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The last paradise

“I’ll tell you everything you need to know about Lord Howe, mate,” said a man riding alongside me on his bike. He was barefoot — the sign of a local. I hadn’t asked him a question. He’d just pulled up beside me and started talking.
Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island, AustraliaMark A. Johnson / Corbis
/ Source: Islands Magazine

“I’ll tell you everything you need to know about Lord Howe, mate,” said a man riding alongside me on his bike. He was barefoot — the sign of a local. I hadn’t asked him a question. He’d just pulled up beside me and started talking. “I haven’t watched a telly in 10 years. My mind is bliss. I wake up every morning, look at the lagoon, Lidgbird, Gower and all them birds and still think I’ve fallen through heaven’s hedge and straight into a postcard of paradise.” He looked at me, down at my shoe-clad feet, and said, “Have ya met Ian? He can tell ya all about this make-believe island. Weeds, birds, fish. The lot.”

In 1998 I read an article about Lord Howe Island. The words and images were like an enchanted net. I could close my eyes and imagine the tingly scent of its salt air, see the quiet hush of green on the steep cliffs and feel the downy touch of the water in the lagoon as it swirled and wrapped around my body. My traveler’s heart had been caught. But Lord Howe is on the way to nowhere, and for 18 more years it sat in the middle of the southern Pacific, waiting, wrapped, unchanging. Always at the edge of my memory.

When I finally found a way to get to Lord Howe, I did no more research. No articles, no videos, no books. I refused to break the spell I’d carried with me for all those years. I wanted the island to surprise me. I wanted to sense and feel everything as though a dew-fresh kiss; to travel like T.S. Eliot and “know the place for the first time.”

Now, 18 years later, I’d been on Lord Howe for almost 24 hours. I’d also been awake for most of those 24 hours because I’d fallen through the same hedge and knew if I slept and truly dreamed, my sleepy reveries would pale in comparison. Dreams here are idle time in wait of the dawn. But I couldn’t rip my gaze from the night sky anyway: a sky that sits so low over the island that you’ve no doubt you could readily sail the world using just the thick carpet of stars and galaxies above for guidance. The images I’d carried with me, the memories of a place I’d never been, were all coming alive, virtually unchanged, with every glance.

And, yes, I was on my way to meet Ian.

Lord Howe rises from the ocean like a fairy tale castle. Its two ramparts, Mounts Gower and Lidgbird, reach almost straight up into the misty heights of the sky. White strips of water fall from their sides like ribbons from a maypole. From above, the island looks like it was pieced together from a thousand perfect island dreams. Thick forests and open, green grass fields curl around each other, crescent sweeps of sand smile up from the island on all sides, and the water in the lagoon is the kind of blue that only Merlin could conjure.

I soon found myself walking through a forest of Kentia palm and thick-trunked banyan trees, about three steps behind Ian Hutton. Ian is the world’s expert on the flora and fauna of Lord Howe and is a gatekeeper of sorts for the island. If you want to truly see Lord Howe, I’d been told, Ian can show you more in 20 feet than you could ever observe in a lifetime on your own. The way he talks, it’s as if he was around when the island was discovered in 1788, maybe since the first bird landed on the shoreline. He knows, literally, everything about this 6.2-mile-long island.

As we walked past the lagoon, Ian was able to name every fish. On the other side of us, a cloud-hushed banyan forest climbed the steep hillside to the summit a thousand feet above us. We stopped and Ian started clapping as if we’d passed through some border crossing and it was time for impromptu applause. I circled around 360 degrees, looking for the audience.

It’s like that with Ian: About 10 minutes earlier, we’d been chatting about how the locals all go barefoot when he suddenly stopped, reached into a hole along the side of the path and pulled out a gray ball of fur with a beak — a baby shearwater.

“Its mum won’t be back for about three days, so she digs a big hole for the chicks to wait in,” Ian had said. “It’s pretty easy access, which is why we don’t allow cats on the island. Cats are like furry little demons on Lord Howe.”

It was quiet, that chick. Never peeped.

“No good calling for its mum. She’s a hundred miles out to sea. It’s better off keeping quiet, hoping I’ll go away.”

He then stuffed the little down-ball back into the hole. And yanked a weed out of the ground, pocketing it.

“We’ve almost rid the island of weeds,” he’d said. “Get heaps of people here in summer to help pluck the weeds.”

A few steps later he was clapping.

I’d already figured out that if Ian stops and does something unannounced and somewhat out of the ordinary, there’s probably a good reason. But that said, suddenly clapping in the dark shade of the forest still seemed like a mildly crazy thing to do. Then I heard it.

“You’ll see it now. The woodhen. It’s unique to Lord Howe. Almost disappeared, but we’ve got the population up to 220 now from just six about 30 years ago.”

With that, a red-eyed woodhen step-ped out to the middle of the path to protect its territory. Apparently the clapping (as opposed to our loud talking, branches snapping or the occasional lightning strike) sounded like a rival woodhen, and we needed to be dealt with. Ian beamed. “We’re quite lucky to see one.”

Having given us her dagger-eyed, this - is - my - part - of - the - forest stare, the woodhen scuttled back to the underbrush, confident in its bravado, and we continued on a path that began to rise  up into the clouds. I’d arrived during winter, when most of the seabirds are away, so we stopped about halfway up the cliff.

“Of course,” said Ian, “if you come during the right season you’ll see millions of seabirds — sooty terns, flesh-footed shearwaters, black-winged petrels — nesting along the cliffs and at the summits. During nesting season the sky darkens when the birds leave their nests for the open ocean.”

We jump on our bikes the next morning and ride over to Ned’s Beach. No one on the island knows why it’s called Ned’s Beach — or if they do, they’re not telling the story. But it doesn’t matter. When we arrive, this perfect crescent of silky, golden sand is empty except for one kid, his mom and a bunch of ducks that strut around like a motorcycle gang. The kid stands at the edge of the surf, works up his courage and tosses in some bread. The surface of the water explodes with kingfish, chub and a whirlwind of ducks.

Several years ago, a local man started coming to Ned’s to throw his kitchen leftovers into the water. Fish and fowl caught on, and now several dozen four- to five-foot-long king-fish patrol the shallows 24 hours a day, their dorsal fins slicing figure-eights in the flat surface of the water. Things like this are why the locals don’t watch television. It’s become an evening ritual for many families to come to Ned’s at sunset. Me, I want to join the fray.

I don a wetsuit, mask and snorkel and pad down the beach accompanied by a phalanx of ducks. I look back up the beach and see my footprints flanked by web-footed impressions and chuckle to myself. I wade into the water through a cloud of giggles just as the kid throws a massive handful of bread into the water. For a moment I’m engulfed in Armageddon, bumped and ignored from below and surrounded by a cartoon halo of brawling ducks above. But as soon as I dip my head underwater it’s as if I’ve slipped into a daydream. The frenzy has calmed, the kingfish polarize and circle me in a hush of nonchalant movement. The water is so clear it’s like heavy air, and the colors of the world’s southernmost reef stretch out on the undersea horizon. Jolts of life are everywhere. A green sea turtle comes in for a look, then banks over the reef revealing a kingdom of pink, gray and electric-orange corals.

When I finally pull myself from the water at low tide, Ian and I stand on the shore talking, sipping hot tea as the tide rolls in. We don’t really need to do anything else. The great sidereal movements of time and tide meander around us without the slightest sense of urgency. As the shadows lengthen and the breeze slips crisply off the water, I feel like I could go 10 years without television. I don’t need to know anything more than what I know right now. The dawn will come and, with it, another unexpected moment will reveal itself, trembling and full of life. And like it has done every day since it was first discovered, the island will rise from the deep ocean at first light, and everyone who makes it to this idyllic place will awake and, like me, Ian, the man on the bike and the first sailor who felt the brush of Lord Howe’s sand on his feet, fall through the hedge again.

And again.

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