As a kid, holidays meant a series of day trips that started and ended at our brown front door, the one with the loose brass handle and the glass that rattled in the wind. Any overnight trips meant camping with the Scouts, returning home smelling of wood smoke and needing a bath.
Not that long ago flying was still a novelty for me. It signified something different, an adventure. It meant that I was no longer tied to the routines of childhood holidays.
That was until I started to fly for work. Two, or sometimes three, trips a year, interstate mainly, but with the occasional long haul thrown in, soon robs flying of its novelty and thrill. Work travel is more work that travel, and with a young family waiting at home, I was more likely to feel I was in a lonely place than in a Lonely Planet. This may sound like whingeing, but an early flight to Sydney followed by meetings and a night in a noisy hotel is travel robbed of the slightest possibility of adventure. I fly enough, without ever having the chance to fly at the pointy end, to know what to expect. Spending a few hours in the cupboard under our stairs would probably be just as comfortable and would certainly have better wine.
But sometimes, a destination, and the months of anticipation that go with it, can cut through this familiarity and promise something new.
The plane is tiny, with real propellers and (disconcertingly) chipped paint on the engine cowlings. The flight will be one on a human scale, not the industrial monstrosities of modern, bulk carrier flights. Jets seem to fly with a method akin to magic: just a chest sinking burst of acceleration and a few mechanical clunks and vibrations, and that’s it. But prop planes feel different. You can see the source of effort and energy that will pull you into the air. You can see the blades spin up to full speed, passing from the merely blurred to the invisible. And from the vantage of a window seat you can see small trails of cloud being formed at the base of the propeller disc as the fabric of the air is torn apart by the passage of the blades. This is flight by brute force, visible and clear. This is flying to rebirth adventure.
We head northwest, away from Sydney and out into the Pacific. Soon we are in a water world, on the edge of the world’s largest ocean. As ever, I wonder at the possibility of whales and search for details to comprehend the surface of the sea. But there is just water, and wind driven waves. Flight is always a matter of trust – in physics, in the skill of the crew and in the function of the technology packed into the airframe. On this trip, in a tiny plane, in search of just a speck of land in a huge ocean, I feel the necessity of trust more than normal.
I seem to be the only passenger travelling by myself. There are couples and extended families, there are very few kids and I am the only single. This does not aid conversation, but does bring a great sense of clarity.
“Kate, have you done the flight thingy”
“The plane phone flight safety thing”
“You mean wifi?”
“No that other thing”
“No. The safety setting thing”
“Oh, that one – yes I’ve done that. Have you?
“I’m not sure if I need to”
“Maybe you should”
“Can you do it for me?”
I embrace the consolation of solitude and relax into the noisy silence of the engine’s drone.
Lord Howe Island covers just less than 15 km2, smaller than most hobby farms. At its widest it reaches 2km, and is less than 11km from north to south. It sits about 600km out into the Pacific. It is, by any definition, small and remote. The idea that this plane will find and land on this speck of rock is akin to a fly discovering a leaf in a swimming pool.
Then, out past the wingtip, land appears; a small sweep of green rising up into a pair of blocky mountains at its southern end. A few smaller hills stud the middle ground, only for the land to rise again at the north. The outline is wholly asymmetrical. A curved line of surf off to the east marks the outer edge of a reef that forms a protected lagoon. Beyond the western shores there is nothing but ocean and the passage of waves.
The tone of the engine changes as we start to descend towards the island. It feels like we are landing on water rather than solid ground, and beneath the wing tips there is nothing but sea. As the plane passes over the coral reef the water changes from a wind peaked green to a shocking clarity. Even through the windows of the plane I can begin to see huge heads of coral that almost reach the surface water. I can see deep holes, darker in colour, but still clear. I can see sweeps of colours that grow clearer as the plane sinks lower. But I can still see nowhere to land.
Beyond the right wingtip the two southern mountains loom high above us, but we are still over water. The plane can be no more than tens of meters above the ocean when the runway appears, so close that it’s shocking. So close it’s a relief. The engine tone changes again – increasing to a higher whine that borders on desperation – as soon as the wheels touch the ground. Flying may be hard, but stopping seems harder.
The plane slows to a halt outside what appears to be a three-bedroom house, with a small garden, white picket fence and a loyalty proving flag pole. It is in fact the airport building. There is a delay (it really is an airport!) before the plane’s door opens and I strike up a conversation with the cabin steward.
“Nice place to have to come to on a daily basis. Do you ever get to stay?” I say.
“I’ve never been bothered” he replies, “not much to do, not enough shopping for me. Too quiet at night as well.” It’s clear that while he may work for an airline by day, he does not moonlight for the tourist board in his spare time. His response seems akin to complaining about the wildlife in Africa being ‘too black and white’, ‘too fierce’ and ‘too tall’. I occupy myself with a previously unknown, but now vital, repacking task with my hand luggage. When the door finally opens the steward seems to take a step backward, away from the possibility of nature, and back to the security of the mini-bar.
Just inside the picket fence a group of staff from the island’s hotels and guesthouses wait to collect their new guests. I am quickly assigned to the right person and pointed in the direction of the baggage claim area. This is no fancy carousel, but just the back of a flat bed trailer, heaped with brightly coloured bags. I find a patch of familiar purple and extract my bag. Some of the older passengers find this rather too hard, and for a while I become a volunteer baggage handler. I’m glad that I don’t do this for a living. Once I have fulfilled my community service obligation, I head for the van labelled “Somerset”, not out of any sense of home county nostalgia, but because that’s what my accommodation is called.
Out on the grassy fringes of the runway I can see Golden Plover and Buff-Banded Rail. Overhead I can see dark capped terns, with wings that flash white in the sunlight – Sooty Terns. The air smells of rich salt and damp growth. I am, to say the least, excited. I have been planning and talking about this trip for months, much to the frustration of my long suffering family!
Over the part of the island known as the “Central Business District”, pure white terns are flying and landing in the branches of Norfolk Pines. These are White Terns, one of the birds I have come all this way to see – and there they are outside the window of the van, even before I have been shown to my room or unpacked a bag. The CBD contains just a Post Office, a restaurant, two small shops and a phone to make free local calls. The sea in the lagoon is as clear from the shore as it was from the air, sparkle bright and inviting after a few hours of cramped sitting. The beach is narrow but picture book golden, flanked at one end by darker rocks and the other by a long sweep of forest that seems to come down to meet the sea. The few boats that sit at anchor in the lagoon weathervane into symmetry under the influence of a cool breeze. There are no gulls. Divers, fresh from the ocean, wade ashore from a silver hulled boat. Everywhere I look there is novelty and beauty.
I settle into my room at Somerset, unpacking cameras and shirts, wide brimmed hats and tripod. The room possesses a greater sense of utility than beauty, but I intend to do little more than sleep here, so this is fine. I fill two water bottles and put them in the fridge, along with two large bars of dark chocolate, brought from the mainland to guard against shortage and the inflation of island prices. Within 20 minutes I am walking away from Somerset (this seems to be a recurring theme in my life) towards Ned’s Beach.
Within minutes an energetic Emerald Ground Dove and a stationary Buff-banded Rail have delayed me. The dove proves hard to frame, but the rail sits still by the side of the road. Despite an island-wide speed limit of 25 km per hour I think a car has hit the rail. Even with its eyes closed the small bird manages to look stunned. A few head-shakes help the bird regain its usual poise and after a few pecks and feather adjustments it rushes across the road to the sanctuary of a hedge. I cannot help but note that it does not look both ways.
The road to Ned’s Beach is marked by a clear sign and festooned with large spiders – Golden Orb Webs, with strands of web as thick as guitar strings and bodies the size and colour of pale grapes. The sign says “Give Way”, which seems more than reasonable in the circumstances.
The road to the beach passes through bare soil woodland, riddled with burrows, speckled with birdlime. Another road sign warns of “Mutton Birds on Road” – and there are a few flattened carcasses to show that not everyone pays attention. Beyond the trees, grassy areas open on both sides of the road. The right opens to picnic tables and barbeques, the left through sand dunes to the sea. The sweep of the beach consists of classically golden yellow sand, with only a handful of people in sight, and they are all at the far end of the beach. A small group – adults and children – stand in the surf at the same end, squealing with delight. I suspect I know why. There is too much to see, but what distracts me most is the air full of birds at the other, quieter, end of the beach.
I focus on the birds in the air and almost stand on one on the ground. I stand still and look around. The dunes are full of Sooty Terns, black and white with a bandit eye mask. There are small chicks hiding in the coarse grasses that pop from the sand, and overhead there are adult birds screaming in protest. Sitting on the grass seems to dull the anxiety of the adults in the air above me. Soon some sense of calm descends as the birds realise I am just another harmless visitor. Life around me returns to normal, as the birds ignore me and I stare at them.
It can give you an interesting perspective on life, being ignored by all the hectic activity around you. The birds have better things to do than be concerned by a strange figure who as moved from sitting on the ground to lying down. The ever hungry chicks walk from cover and hunt the sky for their parents, who return, now and then, with small silver fish or a crop full of protein rich sludge. The fish look the more appetising option, although the chicks don’t seem to care.
It’s hard to believe that less than an hour ago I was on a plane, breathing recycled air, impatient with anticipation. An hour ago I had only seen Sooty Terns as a rather distant white shape, and now they surround me in their hundreds, maybe thousands. Each wing flick, each beak snap is now revealed in pin sharp clarity. It seems futile to think that such life can be rendered comprehensible or captured in a single frame. It seems distracting to think of shutter speeds and apertures. The abundance seems overwhelming; simultaneously remarkable and unbelievable. To have come so far to see so much, in a place so small.
And I know this is just the start of it. At the other end of the beach another world awaits under the water. Brightly coloured fish swim through the surf and shimmer in the sunlit waves. Coral heads poke through the surface, and distant grey waders flicker from rock to rock.
I have just over a week to here. It is best I make the most of it.