AT editor Greg Barton returns to Norfolk and Lord Howe for a touch of idyllic island reminiscing, while AT eco-adventurer Inger Vandyke bears witness to a feral plague that’s ravaging remote Macquarie Island.

 

NORFOLK ISLAND

What do you already know about Norfolk Island? Even if you’ve never visited, there’s a chance you know it’s home to the famous Norfolk Island Pine – the majestic variety Captain Cook discovered in 1774 and declared (incorrectly) to be excellent for making ships’ masts. Good thing for Norfolk that they weren’t. Had the tall, straight pines proved less brittle once cut, the island might’ve been completely felled by 1775 to equip the Queen’s fleet.

You might also know of its convict history. Penal colonies were twice established between 1788 and 1855 for the very worst offenders from the mainland. Now Norfolk is a virtual treasure trove for history buffs. Some tumbledown, some excellently maintained, the ruins of the Kingston area could be the best-preserved examples of convict settlement in the world.

The next thing you’re likely to know – thanks to Clark Gable, then Marlon Brando, and more recently Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson – is that it’s largely populated by descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian partners. The story of Captain Bligh, Fletcher Christian and the Pitcairn Island survivors who finally settled on Norfolk in 1856 has been immortalised in book, film, song and even a Simpsons episode.

The influence of the Tahitians lends a distinct Polynesian flavour to Norfolk’s cuisine, dress, customs and even language. In fact there are two official tongues spoken there: English and “Norfuk”, a lilting, singsong cross between Old English and Tahitian.

You may have heard of another interesting consequence of Norfolk’s settlement by the Pitcairn Islanders. For a while there, literally everyone was related to everyone else. The happy, familial informality this fostered is embodied today in two obvious ways. The first is the Norfolk Island phonebook, which commonly has people listed by their nicknames (Truck, Bing, Geek, Monkey, Rubber Duck and so on). The second is in the idiosyncratic Norfolk Wave. The laconic greeting – anything from a raised forearm to a barely twitched finger off the steering wheel – is practically compulsory whenever you encounter another human being. Tourists can be spotted by the unnecessary vigour injected into their waves; fifth generation islanders can be as easily spotted by the fact that they hardly notice their arms lazily waving of their own accord – a comfortable habit born, no doubt, of years of knowing the faces, names and personal histories of every single person you’ve ever met.

Just as widely known is the immense variety of plant and animal life on Norfolk. If ever you’re given the chance to thread your careful way among the nesting terns on tiny Phillip Island, offshore from Emily Bay on Norfolk’s southeastern side, grasp it with both hands. Almost picked clean by introduced animals turned feral, vast sections of Phillip Island resemble a Martian desert. But restoration is underway and the future of the island as a refuge for endangered species is assured.

It’s all very well to know these things, to have heard of them from travellers or read about them in the pages of AT . . . but nothing compares to setting foot there yourself, gazing over the treacherous rocks flanking the site of Cook’s landing, trying out the Norfolk Wave, watching a ghostly re-enactment of daily convict life or the oft-repeated Bounty epic among the Kingston ruins, mingling with the curiously unafraid native birds, availing yourself of the duty free shopping or simply wandering aimlessly and taking in the cliffs, the rolling hills, the seaside life, the utter quietude of pretty Emily Bay and the entire laidback island existence.

It’s a special place to return to, again and again. And each time you venture there, you come back knowing just that little bit more.

Where // Around 1600km and 2.5hrs flight northeast of Sydney. }Getting There // Norfolk Air (www.norfolkair.com) and QantasLink (www.qantas.com) both service Norfolk variously from Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle and Melbourne. It’s an external territory of Australia, so your passport will be required.
Contacts // www.norfolkisland.com.au
High Five // Events on Norfolk Island
Opera in the Ruins, Feb 18-23 // Held over five nights in various indoor and outdoor venues – including among the ruins of the convict compound in the historic Kingston region of the island.
Country Music Festival, May 25 – June 1 // Now in its 15th year, the festival takes place over four evenings, so there’s plenty of time to enjoy the island’s rich history, gorgeous scenery, beaches, fine dining, stylish bars, low-tax shopping and new adventure activities and eco experiences.
Foundation Day, Mar 6 // First Fleet descendents from around the world gather to commemorate Philip Gidley King’s landing and establishment of the first European settlement in 1788.
Bounty Day, June 9 // Anniversary of the arrival of the Pitcairn Islanders in 1856, beginning with a re-enactment of the landing at Kingston Pier.
Thanksgiving Day, last Wed in November // A very important day, because of high presence of US whalers throughout Norfolk history. Festivities, church services and market stalls with homegrown produce.

 

LORD HOWE ISLAND

One of very few island groups to be granted World Heritage status, Lord Howe holds a very special place in the hearts of lovers of natural and spectacular beauty – and in particular the hearts of fierce protectors of endangered species and admirers of precious birds, flora and fauna.

The group actually consists of mainland Lord Howe and the Admiralty Islands to the north (most easily visible from Neds Beach), Mutton Bird Island to the east (with tiny Sail Rock alongside), enigmatic Balls Pyramid off the southeastern tip – and various other small outcrops like Gower Island to the south and Blackburn Island wallowing in the centre of the main lagoon to the west.

In short, Lord Howe is a precious closed environment supporting a vast array of plant and animal life, couched in what UNESCO’s World Heritage criteria details as “an outstanding example of an oceanic island of volcanic origin containing features, formations and areas of exceptional aesthetic importance, including the exceptional diversity of spectacular and scenic landscapes within a small land, and outstanding underwater vistas including reefs.”

It’s also very pretty. And for the casual visitor, probably the single most important thing you can do on arrival – almost before the props on your QantasLink Dash-8 have finished winding down – is to find out what’s going on (eg, what tours are running) and stick your hand straight up.

Walking trips and guided treks, including to the summit of Mt Gower, are terrific. As are fishing outings, sightseeing tours to Balls Pyramid and all manner of night and daytime snorkelling and diving adventures – but, importantly, they don’t happen all the time. Could be the weather, could be you’ve arrived at a weird time on a Wednesday, but whatever the reason check straight away with your accommodation about what’s on and when, so you don’t miss out on a second’s worth of activities.

You’ll also need to be quick off the mark if you want a guaranteed table at the dining hotspots on Lord Howe (Arajilla, Capella Lodge – even Pandanus Restaurant next to Earl’s Anchorage), so it might pay to book these even before you fly. Or you could always avoid the problem altogether and avail yourself of any of the tidy BBQ spots sprinkled around the island, complete with neatly chopped stacks of wood.

Our last great recommendation comes from a guest at Pinetrees Resort, whom I met on my last visit to the island late in 2007. Apparently, if you head to Neds Beach at dusk, you’ll be just in time for the arrival of the shearwaters, or mutton-birds. That’s nice, but it’s not the good part. If you go before dawn you’re in time for their departure. And there’s fun to be had.

I haven’t seen this myself, but the birds make their waddling way in small groups down the road to the beach before taking off over the ocean. If you stand in their way, in the dark, they’ll often just bump right into you before carrying on. And if you stand very still facing away, they’ll sneak up on you – then freeze still as statues when you whirl around to look.

An amusing, if slightly eco-insensitive, trick. But harmless tourist fun isn’t likely to present a danger to these birds. After all, they’re future is virtually assured. They’re on one of the safest and most idyllic islands on the planet.

 

Details // Lord Howe Island
Where // Technically a part of NSW, Lord Howe is around 600km and two hours flight northeast of Sydney, about level with Port Macquarie on the mainland.
Getting There //
Regular flights are from Sydney and Brisbane via QantasLink (www.qantas.com). From Feb-June and Sept-December, flights are also available direct from Port Macquarie with QantasLink.
Contacts // www.lordhoweisland.info
High Five // Events on Lord Howe Island
Sea Week Celebrations, Feb 10-13 // At various venues across the island, including guided walks, boat trips and displays at the museum.
Discovery Day, Feb 17 // Lord Howe was discovered by Henry Lidgbird Ball aboard HMS Supply on this day in 1788 (on his way to Norfolk, apparently). Festivities are held each year at the school and on the oval, including a fish banquet and palm tree-climbing races.
Gosford to Lord Howe Island Race, October // A 414 nautical mile race across the northern Tasman Sea.
Rainforest Week, Nov 30 – Dec 6 // A series of guided events for would-be botanists and bird lovers, including forest treks and other activities.
Lord Howe Golf Open Week, Dec 11-17 // Entry $250, including lunch, green fees, welcome drinks and dinner on one of the prettiest island courses in the world. Prizes upwards of $4000, check out www.lordhowegolf.com.au

 

MACQUARIE ISLAND

Halfway between Tasmania and Australia is a mysterious land shrouded in dense fog. Isolated by freezing cold waters, high rainfall and strong winds, Macquarie Island is home to a neighbourhood of extremely friendly animals that defy the conditions which determine their everyday lifestyle.

Arriving at Macquarie on a Russian icebreaker, I peer out my porthole window to see a group of bobbing penguin heads in the ocean. King, Royal and Gentoo penguins have sent a welcoming party to investigate.

Further down the island on Sandy Bay we’re greeted by an audience of King Penguins lined up on the beach. “There’s a five metre exclusion zone around the animals,” warns our Heritage Expeditions guide. “But they don’t seem to know that. They see less than 700 tourists a year, so they’re incredibly tame.”

As I plonk my camera bag down on the beach, I’m instantly approached by a 200kg weaner Elephant Seal pup who sidles up to me. “It’s okay,” someone says. “He just wants to get warm.” Elephant Seals can plunge to 2km under the sea in search of food, their gargantuan eyes helping to see in the dark depths of ocean. The parents of these seal pups have left them on the beach to prepare for sea, and this baby has decided I’m a suitable mother substitute, at least for a little while.

I slowly force myself from the embrace of my seal pup and wander down the beach. Everywhere I go a tribe of King Penguins escorts me. On a separate stretch of beach, several hundred smaller crested penguins gather in a little community. Royal Penguins always have something going on; as some of the busiest penguins on Macquarie they’ll collectively spend their days scrapping, preening, sleeping, investigating or passing pebbles to one another as gifts. I sit nearby to watch, wondering what I could do to entertain these fellows. I pick up a pebble and one slowly approaches, takes the pebble from my hand and gently replaces it with another. This gentle interaction reunites me with my inner penguin lover. These little fellows have me hooked. Pebbles are big business for Antarctic-dwelling penguins, who use them as gifts of nesting materials to attract mates.

Sadly the penguins and other endangered species of animals are being slowly wiped out on Macquarie – an island group that was only added to the World Heritage List in 1997. After feral cats were removed in 2003, populations of rabbits and rats have exploded, ravaging the island’s landscapes. Landslides caused by overgrazing and compounded by high rainfall have already killed King Penguins on their island breeding grounds.

A five-year program to eradicate Macquarie’s feral invaders is scheduled to commence when the first winter fog lifts in 2008. In 2014 the curtains will rise on a brighter future for some of Australia’s friendliest and most endangered wildlife.

Details // Macquarie Island
Where // One of two Australian sub-Antarctic assets in the Southern Ocean, Macquarie Island is 1500km south-southeast of Tasmania, halfway to Antarctica. Getting there // By ship only. Good companies include Heritage Expeditions (www.heritage-expeditions.com), Aurora Expeditions (www.auroraexpeditions.com.au) and Orion Cruises (www.orioncruises.com.au)
High Five // Events on Macquarie Island
Royal Penguin egg laying, Sept // Time to find a safe place to nest and lay eggs, so the chicks are ready to go to sea in time for the new year.
Befriend an Elephant Seal pup, Sept to Nov // The time of year when babies will approach you to get warm.
Walk with the Kings of Macquarie, summer // You’re guaranteed to have an entourage of the second largest penguins in the world.
Killer Whale cruising, Nov // Watch for Macquarie Island local “Nick”, one of the island’s most well-known male Killer Whales, cruising the coast looking for food.
Watch the skies, January // This is the peak time to watch Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses performing aerial Paso Dobles right above you.

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