Lord almighty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am

Silence can be deafening to a city dweller. And on Lord Howe Island - whose name few are familiar with and whose shores even fewer have touched - silence prevails. The name conjures up majestic images of towering cliffs, turquoise coral-infused waters and a delicate paradise removed from convention, time and, of course, noise.

Lord Howe's windswept airport, as with many of the island's gathering places, has the feeling of a communal living room; everyone clearly knows everyone else and all eyes are on the newest batch of visitors to this pint-sized utopia. A massive, moustachioed man wrapped in an official-looking polo shirt with 'Customs' stenciled across the back casually watches as tourists file past - he is also the island's lone policeman.

Lord Howe was discovered in February 1788 by the crew of HMS Supply, commanded by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, whose name was later used for the island's tallest point and also Ball's Pyramid, a tooth of rock that rises out of the water off the coast. The island itself was named after Richard, Earl Howe, First Lord of Britain's Admiralty. The British navy has a long association with Lord Howe Island, most recently evoked in 2002 with the near sinking of the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Nottingham after it struck Wolf Rock, off the island.

Located 700km northeast of Sydney, Australia, the Lord Howe group consists of several outcrops of land, a volcanic legacy dating back 7 million years. It remains an ecological wonderland, boasting 241 species of native plant, 105 of which are endemic. There are 168 species of bird, including the rare flightless woodhen and massive glider-like providence petrels, which dance on cliff thermals or gossip on the surf-drenched rocks.

Tourism came slowly to the island - until the airstrip was cleared in 1974, the small population was left to the isolation of the sea. To help protect it, only 400 tourists are allowed on the island at any time.

The beautifully unassuming Arajilla resort - where door keys are deemed unnecessary - is just minutes, through park-like surroundings, from the airport. The road is shared by cyclists and golf buggies, few of which look like they could break the 25km/h speed limit.

Peddle power is the name of the game and it's not far down the coastal road from Arajilla to a beach with stunning turquoise waters lapping at powdery sand. Ned's Beach seems cheated by its name but wherever he is, Ned must be proud. Black and silver bullet-shaped fish wrestle in the shallows, having been tamed by the offerings of crusty bread handed out by tourists. The fish in the lagoon are not only spoiled, they are protected, as with so many other wonders in this Unesco World Heritage-listed paradise.

Cycling to places with intriguing names such as the Valley of Shadows and Kim's Lookout, visitors should be ready to return a friendly wave. Sunsets must not be missed and are best viewed from the beaches lining the lagoon, where you can look out over the southern-most coral in the world.

Much of the tourist trade is centred on this bay and its coral reefs. Donning wetsuits, sun screen and smiles, visitors climb into a small glass-bottom boat, which chugs quietly 100 metres across to the reef, where technicoloured coral plumes provide hiding places for aquatic life. Some of the bigger fish, now familiar with the boat and its potential meal, nudge the bobbing hull.

Diving into the freezing, pristine waters, you come face to face with fish of every imaginable shape, colour and pattern. The reef remains healthy, unlike others in the region, thanks to its limited contact with humanity.

Back on dry land, a 'short walk' to the top of Kim's Lookout turns out to be 1,000 steps up a steep bush-clad hill but the views are well worth the effort. Massive cliffs plummet to crashing surf and fat, white gulls swoop and soar. In the distance, jagged Ball's Pyramid rises from the Tasman Sea.

The path to Kim's Lookout passes the site where, in 1948, a Catalina flying boat operated by the Royal Australian Air Force clipped trees while performing an emergency landing in the lagoon and crashed onto Old Settlement Beach, with the loss of seven lives. A thought-provoking memorial honours the airmen - but then, most of Lord Howe is thought provoking in its beauty.

Getting there Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com), Qantas (www.qantas.com.au) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Hong Kong to Sydney. Qantas operates direct turboprop flights from Sydney to Lord Howe with a flying time of two hours. Season frequency applies. Arajilla (www.arajilla.com.au) is a member of Select Hotels and Resorts.