I’ve just returned from spending a week on Lord Howe Island – participating in a photography workshop led by David Burren and Michael Snedic. These guys are outstanding photographers and are excellent tutors. We had ten people on the workshop and it was wonderful to have a whole week in which to concentrate on photo taking and sharing technical tips.
Lord Howe Island is a crescent-shaped island created by volcanic activity around six million years ago. It is located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 kilometres east of the Australian mainland. It’s a tiny island – just 10 km long and between 2.0 km and 0.3 km wide. The eastern side of the island consists of rugged coastline while most of the western coast is sheltered by a semi-enclosed coral reef lagoon. This is the most southerly barrier-reef in the world. Most of the locals live in the north, while the south is dominated by two high mountains – Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird. They create a stunning backdrop from almost everywhere on the island.
The island was first discovered in 1788 when Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, commander of the Armed Tender HMS Supply (one of the ships of the first fleet) was on its way from Botany Bay to found a penal settlement on Norfolk Island. Lord Howe Island subsequently became a provisioning port for the whaling industry. The first settlers arrived in 1834. Its current major industry, tourism, started after World War II when Lord Howe became accessible by flying boat
The Lord Howe Island Group is part of the state of New South Wales. Obviously, it uses Australian currency and is one of the areas of paradise that we Australians can reach without a passport and the rigours of passing through any form of customs and immigration control. We stayed at the Ocean View Motel which is situated straight up the road from the wharf. It provides a very comfortable three star accommodation set in some beautifully maintained gardens. There are only 360 people living on the island and visitor numbers are restricted to around 400 at any one time.
Ned’s Beach was the site of our first sunrise shoot. It was just a short walk from our motel. To get there, we had to pass through a short area of rain forest that was inhabited by hundreds of Mutton Birds (Shearwaters). We literally had to step over them as we walked along the road to the beach. They were moving out of their burrows and onto the road ready for their flight out to sea at first light. These birds had a plaintiff call that sounded like ‘Pick Me, Pick Me’. I didn’t want to risk choosing an ugly one, so I didn’t pick any of them. I thought that it was far better to just walk carefully between them, trying not to step on them by torch light.
This beach provided us with a bright golden sunrise, although as a long and open beach it offered little that would provide any form of stunning composition. Sooty Terns were nesting in the long grass in the sand dunes behind the beach and we had to walk within inches of their eggs to get down to the water. After the sun rose, these birds provided us with a real challenge in trying to photograph them in flight as they wheeled and manoeuvered on the wind. This beach is a defined marine park. As a result, it is alive with fish. The staple seafood on the island is Kingfish and these will swim right around your legs as you stand ankle deep in the water along the beach. Virtually all the restaurants on the island have Kingfish on their menu and it is delicious.
At the time of our visit to the island, there was a lack of access to the Internet. The local ISP has failed and the only two readily available sources of contact with the outside world were at the Museum (about a kilometre away) or at the Anchorage Cafe in the street next to our motel.
We trudged down to the Anchorage on many times for breakfast, coffee and dinner as well as for access to emails. It was an easy walk of about one hundred metres down the motel driveway, then a left turn through a turnstile and a shortcut of a couple of hundred more metres across a grassy paddock The paddock was inhabited by a Hereford cow and a young black steer. They were always much more interested in eating grass than the procession of people passing through their space.
The sky was very clear and on one night a group of us decided to head down to the paddock after dinner and set up our tripods to take some shots of the Milky Way. We found a good place just inside a gate and we were very happily taking photos until we heard some strange munching and growling noises. On turning on my headlamp, I found myself looking straight up the nostrils of the black steer which had come right up to us in the dark, wanting to get through the gate. We quietly moved aside and the steer passed us, happy to move to another part of the paddock, just as we were happy for him to move a little further away.
We spent a fantastic day travelling by boat up to North Bay. On the way, we stopped to snorkel amongst the colourful coral. I was looking out for Nemo but Clown Fish didn’t seem to be present in these waters. Perhaps Nemo couldn’t get a holiday and was at fish school somewhere else in the world on that day. We did see a lot of colourful fish around the coral as well as a couple of wrecks that sit in the lagoon from many years ago. I’m not a great swimmer, but once I got used to being in the water, I had a ball. We saw turtles and giant sting rays in the clear azure waters of the lagoon along with the coral and many species of colourful fish. Our boat driver, Anthony, cooked us a delicious barbecue of kingfish and salad on the beach and afterwards we went for a short walk up to Kim’s Lookout and saw one of the iconic postcard views across the lagoon to the mountains at the other end of the island.
The focus of our photography was on both birds and landscape. Some of our group members were fanatic bird photographers and they searched for every LLB (little brown bird) in sight. Some of these were the Silver Eye or Golden Whistler that lived in the scrub. I was happy just to photograph the bigger birds like the Terns or the Sacred Kingfishers that were easier to find and flew in a way that was easier to photograph. When the wind was coming from the right direction, we could kneel on the sand and have Sooty Terns hover half a metre away from our faces. This was obviously too close for our long lenses to be able to focus but they made me laugh as they looked down on me with their back eyes, almost close enough for me to be able to touch them.
Because virtually everything has to be freighted to the island, prices for many things are higher than what we are used to on the mainland. Perhaps by 30 to 50%. However, that is just the price you pay for being in Paradise. The facilities are good, the accommodation options and the food are superb. Each motel has a number of bicycles for hire so it is easy to get around.. Cars are limited to a speed of 25 kmh and many people just get around by walking. Its a standard custom for everyone to say hello, or wave to each other as they pass. I thought this was great until I was on my bicycle. Not having ridden one for many years, my balance was not perfect and it took me an hour or so to be able to lift a hand off the handle bar to wave back and still keep my balance.
There are plenty of places to eat on the island and we were introduced to one of the very nice ones on our first night. There is a very cooperative system on the island that works very well. Each motel has a mini bus and at 6.30 pm they will take their guests to any of the clubs or restaurants that provide meals. (It’s also a good way to check with other people and find where they have eaten and get recommendations), After dinner, the restaurant people will return you to your accommodation in their bus. The menus seem to always include kingfish but generally have three or four other options as well. The island has two shopping areas about one kilometre apart. One is in the main street which has a post office, bank, cafe and a little general store. The biggest shop is near the Museum which also has a nice little cafe.
We were up early for two other sunrise shoots at Blinky Beach and near the Pier. I’m not a morning person and before this trip, I was sure that there was only one four o’clock in the day. These were quite long days – especially when we also had a late afternoon photo session around sunset. I’m glad that on one of these days we had a few hours in the middle of the day when I could take advantage of the free time and take a short nap. The weather for our sunset shoots wasn’t as kind to us as the skies were cloudy and any golden light was noticeably absent. Instead of finding red cloud, it was just as if a dimmer switch was being slowly rotated and the light gradually faded. We had to substitute photos of the shoreline for sunsets on these nights.
Behind our motel was a steep track that led us up to the top of Malabar Hill. It was a steep climb of around 220 metres and the views from the top were stunning. We passed the site where a Catalina aircraft crashed in 1948, killing six of its eight crew members. Some of our group climbed this hill more than once to take some sunset shots but I was happy just to see some of the island from a different perspective.
Late in the week, on our second last day, we visited a rainforest area known as the Valley of Shadows. We were lucky with the weather as that day happened to be cloudy. This gave us an even light in the forest and we didn’t have to cope with bright spots and conflicting areas of dark shadows. It was a very relaxing time just strolling along the path and taking in the beauty of the forest and occasionally hearing the cooing sound of Mutton Bird chicks in some of the hundreds of burrows. The forest consisted of a mixture of Kentia Palms (for which Lord Howe island is famous) and huge multi trunked Banyan trees with their multiple aerial roots and vast canopies.
We had one rest day and I decided to grab a bicycle and potter around some of the places that we had previously visited. I enjoyed the company of Iona who comes from the little Gippsland town of Nar Nar Goon. We found a very peaceful little cemetery and recognised some names from the island’s history on many of the headstones. Coffee at the Museum cafe was very welcome and we enjoyed an hour, or so, of looking at the exhibits at the excellent little museum. We picked up a sandwich to take away for lunch and then continued further around the coast until we reached the end of the road. It was a very windy day and part of our ride took us along a straight and open road along the side of the airstrip. We needed a couple of breaks as we pedalled hard into the wind. We ate our sandwiches on a beautiful little headland overlooking the lagoon, enjoying the peace and quiet. This was broken when a couple of workmen turned up with brush cutters to clear some of the scrub behind our seat. It was time to return anyway, so we loaded all our stuff back into the baskets of our bikes and pedalled home. It was much easier to ride along the road by the airstrip with the wind behind us – we sped along without hardly having to pedal at all.
The forest was very different to another place by the end of the road at the southern end of the island. This was at the foot of Mount Gower where a pathway continued on to where the steep walking track up the start of the mountain began. You can only climb the mountain if you are in a guided party. At this place, it looked to me as if I were on the set of a movie like South Pacific and I was tempted to break out into singing the song Bali Hai. However, I quickly realised that this would be very embarrassing and It would be far better for me to keep my singing prowess for under the shower.
Lord Howe is a much more dynamic place than that which we previously found a few years ago at another island destination of Norfolk Island. Lord Howe island has a different history and has a greater diversity of places to eat and stay. The accommodation options are more up-market. Unlike Norfolk Island which relies on commercial shipping once per month for supplies, Lord Howe has its own ship that services the island every fortnight. It can also dock at the pier, unlike Norfolk where everything has to be landed by lighter. This means that it is far easier to bring in supplies and materials for its infratstruxture. As part of NSW, it also has access to Australian health care, education and infrastructure.
Our flights to and from the island were on a stumpy little Dash 8 aircraft that carried only 36 passengers. It also takes the mail and other urgent supplies. Flights leave from either Sydney or Brisbane. I noticed that on Saturday there were four flights into and out of Lord Howe so it is a popular destination. Now that I am back home, I’m looking forward to editing my thousands of photos (it was a photography workshop) and deciding which ones to keep or discard. I’ll have a busy few days with a Probus outing on Tuesday, some landscape gardeners starting work on Wednesday and us leaving for the USA on Thursday. Perhaps I can take advantage of some of my travelling time to get some of this work done.