Lord WOW Howe Island

April 2018

This could just be the most beautiful place I have ever seen. An unusual combination of Tahiti, Fiji, Hawaii and Australia.

An island seemingly stuck in the past on purpose. 

The island is immaculately cared for, the local residents clearly aware of the unique place they have the privilege to live on. Residency doesn’t come easy, most of the 380 permanent residents have been here for a very long time, there is a transient working population that have temporary accomodation, however long term residency is based on land or business ownership. Marriage seems to be a common answer to the “how did you end up on the island? “ question. 

The islands entire economy is based on tourism and they do it well! The township is very spread out, with a small concentration on the west coast facing the lagoon supporting water or land based tours. These small businesses all work out of sheds on the beach, giving the township a very laidback country feel.

We find ourselves directed towards Wilsons hire, just a short walk down the main road where we hire bikes for our stay. Macca hires out all modes of transport and has over 300 bikes for hire. It transpires he also organises fishing charters, fuel deliveries, snorkelling gear and bait. (We head back to him constantly over the next month, for any unusual query that we have - “can we buy marine ply?” - “I know a few people, give me a day or two” is the frequent response)

Most businesses on Lord Howe are like this, a veritable plethora of ‘jack of all trades’ in unexpected combinations.

The Anchorage (local cafe) also sells internet, fresh bread, random fruit and vegetables and turns into the only bar in the evening. 

With bikes at our disposal we set out exploring this magical place. Each road surprising us with its increasing beauty. We actually start to laugh as we come around each turn, it is just that ridiculously pretty. 

Our initial ride takes us simply up and down the west coast, past the museum, police station, hospital, local school and administration building (which doubles as the liquor store - see I told you - weird combinations)

Many of the accomodation options are well hidden behind the immaculately kept landscape and most offer dinner options. We are kept amused by the randomness of days that many of the restaurants are open, it almost seems like a Monty Python skit. Mondays and Friday nights with a fish buffet on Sunday - Blue Moon resort, Arajilla offers dinners all nights, the Golf Club offers up a bar and dinners on the nights that it runs competitions (still not quite sure what those nights are), and the list continues.  

 

Our entertainment continues with signs such as:

  • All welcome for rugby 4pm Tuesday and Thursday.  

  • Garage sale at Amy’s (apparently everyone knows where Amy lives as that information is not included on the sign).

  • Community market on this Sunday from 10.30 to 2.3o, no idea where, but no doubt someone will point us in the right direction.

  • Thorngate Farm open 8-9am, sells market garden produce (also provides the public internet for the island and at a push will sell you fuel)

 

We quickly discover the steepness of the island as we ride up the main street to get to the other side, where there is larger shop to provision from “Joys”, Joys it would appear has a great selection  but not a lot of joy, man she is one grumpy lady. After a few minor purchases we depart speechless at the $91.15 price tag for one small bag of groceries. Yeah, I get it, it takes a lot of effort to get items out to the island, but still!! 

Getting groceries back to the boat is via bike, some days I feel like a farm girl, others an idiot as I drop the bike unexpectedly and break 6 out of the 12 eggs.

Access to the island for us is by our tender, Lil’LY. It is about a 5 minute ride in through crystal clear waters in an amazing lagoon, on the lucky days we spot a turtle or a few larger fish. On unlucky days it is rough and we get soaking wet. We drag the tender up on the beach usually with a few words of disagreement as to whether the tide is coming in or out (coming in we need to drag the tender way up the beach and she is HEAVY, tide going out we leave her on the waters edge knowing that she will be high and dry when we get back).

Island life is amazingly laid back, the days start slowly with an extensive conversation (read hours) as to what should we do today. Given the amazing weather at the moment Jamie and I are both keen to get into the water and do a test dive on our new dive gear. As with all things boat, it takes an enormous effort to pull out the compressor, assemble all the dive gear and get it set up and into the dinghy. We toddle over to the closest public mooring (we could almost swim there) and I backwards roll into the water - probably not the best idea as I barely miss scraping my head on the coral. Probably should have checked the depth first as it is only 2 metres (rookie mistake), I bob quickly back up to the surface and warn Jamie just to slide in.  

The water clarity is amazing and there are a decent amount of fish and hard coral varieties but the water being so shallow makes for a ‘bouncy’ dive and we soon get frustrated and head back to Lil’LY. Getting out of the water normally onto an inflatable is difficult, increase that difficulty by 10 when you are wearing weighted dive gear. Luckily for me Jamie is around to assist dragging the gear back up. We quickly work out a system of pulling the weights out of the BCD pockets and tossing them into the boat, then clipping the dive gear onto the ropes on the side. With the dive gear secured and not able to float away we can get into the boat and then unclip the gear and drag it in. When I say we, I really mean Jamie as it is a heavy and awkward lift.

Discussions on the way back to Lukim Yu centre around catching up with the locals at the dive shop to get better intel on the local dive sites.

Loving our time here with our amazing friends Tiff and Dave, Tiffany having flown in two days after we arrived. Lots of fishing and surfing for Dave, laid back dinners, French champagne  (thanks Tiff), trivial pursuit rematches and more. 

Most nights we sit on the back of the boat transfixed by amazing sunsets framed by the dramatic landscapes of the island.

 

We make friends with SV Blanchette moored next to us, 2 Canadian guys both called Dave, taking our Dave total to 3. To avoid confusion we name them no fish Dave (that’s our Dave), Island Dave (he owns and lives on an island called Blanchette, hence the name of the boat, it belongs to him and his wife) and Shark Shorts Dave - he was wearing these cool shark shorts when we met. Days of  dinners, golf and general mayhem ensue until the boys eventually leave heading to New Zealand. I’d usually say fair winds and following seas here but we’ve kept up to date with their passage and although they have arrived safely they had 40-50kn winds and huge seas. All in all a terrible passage…….

Tiff and Dave leave after too short a visit, leaving Jamie and I to continue to explore the island……… bye for now

One of our (many) motivations for cruising is diving. In a previous life we taught diving all the way through to professional levels (i.e we taught people how to teach people to dive), and we owned and operated 2 dive stores in Adelaide (a very unprofitable portion of our lives).

One of the big attractions of Lord Howe Island was the World Heritage listed marine park. We hadn’t done a lot of research prior to our arrival, however what little we had done built up quite high expectations.

In general Jamie and I have 2 main needs when diving, warm clear water and interesting fish/coral or topography. 

Clear water was a given, seeing as the water we were anchored in was crystal clear, we were dubious about the water temperature though and at 24C (on our first few dives) we were just scraping the bottom limits of both our tolerance and our 3mm wetsuits

 

Our initial dive in shallow waters just near our boat I have described in the previous blog (link here). Now we were off to dive one of the 10m ‘holes’ on the other side of the lagoon. A quick tender ride over and we tied up to the public mooring ball and headed down. 

Visibility was decent 10-15m and the water was just warm enough that we were only getting cold near the end of the dive. A wall of hard corals greeted us and we made our way north along it. A great variety of fish greeted us, many of which I could identify the species, but had never seen the specific variety.  In the past identifying a fish (after you have seen hundreds of different types required either drawing it on your underwater slate or just fixing a particular fish in your mind and looking up just that one. With the benefit of the Go Pro (with underwater video housing) I knew that I would be able to identify almost all of the varieties simply by pausing the video and then looking them up. This is a laborious task but one I consider a labour of love 💕 .

 

As we swam along it became clear to me (again) that Jamie and I are very different divers. Jamie is very much a big picture sort of man and likes to look at the reef as a whole and is always on the look out for the larger marine critters, I, on the other hand have  always been obsessed with a tiny critter called a nudibranch, literally translated this means ‘naked branches.’ Imagine if you will a snail with no shell - I know right, doesn’t sound that exciting. Add to that image the brightest most vivid colours, and the ‘branches’ are incredibly decorative. These naked snails are tricky blighters to spot, however, are super cute and most days the main thing I look out for. Of course like everyone else I love a good shark, turtle or ray, but I imagine I miss a lot of that action with my back turned to the deeper water and my head poked into a crevice of the reef.


Many years ago when I learned to dive in Adelaide and my older sister Karina was my dive buddy, she often remarked that I was like a little kid under water, sticking my nose into every hole (and this was before I had discovered nudibranchs) - what can I say nothings’ changed!

 

Alas on this first dive I was not rewarded with any nudibranchs, we did find a very cute Galapagos shark though, with a cool lip piercing (read fishing hook) that must have made him the leader of his neighbourhood gang. It never ceases to amaze me the prejudice most people carry about sharks, don’t get me wrong, unless I’m in a cage I don’t fancy meeting a great white, but other than that I’m always enthralled with sharks and how beautiful they are. I mean come on, a lion is a cat, but you don’t see people freak out when they meet your standard run of the mill house cat. Sharks are the same, the vast majority are pretty cool underwater creatures who mostly are just as curious about you, as you are about them.

 

Having never met a Galapagos shark Jamie and I were both  pretty stoked to finally see one. We also (Jamie) found a huge sting ray to swim with (see shark story above if you are freaked out about stingrays aka Steve Irwin killers - beautiful harmless creatures who don’t deserve the bad rap they have). This one was probably about Jamie sized and impressed us both with the graceful way it swam up the reef, with sand cascading in waves off its back - just breathtaking.

 

The diversity of fish was amazing and it took me over an hour the following day to look them all up - I managed to identify about 25 different fish types that I hadn’t seen before, many of which are endemic to LHI. Wanting to dive outside the lagoon, but unsure about both dive sites and the safety of anchoring in these unfamiliar waters we teamed up with Aaron from Pro Dive LHI and went on a double boat dive with him and his team to the Admiralty Islands. These islands are just above the northern tip of LHI and an easy 15 minute boat ride. 

 

Dive one was at Sugarloaf, and interesting wall dive off the base of one of the islands. Water temperature was only 22C so we were cool to cold pretty quickly, but such was the fish life and underwater topography that we forgot out discomfort. Excellent hard and soft corals, a plethora of sea stars and once again plenty of new fish. I did find a single nudibranch this time (imagine a little underwater happy dance) and also quite a few small moray eels of differing colours and patterns. Our mandatory surface interval consists of both of us shivering pretty uncontrollably and trying to warm our hands on the hot outer edge of the boat. We just get below freezing level when it is time for dive 2.

 

Dive 2 was at the Malabar landslides. Malabar ridge is the north east edge of LHI and drops steeply into the water to a depth of 12 -15m. Immediately I know this is going to be a great dive (despite being freezing cold), as the water is crystal clear, the sun is shining brightly (which greatly adds to the visibility under water) and the horseshoe shaped reef is teeming with fish. Almost  immediately I look around to see not Jamie but a plume of bubble on the other side of the reef, he must be chasing something I think and head over to see what he is up to. Sure enough he’s having a lovely swim along with a huge turtle, who is totally nonplussed by his presence and is just ambling along like an old man out for his afternoon walk. 

As he (sex unknown but I’m running with he) swims away from Jamie I get a chance to swim beside him and likewise I get a curious stare, but he is totally cool, and he looks me deeply in the eye as he susses me out. These unexpected interactions with marine animals makes all the shivering and lugging gear around all worth while - although I’m not kidding when I say we need to head north to warmer water!!! And soon!!!

 

This dive has quite a few tunnel swim throughs which always add interest and once again I find and show Jamie quite a few moray eels. This second dive is shorter than the first as we are quite literally freezing and I can see that Jamie’s lips are purple. All in all though a great day diving. 


When we aren’t diving or snorkelling, we have been working our way through all the unguided bush walks (climbs/goat tracks) on the Island. Most of them are unbelievably steep and we start small and work our way up. 

 

The tracks are very well marked and as long as we take our time are not too difficult, the views have been amazing and we are constantly surprised as we turn a corner or come to a cliff edge how different parts of the island are. 

Some look very tropical and damp, totally rainforestty (yes I know - not a word) others pine forrest like, still other parts like outback South Australia. 

 

Most of the time I am in complete conflict as to whether the scenery reminds me of the Faraway Tree ,The Forbidden Forrest or Narnia.(thank you Enid Blyton, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis),

 

The majority of the eastern side of the island still  looks very volcanic and all but one of the beaches is all large rocks and pebbles. We see almost no other walkers on our treks and wonder if it because we have been starting so early or if most other people just avoid the level 4 walks?

 

Conversation turns quickly to climbing Mt Gower - a guided walk (steeeeeeeeep) of over 850m and 8 hours. So far our biggest walk has been 25om climb and 3 hours. Neither of us is willing to commit or dismiss Mt Gower. We do agree however that discussing it whilst walking is probably not the best idea. 

 

We are in week 3 of our stay in the lagoon are are reasonably impressed with the amount of walks we have ticked off 

        • Little island track 3km Class 2
        • Coastal track to Boat harbour via Mutton Bird Point 7km Class 4

        • Intermediate hill 1.2km - Class 3 (we did coastal track and intermediate hill as a combination walk - the 3 hour walk)

        • Max Nichols memorial track 3km Class 3

        • Old Gulch (and rock pools) 0.3km Class 2

        • Mt Eliza 1.2m Class 4

        • Malabar to Dawsons Point ridge 3km Class 4

        • Foreshore walk 0.5km Class 2

        • Stevens Reserve 1.2km Class 2

 

The conversation about Mt Gower continues……..

 

We make 2 trips to Ball’s Pyramid - the worlds largest rock stack just 18nm south of Lord Howe. Our first venture out is on Lukim Yu a beautiful days sail (motor as there was no wind), a 3 hour trip each way in dead calm, dead flat conditions.  


The Pyramid looms menacingly out of the water as soon as you slip pass Mt Gower, it instantly reminds me of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings with its dark grey peaks and sheer sides. If anything it becomes more imposing as we get closer.

 

Dave’s quest to catch a decent fish continues both there and back, unfortunately we only catch a an undersized kingfish and a large mutton bird, that protests greatly as we cover its head with a towel and remove the hook, not a good day in sport for the bird. Dave eventually concedes that the constant dive bombing of his lures by the birds is more stressful than not catching a fish and he reluctantly reels both lines in. 

 

Poor Dave, having been told that Lord Howe was some of the best fishing grounds in the world he is beyond disappointed that he has had no luck catching anything other than garfish of the back of the boat.

 

We pull into the shadow of Balls and drop anchor in 15m of crystal clear aquamarine blue, I mean blue blue water to chill out and have lunch. We are immediately joined by a few Galapagos sharks also hungry for a feed. We don’t disappoint them and proceed to chop up all of Dave’s garfish bait (well it wasn’t dong him any good any way) and toss small chunks into the water with great results. We all but hand feed these beautiful creatures and get  some amazing footage on the underwater Go Pro. Unsure of our holding we decide not to do a dive here but to come back with Pro Dive Lord Howe and do some scheduled dives once Tiff and Dave have left.

A week later we have an early morning pickup as ‘Pinnacle’ the dive boat pulls aside us at 6am. We’d dropped our dive gear to the shop the previous afternoon and had arranged to loan 2 x 5mm wetsuits, our 3mm wetsuits that we wore on our previous double dives with Pro Dive were just not cutting the mustard, Jamie’s lips turned a weird purple colour, a sure indication that he was somewhere beyond cold. I hadn’t been able to feel either my feet or hands for any of the second dive either, but being somewhat browner in colour than Jamie, it was harder to tell visually when I was cold.  

 

We had a relatively pleasant 45min ride out to Balls Pyramid on Pinnacle, ably driven by Aaron the dive shop owner we arrived and then did a full loop around the pinnacle to afford different photography perspectives to the photography group that was onboard with us for this double dive. 

 

First stop was “Wheatsheaf” a fist shaped rock that looks as if it is thrusting itself proudly out of the water, it has a fringing reef at its base that has a variable depth of 25 to 35m. It is well known for the black coral found and  the base.  

We reverse entry roll into the water as a group - there are 8 of us in total and descend the line to about 25m. As we descend we are surrounded by large groups of pelagic fish. Pelagic fish are those that tend to live in deeper waters, swim in groups and are most often the eating types of fish. In this instance we see large groups of Kingfish, Mackerel and Perch. The photography group stay together, leaving Jamie and I to explore at our own pace, being careful to stay out of the strong current that sweeps around one end of the reef. The water clarity is good, and the 5mm wetsuits are doing the job, we are cool but not cold. Go Pros in hand we film sharks, scorpion fish, I find a nudibranch (just the one) and a great diversity of hard and soft corals. 45 minutes later we surface and clamber our way back onto the boat.   

 

After a short surface interval we roll back in and spend a very enjoyable 45 minutes exploring 2 bommies (a bommie is like a large mound of coral that sticks up out of the ocean floor). This dive we are lucky enough to spot the elusive Ballina Angelfish, only seen here at this location along with more beautiful corals and fishes. All in all an awesome morning of diving.

 

 

Jamie and I always joke that SCUBA diving is not a glamor sport. Never is this more true when you are precariously climbing a ladder onto a rolling boat with numb feet and hands (yes they were still a little cold), with a heavy tank and weighted jacket. Occasionally, you round out this glamorous picture with a snotty nose (experience has taught me to check this early before anyone else can notice). Two members of the group have, however, had what is called a mask squeeze. Too often people believe that a mask needs to be tight in order to keep the water out! Not so, a gentle mask pressure is all that is required the external water pressure keeps it in place. I tend to exhale constantly out of my mask as I find it very comfortable that way. If you don’t equalise your mask (as well as your ears), then the increasing pressure as you descend causes mask squeeze this causes your nose (sinuses) to bleed so that when you get back on to the boat and take your mask off you have a face full of blood (see glamour sport reference earlier)!! 

 

Despite all this I love being underwater. I was a water baby as a kid, Mum was always trying to keep me out of the pool and then earned the nickname ‘Oceangirl’ during the years I was training to be a SCUBA Instructor and ultimately a Staff Instructor. I always know when I am truely happy and at peace when I find my self singing. This happens constantly when I am underwater.

More to come.......