Katrina Lobley finds peace among the inimitable characters and rugged beauty of Lord Howe Island.
We're off to one of the world's most beautiful places. But instead of contemplating Lord Howe Island's natural assets, numbers weigh on our minds. I'm in a group of five girlfriends spending six nights in a place where the grocery prices can make your eyes pop. We've devised a plan to self-cater and have drawn up individual shopping lists of provisions to take with us. Now just one obstacle stands in the way - an almost impossible checked-luggage limit of 14 kilograms each.
At Sydney Airport, we're in various states of fluster. One of our number has ditched her wine. Another has left the citrus at home. And we won't be having bacon. We take stock of each bag's weight, shift a packet here and a bottle there, trying to even them out. Only one of five bags comes in at less than 14 kilograms but our luggage is checked through anyway.
Food is also on the mind of the chief executive of the Lord Howe Island Board, Stephen Wills, who is taking the same plane. He's got a recipe for Lord Howe Island kingfish with buckwheat noodles and promises to drop it off at the apartment we've rented, a self-contained three-bedroom place. Somerset Apartments is halfway between the lagoon and Ned's Beach, where for years visitors have hand-fed kingfish, pretty green-blocked wrasse and sand mullet - while keeping an eye on the odd galapagos shark.
The recipe eventually arrives in an envelope on our verandah - just like every other message we get on Lord Howe. With no mobile phone network on the island - and no landline in the apartment (or lock, like every other place here) - it's lovely to communicate in this old-fashioned way.
Our first verandah message is about the bus that's picking two of us up early next morning. It will take us to Jack Shick, who will be waiting by the beach for his group of climbers. He regularly takes visitors straight up the block of rock known as Mount Gower, which clocks in at 875 metres high.
Shick turns 50 in August but has the lean legs, energy and disposition of a man half his age. The fifth-generation islander climbed the mountain at the age of eight and, in guiding visitors to the summit, he is literally following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. During his childhood, he was also made to milk cows, triggering a lifelong aversion to the beasts. "The only way I like cows is on the barbecue," he says in his typical deadpan way.
Shick is quick off the mark - shooting off, with 14 of us trailing behind, doing our best to keep up. At Erskine's Creek, we refill water bottles and start puffing up the nearly vertical ascent. "Close the gap," he orders the stragglers, perhaps unaware they're already doing their best.
A light shower makes the trail slippery but Shick - an adrenalin junkie who recently discovered kitesurfing - barely lets up. It's hard to believe this man is the island's champion at doing something slowly.
Discovery Day is celebrated on February 17 - the day Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball spotted the island in 1788 - with a fish fry and old-fashioned games, such as wheelbarrow races and palm-tree climbing, at the Central School. Shick is the island's slow bike-race champion - he can ride a bicycle the slowest without falling off.
Two of our slowest stragglers wait on a saddle as we continue to pull ourselves up sheer rock faces with ropes. At a tiny clearing, Shick "calls down" the providence petrels that circle and squawk during April, the peak month for seeing them here before they migrate to Siberia. They flop out of the sky and almost fall over themselves to get to Shick. On the ground, the petrels are so clumsy and unafraid you can pick them up carefully, cradle them in your hands and feel their tiny hearts beating. It's quite something.
We rise further into the "mist forest", where tiny white orchids and khaki lichens dangle from tree trunks.
"This is so beautiful," gasps the geologist behind me. Through gnarled branches and kentia palms, we glimpse the gothic-looking spire of Ball's Pyramid 23 kilometres out to sea.
When we finally reach the summit of Mount Gower, there's just half an hour to wolf down sandwiches, watch the petrels wheel in the sky and scribble our thoughts in Shick's visitors' book, which he keeps in a box on a tree up here. "It would be easier to see the providence petrels in Siberia," writes one wit. "Piece of piss," scribbles a builder from Christmas Island.
For the rest of the week, we bump into our fellow climbers all over the island and compare notes on our recovery (it takes about two days to stop hobbling). I have more help recovering than most, with a Gower's Foot Therapy treatment ($110) at Capella Lodge. I suggest to the spa therapist, Sarah, there should be a Gower's hand treatment, too - for the rope burn - and find my hands massaged as well.
With still-aching thighs, I set off to Arajilla's banyan-shaded yurt for an ayurvedic body massage ($110) from Scott Allen. His partner, Kim Shead, is the daughter of the retreat's owners, Bill and Janne. Kim also works in the spa but we meet her another day when we take a yoga class in the community hall. As we do our downward dogs and head stands, trying to ignore the thump of the island's diesel generator across the road, I contemplate the connections between the 360 islanders that are unearthed wherever we go.
After the massage, I take tea with Arajilla's manager, Doug Koppel, on the Balinese-style pavilion, where the conversation turns to Shick. "He climbed that mountain on his wedding day to pick a flower only found at the top for his bride," Koppel says. Clearly there's more to the mountain man than meets the eye.
Wills, the island's chief executive, says Shick and Dean Hiscox, a former island ranger who also leads Mount Gower trips, are examples of the co-operative spirit he hopes to encourage among the island's business operators. The two men happily refer visitors they can't personally help to each other.
We never meet Hiscox but we do meet his parents, Ken and Jill Hisco. (They dropped the silent "x" to avoid mispronunciations as they moved around Pacific islands following their calling for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church; the island's Seventh-Day Adventist-owned businesses are closed on Saturdays.)
Ken takes us out on a glass-bottomed boat ($45 each) on a squally day that only a providence petrel would love. As he walks along the beam separating the panes of glass, he wisecracks, "This is the only time you'll see me walking on water". He's proud of how healthy the lagoon's coral reefs are and guides the boat over Comet's Hole and Erscott's Hole. Some of us brave the chill and plop off the stern for a snorkel. To the envy of others, I spot a double-header wrasse and the long spindly legs of a painted cray trying to hide under a coral ledge.
Back on land, Jill fills a basin with warm water for our frozen feet and makes hot drinks.
Once we're warm, we pedal home to Somerset and Jill heads off in a bus to pick up Dean's exhausted walkers, even though she's had a long day herself - she and Ken rise at 5am each day to clean the island's amenity blocks, putting the money earned towards favourite causes. "On an island like this, you wear 10 hats," she says matter-of-factly.
We return another day to rent a double kayak ($20 an hour) from the Hiscos to paddle out to Blackburn Island, where we find fuzzy shearwater chicks nuzzled among the roots of a giant banyan tree. Unlike the noisy providence petrels, these chicks wait in silence for their parents to return with dinner.
I like Lord Howe every which way but I like it most when I'm pedalling my bike with a basket ($8 a day, $50 a week from Wilson's) along roads shaded by Norfolk pines and kentia palms, returning the obligatory wave from island drivers and saying hello to everyone else on two wheels.
Sometimes I stand up on my pedals to feel 10 years old again and 10-feet tall. We cycle down to Old Settlement Beach to swim with green turtles - even in autumn, the water is 23 degrees - and return again at night, wearing head torches, to pick up grilled kingfish and chips ($22 a serve) from the restaurant at Milky Way Villas, pre-ordered using the free local phone in the main street. (We pick up the island's ordering system quickly, after missing out on the bowling club's $15 pie night, not knowing pies must be ordered the day before.) In the dark, we pedal to the bowlo, which insists patrons wear at least thongs on their feet, for a takeaway bottle to accompany our fish and chips.
With no big-city pollution, the stars glow brightly here. We look up at the fingernail moon and wish - as hard as we ever wished upon the moon or a star when we were kids - that our time on Lord Howe might never end. Then we remember that tomorrow - our last day - is the first day of school holidays, the day teenagers return to the island from their mainland boarding schools. Perhaps it's time to leave Lord Howe, after all.
Getting there Qantas has a fare to Lord Howe Island from Sydney (80min) for about $905 return, including tax, on QantasLink. Melbourne passengers need to connect in Sydney. Valid ID is required at check-in.
Staying there With just 400 visitors permitted on Lord Howe Island at any time, it is advisable to book accommodation before flights. There are 18 properties to choose from. Many visitors book flight and accommodation packages through specialised Lord Howe Island travel wholesalers; phone 1800 240 937, see lordhoweisland.info.
If you are self-catering, bring groceries (watch their weight) as they are expensive to buy on the island. Wine is reasonably priced at the government-controlled liquor store. The island is very dark at night, so bring a torch.
Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW and the Lord Howe Island Tourism Association.