Lord Howe Island's cheeky providence petrels might have noticed something was up.
The tiny World Heritage-listed island, the birds' last breeding stronghold in the world, is part of NSW but became off-limits to tourists in March to protect its 350 residents from the pandemic. That meant no jelly-legged, sweat-drenched, out-of-breath mainlanders were straggling up the flanks of Mount Gower on a guided hike that is ranked among the world's best day walks.
When the island's visitors return, the extraordinarily bold petrels, which soar, wheel and nest in burrows around Mount Gower's summit during the cooler months, will again be able to eyeball astonished humans.
Looking at Mount Gower, one of two colossal blocks of rock that give the island its distinctive silhouette, it might seem as though its summit is beyond reach of mere mortals. Yet if you have moderate fitness coupled with a stubborn streak, there's every chance of scrambling up the challenging track and pulling yourself up the odd rock face with ropes to reach the gnarled, mossy cloud forest – home to lichen-embroidered trees that shade shrubs, ferns and little mountain palms.
Guide and fifth-generation islander Jack Shick uses tough love to encourage his guests upwards towards the summit and its unbeatable views. Along the way, you can occasionally pause to reset the heart rate and enjoy moments such as the petrels being "called down" from the sky. The clumsy grey-brown birds have no fear of humans and one bounces off my head as it stages a soft landing; it's also possible to cradle these wild creatures in your hands.
Another bird on Mount Gower is the flightless woodhen. By 1972, their population had fallen to just 17 birds on the summit. Following a successful captive breeding program, woodhens now waddle all over the island and road signs warn drivers to take care near the birds' favourite crossings.
Prefer to hike at your own pace, or want something less challenging than Gower? Head to Goat House Cave, located about halfway up neighbouring Mount Lidgbird. Here, in summer, you're level with red-tailed tropicbirds gracefully gliding through the air. Sneak around the corner from the cave to spot Balls Pyramid, the world's tallest sea stack, 23 kilometres away on the seaspray-smudged horizon.
Besides bird-spotting, visitors can tick off plenty of marine species (the island sits at the confluence of five major ocean currents). Neds Beach on the surf side is famous for the friendly kingfish, mullet, wrasse, garfish and spangled emperor that swarm around your legs as you wade into the water. They've learnt that humans usually come bearing food – a pellet dispenser is located at the nearby beach shed.
Lord Howe has the world's most southerly coral reef and the lagoon is a fantastic place to go snorkelling or hop into a glass-bottom boat to spy turtles, stingrays, technicolour fish and double-header wrasse gliding among the coral gardens. Divers can explore more than 60 sites, including the waters around Balls Pyramid. The rewards might include dolphins, marlin and schools of rainbow runners and violet sweep.
Holidaying on Lord Howe revolves around simple pleasures such as pie night at the bowling club and beachside picnics. You can explore the island by bicycle, standing on the pedals as you zoom beneath canopies of Kentia palms,feeling like you're 10 years old again.
Pinetrees Lodge, an institution that ranks among the island's best (and tastiest) stays, is also about the simple life. There's no in-room TV or Wi-Fi here; in fact, with no mobile coverage on the island, devices can stay in a drawer. Any tweeting will come straight from the show-stopping birds.
WHAT TO READ: Trish Morey set her 2019 novel, One Summer Between Friends, on Lord Howe Island. It tells the story of Sarah, who returns to run the family store but instead finds herself trapped in paradise with her two former best friends.