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.
‘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.