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Lord Howe Island Getaway
Night fell suddenly on the little yacht, an insignificant speck on the turbulent Tasman Sea. Ominous clouds closed in and rain fell in abundance. The same three and four meter waves that had been so exhilarating sailing in the daylight, became menacing monsters, intent on dumping tons of frothy water onto Levi’s deck and into his cabin. The sails were double reefed in anticipation of a stormy night.
We had left New Zealand’s picturesque Bay of Islands seven days earlier aboard my yacht Levitation, a Cavalier 32, bound for Queensland, Australia. I had arranged to clear customs at Lord Howe Island, as is popular for many yachts crossing between the two countries.
My crew: Orit, a 24-year-old Israeli girl, a brilliant backpacker, who had no sailing experience. She had a spell in the army after school and wanted to become a marine biologist. And Nick, 50, who had sailed most of his life and had crewed yachts in Queensland inshore regattas, although he never owned his own yacht, fancied himself a seafaring expert.
Orit and I were on watch all night. Searching the darkness through the rain, we finally made out the black triangle known as Balls Pyramid and the towering mountains of Lord Howe Island.
It felt strange…I couldn’t see any navigation lights…just the ever increasing size of the black land mass. I looked on the chart for the magenta flash mark to indicate a beacon and couldn’t find one. I couldn’t even spot the light that should be on top of the mountain for air traffic. I called channel 16 on VHF periodically throughout the night. No answer
Dawn finally broke, gray and cheery, with boisterous 25-30 kt southeasterly winds churning the sea. At 6:00 a.m. the radio boomed and I made contact with someone outside of our little world. What a relief, I was anxious to get the marine weather forecast. I was told that the weather and tidal conditions were not favorable for sailing through the narrow entrance to the coral reef, but by mid-afternoon the situation was expected to improve.
Exhausted we all wanted to get in before nightfall and the tiredness made us nervous. “As soon as my feet hit the ground, I head to the nearest McDonald’s, a Big Mac and a thick milkshake,” Orit fantasized. “For me it’s a long hot shower, clean hair, dry clothes, and then I’ll settle for a cold glass of chardonnay,” I replied. Nick was quiet! Darkness settled in as the harbormaster led us through the narrow coral inlet, where the wind still whipped whitecaps into the calmer waters of the lagoon. He shone his high beam torch on the two unlit triangular nav aids and lined them up. There were no port or starboard marks, and what I thought was a main light turned out to be a lone light on the shore. The mooring was close to the coral inlet and the chain was difficult to raise and secure in the still stormy conditions.
The island was dark and forbidden. Where was the village, the lights of any kind (navigation, street, car!) and all the familiar signs of life we are used to! This was really strange for me. In all my travels I had never experienced this before. This was far from what we envisioned as our tropical island getaway.
The sun rose on a new day, and so did our spirits. We were in awe of the majestic twin mountains of Gower and Lidguard, their peaks shrouded in mist. The alluring emerald and turquoise waters of the crystalline lagoon met with sun-kissed sand and lush tropical forest. Ivory foam cascaded over the world’s southernmost coral reef. We hand fed schools of fish.
We impatiently waited for the wind to die down, then climbed aboard my inflatable, balancing 3 garbage bags of wet, smelly laundry. After a long line we took our cargo up the boat ramp. Land firm, how wonderful it felt. The customs agent barefoot and wearing shorts and a t-shirt met us in his office (the back of a 4×4). I paid a fee of $150 and made arrangements for the quarantine check.
Now it was time to indulge our desire to explore. Nick headed to Wilson’s Bike Rentals. From time to time we see him, upside down with a multi-colored helmet on, pacing furiously. Orit and I decided to walk.
At Aunt Sue’s garden restaurant we devoured a meal of freshly caught fish and garden salad. What a luxury after the last eight days. Leanda Lei apartments allowed us to use their laundry. Orit and I rowed back to Levi. Nick was still doing his thing and chose to meet some of the locals at the Bowling Club.
As night fell, the wind whipped the waters of the lagoon. Levi swayed alarmingly, sometimes healing himself. Bullets of wind accelerated up the mountains at amazing speed, rocking us and pulling us against our mooring. I was afraid the chain would break and we would end up on the rocks or coral. In a calm we put on harnesses (yes in a mooring) and ventured out, securing the boat with more rope and chain. Our first night was very restless. At intervals throughout the night I checked the GPS and waypoints to make sure we hadn’t drifted.
Travel brochures describe Lord Howe as “not just another island, but another world”. And that is! Discovered in 1788 and settled in 1833, Lord Howe is one of the first three islands in the world to receive World Heritage status and is impressive for its natural beauty, marine and plant life. It is only 11 km long and 2.8 km wide, 700 km NE of Sydney, Australia. Two volcanic mountains dominate the island and overlook the lagoon surrounded by reefs and its rolling surf.
Many of its 300 inhabitants are descendants of the original settlers. The Wilsons, who have operated Ocean View Apartments for more than 90 years, have collected many memories from visiting boaters and travelers during that time.
Nick didn’t decide to fly home. Orit stayed with me and we settled into a relaxed lifestyle while we made repairs and waited for a favorable weather window.
One night we walked fearlessly in absolute darkness as there are no street lights to the bowling club under a canopy of dense tropical foliage. The keys are left in the ignition of the cars and the doors unlocked, no one steals them where they would go. Car accidents, the worst I was told was hitting a tree while drunk after leaving the bowling club. The speed limit is 25 km across the island and bicycles have the right of way.
We enjoyed happy hour at the bowling club, live music at the Pine Trees Resort and played Bongo Drums with some of the locals as they played guitars and sang.
No, we didn’t find a McDonald’s or even an ATM. High-rise buildings, grand hotels, movie theaters, shopping malls and marinas were notably absent. But then they were also the things that can only go with development; pollution, traffic jams, high crime rate and stress.
What we did find in abundance were the most important things that nourish the soul. Lord Howe is unspoilt and serene, a haven for rare and beautiful birds, a mecca for anglers. You can go scuba diving or snorkeling in the crystal clear lagoon and you can fish in deep water beyond the reef. It’s a place to escape the fast life… And lazily embrace beauty and simplicity.
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