A Tale of Two Summits: Part 2

It had the worst of views; it had the best of views.

Along with the relative silence, it was the sense of speed that I found surprising.  Things – bushes, houses, trees, pedestrians – flashed past on both sides of the road.  The distant rapidly became the close, and the near retreated with remarkable haste.  People smiled as I passed them and some children laughed. 

My kids laughed.  So did my wife.  And, if the truth were told, so did I.

As a kid you miss out on all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons – financial, emotional, physical.  And sometimes you can’t explain an absence at all really.  Bike riding falls into that category for me.  Somewhere along the line of childhood and adolescence I missed the part where you learn to ride a bike.  And having failed to do so at the appropriate time, I have never taken up the opportunity any other time.  I became a committed pedestrian and public transport user, until (also later than most) I got behind the wheel of a car.  I still walk a lot.  I still ride the tram and train with a kind of familiarity that only comes with long use. 

But on Lord Howe I finally started riding a bike – well sort of.  The four of us walked into Wilson’s Hire and asked for three bikes.  The man behind the counter – who may or may not have been Mr. Wilson – looked surprised at this mismatch.
‘Only three?’
‘Yes, only three.  I can’t ride a bike.’
‘Really? Why not learn here’ he said, waving a hand vaguely at the gravel driveway where we were all standing.
‘Because the three people in the world I don’t want to watch me learning to ride a bike are here’ I said waving my hands less vaguely at my family.  ‘What I need is a mountain trike’, I continued, full of confidence that such a thing did not exist.
‘I’ll pop round the back and get you one – red or blue?’

Five minutes or so later we were all underway; three bicycles and one tricycle.  I developed an immediate affection for my trike, with its rear mounted basket, rather dapper bell and its reassuring stability.  When, later in the week I spotted the red version, I admit that I resented its intrusion onto my little patch of eccentricity.  If I’m going to be an adult on a trike, the least I can be is unique!

The airport is a focal point for Lord Howe Island – apart from a few ship borne visitors it is both the entry and exit point to the island.  The point of arrival and departure.  A couple of times each day a twin engine plane drops low over the lagoon – raising the heads of locals and visitors alike – to land on the runway which stretches across the narrowest, and flattest part of the island.  The longest straight stretch of road on the island runs parallel to the landing strip, producing the only thing for miles that resembles a dual carriageway.  Families gather on the wide grassy strip that separates the road from the runway to watch the planes land.  Kids – full of youthful exuberance – race the plane on their bikes and fail to beat it to the finish line. One adult on a trike considerers doing the same, but thinks better of it.  Later that night he realises he should have at least tried.

We pull off the road and park the bikes and hang the helmets on the handle bars. No locks.  No security devices.  Nothing.  Lord Howe is that kind of place.  Safe. The local police must either be thankful or very bored.  

A broad red arrow points the way, across a footwash station and up towards the edge of the forest.  Hanging onto an invisible dimple on the arrow is the shell of a cicada, shed one last time as nymph becomes adult.  The rhythmic throb of the adults drones from the bushes and fills the air.  It feels strange to be dominated by the chat-up lines of an insect the size of my thumbnail.  Buff-banded rails dash about in the long grass, looking for food and generally panicking in a small-brained way.  

The combination of open fields with a small pond wrapping around the heel of the slope and the woodland on the hill reminded me of Somerset – maybe it’s the smallness of the landscape in front of me. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. 

The path up the hill winds around damp flushes where grass grows to an emerald green.  A makeshift stile marks where the path enters the woodland. A few meters into the woodland and the world seems to have changed – outside the trees, even in the fields, the air smelled of the sea and the fact that this island was land was confirmed best by the soles of my feet.  In the woods the smell of the sea faded away, and the turn of the path, and the rise of the land, meant that all you could see were the trees and the path ahead.  On an island so small, in an ocean so big, it seemed strange to feel as if we had a woodland world, an endless forest.  The path wound round trees and followed odd sloping terraces that seemed to run counter to the form of the hill below it.  Moss and short soft herbs wrapped around fallen branches and tree stumps.  In the woodland itself there were few birds, but above the green ceiling you could sometimes hear the call of terns.  We walked uphill slowly, responding to the slow nature of the afternoon and the indirect way of the path.

It had been warm outside the trees, but inside the trees the woodland smelled of damp and cold.  In some ways it smelled like the houses I would visit as a child with my mother; houses left behind by the carnage of the First World War, the houses of widows.  Houses that seemed to have been forever abandoned by the summer.  There was a smell of death in those houses – both premature and waiting – but under the trees, the cold and damp gave rise to a riot of life and abundance rather than a premonition of death.   

There were very few birds in the undergrowth around us, and most calls were distant and unclear.  The silence and the growth were wonderful, old and renewing, familiar and novel all at the same time.  In a few places patches of sunlight brightened the woodland floor, and in others a deeper darkness seemed to encourage the growth of mushrooms and strange fungi. 
The path levelled off and took us along the top of ridge, there was sun through the trees on both sides of the path and little above us by the sky and few thin branches.  For the first time in a while there was a breeze to move the leaves and wick away the sweat that still managed to form despite the cool of the leaves.

There was one small short, steep slope before we reached the top of Intermediate Hill.  The top is crowned by a rather incongruous shiny metal viewing platform – a gift to the island from Dick Smith.  While this structure does not improve the view of the summit, it does improve the view from the summit.  By lifting you up above the canopy of trees the whole of Lord Howe Island comes into view.  It was a view that I was prevented from seeing on my trip up Mt. Gower by clouds and rain.  It was a view I had wanted to see for a long time. 

The view to the south was dominated by the two major hills of the island – Mt. Gower the larger of the two, where I had previously spent a day falling over, and Mt Lidgbird, the path which only takes you about half way to the summit.  The path ends at a nick in the skyline know as Goat House Cave.  I thought it would be a walk for another day, but it turns out it will need to be a walk for another visit.

To the north the island swings around in a gentle arc and the land rises again to form the hills of Malabar Point, where Tropic Birds court and the sea makes floating boats seem to fly.  Only a few small buildings are visible from this remarkable point.  The kids eat their apples and play with their cameras, selfies without a hint of self-consciousness. Welcome Swallows, themselves a recent addition to the fauna of the island, flash overhead - hunting invisible insects, airborne plankton.  Away to the southeast the unnatural looking stack of Balls Pyramid sits on the horizon.  Distant and perfect, like a kid’s drawing of a mountain, it harbours giant stick-insects, once thought to be extinct, but now being helped to take back the places that they have lost.  This whole scene is a magical landscape, which if presented in CGI would raise eyebrows of disbelief.

The few metal steps of the platform lift the viewer from a woodland world to a place that is once more an island, dominated by the sea and utterly surrounded. Up here, above the forest floor the air smells of salt, the wind is fresh and cooling.

The kids can hear afternoon tea calling to them from the hotel in the distance and the prospect of more walking, albeit downhill, is has no chance of competing.  So we part company, Sal and the kids back to the bikes by the way we all came, while I complete the loop around Intermediate Hill, back to the bikes by a different route. 

As soon as I leave the top of the hill the path changes.  The uphill sections were wide and well trodden, but the downhill section was far narrower, with ferns and branches pushing out from the bushes, blocking the path in a half-hearted kind of way.  This is a rapid return to a woodland world after the ozone waft of the air on the summit.  This section of the path seems far less walked than the uphill, with most people seeming to take the up and back approach rather than the longer, round the houses journey.  But soon, it seems I am not alone.

For all that people talk of ‘bird watching’, bird listening is just as productive.  From under the bushes on the left hand side of the path I can hear the rustling and shifting of leaves.  I sit down and wait, feeling the cool air and damp soil all around me, hearing the small noises and mysteries moving closer towards me.

Despite all that I had read, and all that I had seen on my walk up Mt. Gower, I still did not believe that birds would simply walk out of the undergrowth to come and see me.  But this is what happened.  A small brown head with a curved beak emerges from the darkness to my left and pauses, head tilted to one side; inquisitive.  It seems to decide that I am of little interest and withdraws back into the shadows.  I remember what I had read, and click my fingers to get its attention.  The birds whole body seems to stiffen, crystallise, at the sound.  It makes a low grunting noise, and from behind it comes a similar reply.  A second and then a third bird move into view, shifting between feeding and watching as they approach me.   And approach me they do, it’s not as if they are just walking towards me, unaware of my presence. They are checking me out as I am them.  The first bird, maybe the boldest, moves onto the path, just an arm’s stretch away, pecks at the ground and them starts to peck at my boots.

This is a bird that until about 300 years ago no human had seen and that 30 years ago looked like it would become extinct.  And yet here it is picking at the small pieces of dirt that cling to the side of my boot, and uttering small grunting noises that may or may not be of disapproval.  Such events call into question the nature of the idea ‘natural’; this island was found by chance and this bird reduced to near extinction and then brought back to the land of the living by the hand of man.  This is not the history of a natural place or an untouched paradise – but all around me the nature of Lord Howe seems to tell a different story.

The birds circle around behind me, and gather in noisy excitement as one finds a choice morsel in the leaf litter.  These birds carry no rings or bands on their legs, meaning that (as yet) they have not been trapped and catalogued, added to the data base of one of the world’s best conservation success stories. 

I wonder if my own family are still up at the lookout tower, for they would surely have liked this feathered family as well.  Finding that my boots hold nothing of interest the birds start to ignore me, and move off into the bushes.  I suspect that I am smiling like a lunatic.

I brush the dirt from my shorts and check the pictures on my camera.  The path leads steeply down hill, so I take my time, listening for the rustle of leaves, watching for unexpected movement.

A tale of two summits: Part 1

It had the worst of views; it had the best of views.


It had rained overnight.

Each gust of wind brought down a clatter of drops on the roof and set palm fronds scratching at the window frames.  Cool air fell into the room from the open window, smelling of novelty and the sea.  A book, open to the second chapter, lay on the side of the bed where Sal would normally be.  The pages soft and informal, without the new-page crispness that a book of that age would normally retain.  Maybe, at some time in the darkness, a form of island life has soaked into the pages, making the book feel more at home than me.  There were no children eager for space or fidgeting for closeness.  There was no cat, stamping about, sharp-clawed and busy-tailed, awaiting the departure of humans before settling in for a long day of sloth and idleness.  I picked up my own watch from an unfamiliar bedside table, just in time to see the hands click over to 5.30 am.   

Morning.  Soft light.  Wave sounds. 

In the other corner of the room, a recently mended rucksack rested on a small plastic chair.  The mended seam pushing outwards like pursed lips, the belt strap swaying in a slight, but otherwise unseen, draft.  A new jacket, unworn outside of a shop, covered the top of the bag, but I knew what was inside it:  a spare hat, a spare jumper and my lunch.  How many times had I packed those things into a bag?  How many times had I woken with the prospect of a day’s walk keen in my mind?

Some things were strange and new, some were familiar.  But there was no family. There was no conversation to fill the morning quiet or to share the anticipation.  Outside, somewhere behind my room, a currawong called with a voice that was recognisable but clearly different to the birds at home.  Even though I knew I did not need to do it, I checked that I had put my lunch in my bag.  As ever, I make tea and toast; but the passage of a ritual only half observed feels stranger than its absence.  

A knock on the door tells me I am late for my lift to the base of Mt. Gower. I would have sworn he said 6.30.  I grab my bag, thankful that I know what is in it.  The tea and toast sit unfinished, a walk awaits, not yet begun.

A small van waits at the entrance to Somerset and as I get in I offer apologies for my lateness; most people don’t seem to notice.  Most people seem to be asleep.  The journey to the south end of the island takes no more than ten minutes and the van remains rather quiet.   The walk we are all going on should take us to the top of Mt. Gower, the highest point on the island and the end point of a walk described in both glowing and horrific terms on a number of web sites.  ‘The best and hardest day walk in Australia’, ‘A walk not to be tried if you are the slightest bit overweight or unfit’ ‘Frighteningly steep, with sections that are low grade rock climbing rather than walking’, ‘Bloody hard, but worth it’.  Maybe that explains the silence.  Maybe people are quiet because they had to wait for some crazy man with a strange accent to get on the bus.  It’s an even money bet.

As we approach the end of the road, two birds run across the road and gather themselves on the verge.  They run rather than fly not through choice, but because they have lost that most bird-like quality; flight.  One is about the size of a small chicken, the other rather smaller.  If I could have stopped the bus and got out, I think I would have.  The birds were Woodhens, an adult and a chick, a bird found nowhere else in the world other than Lord Howe, and not that long ago it looked like it would not be found on Lord Howe for much longer either.  It’s a strange sensation to look at just two birds and know that you are seeing almost 1% of the whole world population.  You would think that a bird so rare and so restricted would have generated a bit of excitement in the bus – but not so.  You would have also thought that a bird so rare and so restricted would have been remarkable to look at.  But that was not the case either.  Rarity is splendid in its own way, and people often conflate rarity with beauty; but the Woodhen is never going to win any contests for its plumage. 

The Woodhen is almost uniformly brown, with a few darker bands in the wings.  Its down turned beak gives it a comical, quizzical kind of look.  The nearest it gets to colour are the red irises of its eyes.  Not that long ago this bird was nearly extinct, with the surviving 30 or so birds living on the cloudy, uppermost reaches of Mt. Gower.  Up there they were safe from the clumsy feral pigs and inept dogs that roamed the lower slopes.  Cats, exercising the kind of slothful choice for which they are renowned, never bothered to move too far from the hands that feed them, did not make it up there either.  And in this tiny patch of upland on an already tiny island, the Woodhen hung on. 

Public educator that I am I point out the Woodhens to the other people on the bus, but once again nobody seems to be all that interested.  I reckon that they are all thinking about the walk ahead.  After years of working at a desk, I’m trying not to think about it at all. 

A loop in the road, where the dirt surface doubles back on itself, marks the end of the ride and the start of the walk.  People are parking bikes and signing the “if I die, I promise not to sue you” forms.  Jack, our guide, was confidently telling us that the weather would improve, and that the clouds that Mt. Gower wore like a cap would soon burn off.  He was sure this would be the case and annoyed if it was not as he had left his raincoat on the kitchen table.  I turned up the collar on my jacket and pulled on a pale bucket hat of older provenance.   Newish boots and newer ground.  An old rucksack and old preparations.  I was keen to get going, still new to the idea of guided walks, rather than independent ones.  It was hard not to notice that most of the other people in the group seemed to have forgotten their jackets as well.   As is often the case, I felt like I stood out from the crowd for the wrong reasons; self-consciously aware of the things I carried and other people seemed to lack.  As was less often the case in the past, but is more common now, I chose silence as a sensible way forward. 

 At the end of a flat grassy track a wooden sign blocks the way, warning walkers not to proceed beyond this point without a guide. Warning signs are common, but this one gave the walk ahead some form of special status of difficulty.  Another Woodhen rushed across the path oblivious to its illegality.

It stopped just on the edge of the path and watched us with its red flash eye.  I clicked my fingers and it turned its head in my direction and took two small steps forward.  And in that instance you could see why this bird had almost become extinct.  Woodhens are flightless, inquisitive and tasty, and while I only have primary data on the first two of these, the third is well recorded in the literature.  When people first settled on Lord Howe in 1834 the Woodhens quite literally walked up to them to see what was going on and were bundled into waiting pots and ovens by the hungry settlers.  When you evolve on an island that has essentially no predators, an inquisitive nature and a willingness to defend your patch against novelty are probably a good thing.  But once an animal arrives, armed with sticks and guns and bearing a tradition of roast dinners on Sunday, such behaviour becomes a liability.

Beyond the sign the path arcs down towards the sea.  Loud waves rush up between the rounded stones.  Spickle specks of rain fall from the lowered grey sky.  Mt Gower is as invisible as it was before.  Island weather lore seems to have failed our guide. Little Island has been left high and dry by a falling tide, surrounded by a sea of stones, anchored to the island by fragments of land.  We hop from stone to stone, hoping for a firm foothold and a safe landing.  The beach narrows to nothing and the forest comes down to meet the sea.  We head uphill, steeply, on a muddy path draped with a helpful rope, spliced in places, held firm by long tide knots, green with algae.  The mud is slippery underfoot.  The pace is slow enough for even my desk bound legs.

At the top of the slope we gather to collect helmets; not to protect us should we fall, but to shelter us from things that drop from above.  To our left, the tall cliffs of Mount Lidgbird disappear into the clouds and form the side of the path; the rock-face just an arm and fingertip away. Water drips from long tails of moss, trickles in dark streaks.  Soon the land to the right drops away steeply too.  The path – called The Low Road – runs as a ledge between two kinds of steepness.  The rope reappears, rather out of reach and with no means of connection. I can’t help wonder if it is more window dressing than useful.  To my right I look down to the sea, and notice white birds drifting near the waves.  Almost anywhere else, with the sea and the cliffs, these birds would have been gulls.  But not here, not on this island of singular strangeness and wonder.  These birds are Red-Tailed Tropicbirds; all white except for the red tail that, reduced to a few thin filaments, double the bird’s length.   From a distance the bird looks a little misshapen, short bodied and long winged, with a laboured rather than graceful flight.  A solitary bird glides close by, trailing its naming tail behind it.  Two brand new birds in the space of an hour; it’s been a while since that has happened.  The bird drifts away, and I concentrate on the path ahead, well aware that the sea is far below and the path narrow.

After a short while people start to talk to each other, conversations rippling back and forth between groups of walkers.  Most are couples, some are threes, there is only one other single, but he has dashed into the distance, oblivious of the requests of our guide to stay together as a group.  Other people look slightly stunned by the steepness of the ground, and the width of the path.  I can’t help but think that some people have not done enough reading about this walk.  At this point, thinking I am doing rather well, I fall over.  Not in any life threatening kind of way, but more in comedic style, complete with flailing arms and curses.  Pride most literally coming before the fall.  This rather annoying occurrence continues for the rest of the day, especially on the way back down, and I come to believe that I have mistakenly placed skis or roller skates on my feet rather than boots.  Despite my best intentions it’s hard to concentrate on the world around you when your feet are covered in butter. 

Beyond the end of Mt. Lidgbird the path turns inland and heads uphill.  The relatively level Low Road gives way to a path that steepens in front of us.  Disappointingly, we also enter a layer of cloud that will be our companion for the rest of the day.  There are rumours of views, but they remain just that – rumours.  I manage to go for about an hour without falling over, which is a relief, while a number of other people give up entirely and return the way we have come.  I suspect more people would do the same if we could actually see what lies in front of us.  The cloud around us reduces the world to a grey sphere of vision, flanked by misty trees and whale backed rocks.  When we stop to wait for the slower moving members of the group, they appear with the kind of suddenness that would be worthy of surprise.  Up ahead people disappear into the cloudy mist like they have been swallowed.  At the best of times striking off the path is a course fraught with risk, and this is not the best of times.  The path is narrow, but thankfully clear, and ropes that hang down rock steps and muddy slopes offer more than one type of security.  Somewhere out in the mist a currawong calls and then appears to check on the noisy (and in my case, clumsy) visitors into his world.

There are more rock steps and short climbs and at each one the number in the group declines as people give up, or are told in no uncertain terms to turn back.  On a dry day, with clear skies, these short climbs would have added much to the journey, but clad in my butter-boots I have to concentrate.

Once more the steepness of the ground increases and we finally start up the slopes of Mt. Gower.  The path shrinks down to a single file hollow way and the vegetation changes to wonderful dwarf woodland – a Mist Forest.  Even when hindered by fog and rain you can see that the canopy of this woodland is no more than an arm’s length above your head.  Each branch and twig is covered in a green sward of moss and lichen.  It’s tempting to reach out and touch each and every branch, to feel the soft swaddled blankets. The light is double filtered and green.  If green had a smell, this would be the place to sense it. This is a water world made solid.  This is a place to make any walk – and any number of stumbles – worthwhile.  Fingers of foggy rain point through the branches.  Beyond the thin strip of path there is no evidence of footfall.  No scuff marks or erosion.  Fallen branches lie more than half buried in the deep moss. Leaves rot down to skeleton ghosts.   I could spend hours here, lost in the detail, searching for patterns.  I resent the presence of a schedule that keeps us moving when the place demands stillness and time.  Without family, I would rather be here alone.

The end of our journey to the top comes with a rush, as Mt. Gower flattens to a wide plateau near its summit.  With nothing above but cloud, you can almost see the air and feel the mist as it is pushed around on winds born of the sea far below.  We gather in a clearing to eat lunch. Sandwiches, chocolate, fruit.  Most people stand, only a few sit. It would be a perfect place for a coffee and an Eccles cakes, but my flask was in Melbourne and the cakes half a world away.

As we eat, two Woodhens emerge from the bushes and start scouting around our feet for crumbs and scraps.  Each bird has a collection of ornithological bling around their legs, marking them as known birds. 

When the total number of Woodhens in the world had fallen to about 30, action was taken to save the species from extinction.  The feral cats, pigs and dogs that roamed the island were removed – which is a polite way of saying killed.  Cats were banned from the island, and dogs were strictly controlled.  And just as importantly, pairs of birds were trapped and taken into captivity, where they were encouraged to breed.  Luckily, the birds cooperate, having behaviours closer to teenagers than to Giant Pandas, and soon there were lots of little Woodhens rushing about in chicken wire pens.  Soon these were released back into a safer wild than their parents had known and they thrived.  The number of Woodhens now stands at over 300 and the future looks better than it did for Gallirallus sylvestris.

As I am photographing the birds an English couple ask me what they are – and I tell them the story.  They express surprise that they had not heard this story before, and I supress my surprise as well.   Coming to Lord Howe and climbing Mt. Gower without knowing this story seems like going to Stonehenge, but only knowing that each stone weights 25 tons.  It seems to reduce a wonderful narrative to nothing but the clothing of a physical challenge and a statement of arithmetic – the hardest day walk in Australia, with little acknowledgement of the story the mountain holds.

The Woodhens keep pecking for food, exchanging glances with each other and their human caterers.  It’s hard not to see them as an old couple, tolerant of the regular interruptions to their daily routines of preening and grub hunting.

By the time I have taken my photographs most people have already started walking back down the path.  I have no option but to follow, even though I’d rather just stay and watch the birds. 

I tell Jack that I’ll catch up in a couple of minutes, and despite my regular slips and stumbles, he seems happy to leave me at the summit to my own devices.  I saw a sign recently that said ‘It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I prefer it when they are not there’  - and in truth I could have been wearing it for those few minutes I spent alone at the top of Mt. Gower.

As ever the walk back down the hill seems faster than the walk up.  At one point I fall over while standing still – my feet just seem to shoot out from underneath me.  My well of tolerance almost runs dry at this point; it’s easy to blame the boots, although culpability probably lies elsewhere.

By the time we reach the flat lands of the coast my hat is soaked to saturation point, by a rain that never did burn off.  If I walk slowly and steadily the drips of water hang on the brim and eventually split and divide, populating my eye line with lenses of water.  If I walk quickly and clumsily the drips flutter along brim until they fall to the grass at my feet, and disappear from view.  

Hanging on and falling.  A lack of a view.   Tomorrow I suspect my legs will be sore.  But the truth is, I really don’t mind at all.