beneath the glass floor. A couple of large rays lie cryptic on the bottom, clearly visible 6 m down in the transparent water, and empty heart-urchin shells look to be 150 mm long—three times the size of the New Zealand species.
More than 500 fish species, 235 varieties of algae, 83 corals and 65 species of echinoderm have been recorded in the island’s waters—an astonishing diversity for such a tiny island. A mingling of warm waters from Queensland with cooler water from further south is probably responsible. In 1999, a marine park was established around the island in recognition of its uniqueness.
Australian marine parks are not equivalent to New Zealand marine reserves.
Each park is zoned for a variety of uses, from commercial fishing at one end of the scale to complete “hands-off” protection at the other. There are actually two separate protected areas around Lord Howe: a New South Wales park out to 3 nautical miles, and a Commonwealth (federal) protected area out to 12 nautical miles, which may yet be extended further. Nobody seems to know what protection the Commonwealth zone affords, because it allows commercial fishing. There is little serious commercial fishing around the island, although sport fishing is popular with visitors and the lodges catch what they need to feed their guests.
Neds Beach, outside the lagoon on the eastern side of the island, is one place where fishing is already prohibited. Every afternoon at 4.30, Brian Simpson, an elderly man straight out of a Mainland cheese advertisement, steps from his little 4WD with a couple of buckets of food scraps, plonks down a sign which reads fish feedind in progess and wades into the sea. He stops shin-deep and starts casting handfuls of bread upon the water, whereupon the sea boils with fish fighting for a handout.
Removing my shoes, like the six other spectators, I paddle out into a few centimetres of water—and hundreds of fish. As each wavelet sucks out, I feel scaly bodies pressing against the backs of my calves. Most are foot-long sand mullet, but just a little further out—in less than half a metre of water—are plenty twice that length. Just beyond those are even larger fish, their fins and tails regularly breaking the surface—big king fish.
Now Simpson is passing out slices of ham, and the kingfish lunge right in, snatching morsels from his fingers. These forays cause panic among the smaller fish, which rush en masse almost onto the beach. Some of the spectators seem to have misgivings too, for the kingfish are 1.5 m long and fatter than a football. Wouldn’t fresh calf be as appetising to them as cooked pork?
Simpson has been feeding fish for 20 years, “but I took over from another guy,” he says. “Fish have been fed here for 50 years, I reckon. Seven or eight species come, but the kingfish are new. Two of them turned up seven years ago, and they are still here, but now others come also.”
Neds Beach sports a roomy pavilion with picnic tables, a poster on fish identification and snorkelling gear for hire. Wetsuits, flippers, masks, snorkels and spy boards—paddle boards with a glass window—are all available on an honesty-box system. Lord Howe boasts no crime at all. Cars and houses are never locked, and your credit card and cash are safe all day on the bedroom dresser. That’s what I have been told. So I am surprised one day to spot a snazzy little 4WD outside the bank with POLICE emblazoned all over it. What does a policeman do on an island with no crime?
Following the street signs, I cycle around to police headquarters, a locked garage at the bottom of a garden. “Everything OK?” a voice calls, and I follow it to a barefoot middle-aged man seated on a deck. John Gerits doesn’t accept that an absence of crime implies a cushy job. “I represent the waterways authority, I inspect and license commercial boats and make sure they don’t exceed their stated capacities. I am the customs agent and check the dozens of yachts and planes that call in. I keep an eye on vehicle registrations and certificates of fitness, give driving lessons, administer licence tests and ensure the law is observed in lots of areas. Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I’m taking my father-in-law to the plane.”
I wonder whether, like board employees, the policeman starts work at seven o’clock and finishes at three. Many islanders have several jobs. Dean Hiscox, the board’s chief ranger, operates the glass-bottomed boat. Jim Dorman runs the museum, but also Heritage House, bush walks and a courier service, and is an agent for electric cars. Clive Wilson controls the port and radio communications and operates wildlife tours.
Peter Phillipps, a New Zealander married to a local, is the postmaster, but his passion is aircraft. Models festoon the post office. When I meet him he is busy repainting half of the premises as a cafe. “It’s going to be The Plane Crazy Cafe, and I’ll put all my models in here,” he
says. Peter also spends two days a week doing conservation work, rooting out kikuyu and establishing native plants. Occasionally a group of Lord Howe enthusiasts comes over from the mainland to assist.
The day of the Mt Gower ascent dawns, and the two members of the rat-control team I am to accompany pick me up before 7 A.M. Bouncing around on the flat tray of their ute is pretty chilly before sun-up, even at only 25 km/h. But as soon as Chris Haselden and Mark Thompson take their first few steps, I know I am in for much worse. Those steps are fast and long. I’m not averse to walking fast and long on a flat surface, but this is over boulders.
When we come to a steep hillside a few minutes later, they just slip into “4WD” and power on up. Somehow I have misplaced the shifter, and within seconds I am puffing hard enough to blow the person in front of me off the mountain—except that that person is barely in sight.
Periodically they pause to let me catch up, and after we have been going for two hours, Haselden lets slip that his fastest time to the top is an hour and a quarter, and the record for the round trip an hour and a half. They helpfully mention that a guy with an artificial leg has made it, and also an 85-year-old. I’m more concerned to know who was the youngest to die of exhaustion.
We reach the top half an hour later, just as a fine drizzle sets in. The rat team loads up with poison and sets about refilling bait stations while I watch a pair of biologists from the park service retrieve a providence petrel chick from a burrow. They have been living on the mountain top for five days in a fibreglass dome. For most of their stay it has been cold (up here temperatures can drop to 3°C) and damp (the top of Mt Gower is generally in cloud). Mud cakes both men’s parkas. Abundant bird diggings have left the forest floor sticky and bare, largely bereft of regenerating vegetation.
Now one of the pair is lying on his belly in the mud, his arm down a burrow. Carefully, he extracts a fluffy grey ball and his companion weighs it. Although no more than three days old, the chick is already a handful, and has put on a remarkable 40 g since the previous day’s weigh-in. The biologists are trying to establish the chief causes of death among petrel chicks. Earlier that morning they witnessed at least two predators at work: a woodhen and a currawong dismembering chicks.
The forest up here is quite different from the vegetation lower down. The canopy is only a metre or two above head level, and there are many more ferns. Kentias are replaced by two other species of palm. One of these, the big mountain palm (Hedyscepe canterburyana), bears fruit the size and colour of ripe tamarillos. Small ponga-like tree ferns appear, as do two Metrosideros (rata) species. There is an attractive Leptospermum (teatree), some shrubby Olearias and quite a bit of Dracophyllum (neinei), a plant I always associate with subalpine scrub in New Zealand. The only species of Carrnichaelia (a broom) to be found outside of New Zealand also grows here, together with a mass of less familiar endemic plants.
Cloud obstructs the view most of the time, but I manage a glimpse of Balls Pyramid, a 550 m-high shark fin of basalt 23 km south-east of Lord Howe—another fragment of the volcano which formed the main island.
Descending the rocks of the mountain—even using the ropes that have been fixed to aid progress—proves even harder on the legs than did the ascent. Before the track forsakes the main ridge for the forest, we pause and look back up the island. In the foreground is the neighbouring peak of Mt Lidgbird, from this angle a narrow spire of rock connecting forest and cloud. Beyond lies the turquoise lagoon and the misty hills of the north, all just a cusp of land in an infinite and unsympathetic ocean.
Although I have seen many of New Zealand’s precious island reserves, Lord Howe seems a more complete microcosm, from coral reef to quasisubalpine goblin forest. Words from Anne Prince come back to me: “If you want to save the world, where better to start than with Lord Howe?”