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