Lord Howe background

Web content the quick and dirty way: here are some mildly edited e-mails that I sent at various times, with a few pictures stuck in.


Seven million years ago, the Pacific Ocean was rather less than peaceful. About 700 kilometres north-east of Sydney, a shield volcano was bubbling away, heaving above the waves from a ridge that ran all the way down to New Zealand. Soon, the excitement eased, coral larvae drifted in and established themselves around the new shores, and fish and other marine forms of life gathered in the shelter of the coral reef.

The island was probably 50 km long, 15 km wide, and close to 2 km high at its best, but the life expectancy of a volcanic island is short. The rocks weather quickly, and the ocean waves pick away at any weakness in the rock. Soon, there was thin soil on the rocks. Seeds were either washed ashore or carried by birds, and once there, were able to take root and spread, their roots probing down to help attack the rich basalt. Lichen fragments and moss spores crept in on the wind to play their part in the destruction of the rocks.

The old volcanic rock had been split into many parts as hot basalt pushed up, making swarms of dykes, and now some of these dykes began to weather into pure kaolin, a white clay that washed out, leaving even more attack points in the rock. Columnar basalt from the later outpourings tumbled as weakly bonded ash beds beneath them washed away. Spiders drifted in on the wind, dangling from gossamer threads, and other insects arrived, somehow or other. It was a paradise for them, free of mammals and land reptiles.

There were still sea snakes, and there was a horned tortoise, Meiolania, that lived on the island. It still lived there just twenty thousand ears ago, when it mysteriously disappeared. It was a strange animal: the horns would have prevented it withdrawing its head into its shell, but perhaps it had no need of such defensive measures in paradise. Perhaps humans played a part in its demise, either dying off after that in a Pacific tsunami or in a storm, or maybe they moved on, once the tortoises were all eaten. At that time, humans were colonising the Pacific, but there is no trace of them having been on Lord Howe in prehistoric times today. There were birds as well, but for the most part, the invertebrates had a happy time of it all.

Time passed. Corals and shells, birds and tortoises lived and died, were washed ashore and piled up into sand heaps that hardened into stone. Species evolved, including the island's Kentia palms, and a stick insect, known as the ‘Lord Howe lobster’. Up until 1788, no human seems to have set foot on the island, which was now 11 km long, and 2 km wide. (Note -- officially no humans were there: as I have indicated above, I suspect that this may one day be shown to be wrong. Something has to explain why Meiolania went extinct.)

At one end, two mountain peaks loomed, one of them 875 metres high, the other 100 metres less. At the far end, a range of 200 metre basalt cliffs confronted the empty Pacific, rolling in from Japan, and in between, low hills of lime-rich sand and volcanic breccia linked them. The sea round about was dotted with volcanic islets, and 20 km to the south, a jagged triangle of rock thrusts 550 metres into the sky.

In 1788, a ship passed within sight, the first one ever to see the island, so far as we know. His Majesty's brig Supply was heading for Norfolk Island to establish a small naval base, an extension of the new settlement at ‘Botany Bay’. There, right in their way, was Lord Howe Island, and the brig's commander, Lt Henry Lidgbird Ball, marked it down on his chart.

After dropping people at Norfolk Island, Ball returned, explored and charted the island, and claimed it for Great Britain. He named the island for a highly respected admiral (the character of the fictional Richard Bolitho seems to be in part based on ‘Black Dick’ Howe). He gave second tallest mountain his own middle name, and the triangle to the south became Ball's Pyramid. Worst of all, he noted that wood and water could be easily had, and that the birds on the island were tame and easy to kill. The woodhen would just sit and wait to be hit on the head, and muttonbirds are easily seized as they land each night.

Paradise was now under threat. American whaling vessels came for provisions, they released pigs and goats to provide food, and by 1834, the first permanent settlers had arrived. They made a rough living by selling supplies to the visiting ships, and by gathering bird feathers to be used in mattresses. You can guess what happened to the birds . . .

The Kentia palm is the original ‘Palm court’ palm, the potted palm of hotel foyers and ocean liners, and this palm was turned into a major industry which continues even today. After a ship-wreck in 1918, rats came ashore and began eating the palm seed (and also the ‘Lord Howe lobster’, now apparently extinct). The rats are still hunted and baited: there are only a few of them left now, and the pigs are gone (except for one lone male), and there are just a few goats. Paradise seems a little more secure.

Sadly, Lord Howe Island is administratively a part of New South Wales, so it has no special quarantine arrangements to protect it, as Norfolk Island does. Worse, its main industry is now tourism, so people can tramp in with any old weed seeds caught in their socks, shoes, or trouser turn-ups (there's one biologically undesirable fashion I hope we've seen the last of!). As a result, you can see many common Sydney weeds on Lord Howe, but luckily most of them do not flourish well here.

Getting around

That is the down side. On the up side, half a paradise is still paradise enow for most of us. There are vehicles on the island, but they are few in number, and the island roads are mostly flat, so people get around on bicycles, and the speed limit is a placid 25 km/hr. There is an island bus, on the hour, every hour, give or take ten or twenty minutes either way, but never on a Sunday, and you always have at least two beaches in easy walking reach. (On our last visit, the bus was no more.)

Riding a bicycle brings you into close observation of your environment. The bicycle is a sensory lowest common denominator. Every imperceptible rise or fall is immediately noticeable as pressure on the pedals. So is the zephyr-like head-wind that turns what should, from memory, be a downhill slope into an uphill one. The lack of suspension, shock absorbers or anything else, makes you intimately aware that the island board has placed further patches in the patches in the patches on the road as you pass the airport. There is just solid steel and over-inflated tyres between you and the road.

There is no rubbish to be seen, there are four general stores selling all things to all men, a post office and a couple of specialised clothing stores, but that is all. Planes may fly in as often as twice a day, but there is a strict limit on the total number of visitors at any one time. You can fish, swim, snorkel on the reef, feed the fish at Ned's Beach - Ned's is a No Fishing Zone (originally declared by the islanders, it is now official), where some of the fish in the shallows are more than a metre long. If that does not interest you, well you can climb the hills and mountains, and at dusk, you can watch as the muttonbirds come swooping in to land on any open space before dashing into their burrows.

There are wrecks to dive on, turtles to follow under water, birds to watch and flowers to admire, heights to climb, beaches to wander along. There is a small and adequate museum, there are tracks to walk and fish to catch or just feed and befriend, and there are several superb eateries attached to the various ‘lodges’ on the island: Trader Nick's for lunch and Capella South for a sunset dinner should go in your gimme list right now. You get there by flying Qantas from Sydney: forget about seeing Naples and dying - go to Lord Howe instead. 31 south, 159 east . . .

Climbing Mount Gower

Only one of Lord Howe Island's two mountains is open for climbing, as there are no adequate mountain rescue services available within 500 kilometres. Even to climb the permitted mountain, you must be accompanied by a licensed guide. So being law-abiding types, we engage one, and embark on several training climbs. An easy 200 metres here, a quick 250 metres there, then 400 somewhere else . . . (On our most recent visit, a night rescue is needed to bring back two foolish women who climbed the Goathouse as it was getting dark, and then got lost on the way back down.)

Climbing a serious mountain may involve up to 9000 metres of ascent, but a non-serious 900 metre mountain can be almost as strenuous. The Lord Howe map implies a steady progression across the contours as you ascend Mount Gower, but on the ground, we see a different picture.

First, there are the undulations which reveal what happens to superannuated roller coaster engineers. They don't die: they retire to the island and eke out an existence building walking tracks, but old habits die hard, and their tracks swoop, plummet, zigzag, loop and swirl across the countryside. Then the little fleas have smaller fleas. Among the undulations are boulders, too high to step over, that have to be climbed onto and stepped down from. Like any good fractal system, the boulders are pitted with remnants of gas bubbles, but these lesser undulations are on a scale below our concern. Still, the boulders are enough, and we must take two steps back for every three steps forward.

But before we can get to that stage, we must traverse the Lower Road, a cliffside track around Mount Lidgbird, 150 metres as the dead crow plummets above rushing Pacific waves foaming through the highly-polished basalt boulders beneath us. And even earlier than that, we have to be ready at 7.15 am to catch the island's bus.

We are the first on the bus, but after two more stops we are joined by our guide and the rest of the party. At the road's end, we stride off along a track that winds in and out among the palms, shading us from the sun which even now has a bite to it. Then comes the first worrying haul, 200 metres or so up a 60 degree hill. There are fixed ropes to help us and steady us, but it is still a challenging climb. We are relieved when we reach a rocky overhang with level ground to stand on.

Here, our guide spells us for a bit, teaching my son and another younger member the art of climbing Kentia palms to collect the seed, traditional island style, like those monkey-on-a-stick toys. Then he opens a large metal chest like a pirates' treasure chest, and we all don hard hats against falling rocks before we venture out onto the Lower Road.

The perils are mainly psychological: we have all walked worse tracks than this before, but never with such a long yawning drop on one side. We have stood above a higher drop the day before, photographing a nesting tropic bird and its chick, but that involved no walking.

We may have nothing to fear but fear itself, but right now, that is a sufficient cause unto itself. The fixed ropes are bolted into the cliff, and even the most sure-footed among us cling to them as we walk. We try not to look up at the 400 metres of sheer rock face, much of it made of columns of basalt that cling lightly to the cliff towering over us, or down at the foam below. Some things are best left unconsidered.

We clamber slowly around Mt Lidgbird, to the end of the ropes. There we thankfully doff our hard hats, put on our shady ones, and pause to cover our exposed skin in sunscreen. Then we start upwards again, over the boulder-strewn roller coaster until we burst suddenly into a clearing with a creek running through it.

The whole of the South Pacific is drought-stricken at the moment, thanks to the El Niño effect, so we all carry water, but this stream is potable and welcome. From here though, the track becomes a leg killer, streaking up from 200 metres to 650 metres as it winds onto a saddle between the two peaks, with marvellous views back across the island.

My standard biography lists one of my activities as climbing small mountains slowly, but I now notice this is not a small mountain. Moreover, we are not going slowly. My legs are rapidly reverting to some form of primordial jelly, and my wife comments that we have had a silver wedding anniversary and have nothing to prove. I demur on the minor point while agreeing with the major thrust of her argument.

‘We still have to prove that we are sane,’ I tell her, and we agree to call a halt. We discuss the matter with our guide and our son Duncan, who springs off on twelve-year-old legs to conquer and photograph the mountain for us. As it turns out, another member of our party, less fit but more macho than we, almost fell during one roped part of the last pitch, so we feel we made the right choice.

Left alone at the 650 metre contour, we wait for the smell of sunscreen and nervous anticipation to dissipate, then we examine the flora with botanists' eyes. We have moved into a totally new environment here: the species are already beginning to take on an alpine look. We know there is a plateau, some 200 metres further up (Gower is a congealed plug, rather like a mesa in shape). We also know it bears a small rain forest, fed by the almost constant mists that the mountain generates out of the moist sea air, but here we find an intermediate zone with new species, and stunted members of familiar species.

Freed of the need to rush uncomfortably along, we watch in fascination as the local currawongs (corvid birds with close relatives in Australia) ride the updrafts before playfully folding their wings and plunging back down again. We discover a small dyke of hard resistant basalt in the rock beneath us, and trace it with the binoculars, realising that this vertical rock sheet, just a few centimetres thick, has defined the whole of the ridge line for the saddle between the two mountains.

As we clamber back down, my wife dislodges a pebble that rolls over a loose basalt slab. The slab rings like a bell, just like the musical plates of basalt that Micronesian people use when they are pounding the sakau (kava) root, and that Hawaiian people once used as bells. I had always assumed that these slabs were from the edges of lava flows, where the basalt had cooled fast: now I realise that they could also be from slim dykes, which would also cool rather fast.

The track is hard to detect as we move down. The palms overhead have choked out most of the undergrowth, and the bare ground offers few clues, detecting the rocks polished by previous climbers, and we take our time until we reach the creek. There, we rest, and then begin to explore downstream. Other little trickles join in, and the creek tumbles prettily over a series of cascades. We slither down these until we find an inviting pool: we slip quietly in.

Almost immediately, there is a noise in the bushes, a rustling, as if a watcher is skulking nearby. We assume it is one of our party returning and we hurry back to where the track crosses the creek, then hear the plaintive ‘maaa’ of a goat. We freeze, hoping to gain sight of it, but it seems to have smelt us, and it moves on. Our bathing must have been inadequate . . .

We stay at the crossing point and spend the rest of our wait examining the plants. There are tree ferns, pandanus palms which put down angled roots just in time, as the trunk rots out, leaving them looking like tangled photographic tripods. One of the pandanus palms has run into trouble trying to burrow into a basalt slab, and has ended up constructing a pad, rather like a camel's foot. The pools in the creek carry a rich fauna of shrimps, caddis larvae and microcrustaceans.

We search idly for the Lord Howe woodhen, once almost extinct, and now making a protected comeback, but today they seem to only be on top of the mountain, running around Duncan's feet, as he triumphantly proves to us later when he gets his photographs developed. (In later years, we find woodhens all over the place, even in the bar at Capella South -- they have successfully "come back"

The others join us two hours later, and we head down the mountain in a series of barely controlled falls. That night, we dine with our son, under Mount Lidgbird, with Mount Gower wreathed in cloud behind it. We watch the sun go down into the summer sea, and my wife and I sense that this will not be Duncan's last mountain. There is a glow in his eyes, not entirely made by the sunset.

On the Ned's Beach reef

High tide came early in the morning today on Lord Howe, so low tide was just after midday, on almost the longest day in the year. Today's exposure is the worst ordeal the reef animals will suffer this side of next summer, for these are the most extreme tides in the whole lunar cycle.

At low tide, water drains out of the beach sands and trickles across onto the exposed reef. This is cool water that has been stored in the sands all day, well away from the sun. A little further out, there are pools of water that have sat through the last two hours of afternoon sun. They are hotter than body temperature, and low in oxygen. Although there is a coral reef here, the living things making the coral are more used to the cool rich waters that have been carried up from the Antarctic.

At first, nothing seems to move on the reef. Corals and tube worms and algae all appear to have closed down until the tide returns in an hour or so. The warm water seems to have sapped their energy. Yet there is still activity going on, if only we know where to look. In close to the beach sea hares, slug-like snail relatives, about 20 cm long, are grazing for all they are worth. In many of the pools, black sausages some 30 cm long, beche-de-mer are to be seen in the shallows, while just a little further out, I discover one of my boyhood fears, clams.

These were never a direct fear, mind you. The clam was just a beast I knew as a malevolent and vicious predator that in the ripping yarns of my youth, that would seize the leg of an unsuspecting pearl diver, crushing the leg and drowning the diver, unless the hero of the yarn plunged his knife deep into the clam's vitals. Here I can see them in a slightly more friendly light, for these specimens would be hard put to seize little more than a toe each, but I still tread warily. Some boyhood fears are hard to shake off, even though I have dissected these often enough, and I know these simple beasts lack the ganglia to be devious.

The volcanic rock under the reef is excellent for marine life. The old gas bubbles in the lava make pits and pools where life can shelter. Small holes support single sea-snails, larger ones contain sea urchins, and the largest even offer shelter to small colourless fish - the colourful ones are out in deeper water. I stride on out to the back of the reef where the ocean swells are still beating at the reef's edge.

The tide has turned now. Chill water is on its way to bring an end to the reef's torment. As it is cooler, as it has just been churned and frothed, this water is also rich in vital oxygen that the animals are gasping for. The clams out here are opening their lips now: each one seems to have a different pattern, some are light, some are dark, some are red, some are thin stripes, some are thick striped. Was this to trick the divers, I wonder? As I walk past, one seems to flinch, withdrawing its lips and showing white shell, like a set of teeth. I tread carefully for the next few strides.

At the back of the reef, just past where the waves are spilling over, there is a pool. Small fish jump in the deeper water from time to time. Perhaps they are trying to avoid me, perhaps they are just jumping for the joy of swimming in cool water.

Out here too, we find gnarled volcanic boulders, marooning rocks, the sort that Peter Pan was left on by Captain Hook. All around me there are clams, and in between them are the marooning rocks. This is not the place for a lad with a literary inheritance like mine, and I cross my fingers for good luck.

In the pools, there are cone shells. I leave these alone, for some members of the genus are poisonous. This is useful, as the shells are generally attractive, but most reef walkers know too little to tell a safe cone shell from an unsafe one. The reputation of the few protects them all, even though Lord Howe has none of the venomous kind, for they like warm water.

Now the water is flowing back all the way to the shore, and the sea-water bathes and soothes the living things that have taken the worst they will suffer this season. The rising waters tell me it is time to head for shore. Walking through shallow water in rubber thong sandals is an art that I learned in my youth: you lift the toes and slide, so the sandal planes along, clinging to the foot but sending out waves that make the sea hares rock in the pools as I glide by. They ignore me and keep on grazing over the rocks. The grazing is not rich, and they probably need to make every browsing minute count.

Now the sea urchins and anemones are beginning to stir in their pools, small fish dart around looking for detritus, and a few larger fish have appeared from cover, maybe seeking the detritus feeders. Crabs begin to scuttle and swim, and a few shore birds move in, looking for a quick snack.

At the edge, near the cliffs, the volcanic rock at the base has been sculpted into iron-rich pinnacles and spires that will protect the cliff from further attack for a while. This is a pity, as the higher part of the cliff is made of calcarenite, and it is a rich source of fossils. I would welcome a rockfall and the chance to discover some remains of the horned tortoise, but it is not to be, not today. The remains are in there, somewhere, but I will not be the one to find them.

The bite is going out of the sun now, and people are beginning to drift down to the beach. By 5.30, they will gather to watch the fish being fed, and most of them will be splashed as the 30 cm mullet flee into the shallows among the wading audience to avoid the shark-like rushes of the 100-120 cm kingfish. The mullet are probably wise to flee, for the kingfish show nothing but disdain when we throw bread to them, so they must be carnivores.

I will be there as well, but masked and snorkelled, and in slightly deeper water, with only my bread-filled hands above the water, shredding and dropping it to feed the carousel of Pacific salmon that rotate, always clockwise, around my head. I know better than to lower my laden hands into the water, for even these friendly fish have sharp teeth and minimal reasoning skills. Their life goes on, hour after hour, day after day, with little variation, for they are animals of the sea, not animals of the reef.

Tomorrow, the living thing that is the reef will go through the same cycle all over again. The tidal flow makes life hard for every reef plant and animal, but it also makes life possible, by ensuring the diversity of habitats that all those reef animals and plants need. Without the tide, most of these things would soon die or be eaten by birds or be eaten by the friendly fish who circle, just off the beach.

Honesty, island style.

‘We don't have crime here,’ says the lady at the apartments on Lord Howe. She pauses for a moment. ‘But you may get your bike borrowed, so it's best to chain that up. Here's a lock, and you don't need to worry, the combination's engraved on it.’

It seems late-night revellers can sometimes be tempted to ‘borrow’ a bike to ride home, and tired walkers, down from the hills, can be equally tempted when faced with another 2 km of road walking. It is fine to leave your bash hat in the basket. Nobody would dream of taking somebody's safety helmet, but when you leave bikes in a rack, you chain them together, just to play safe. At Ned's Beach, you can take beach umbrellas, snorkelling gear, wet suits, a surf ski and glass-bottomed boards from a shed. You walk in, write down what you have taken and when, drop the money in a box or write an IOU in a book, to be crossed out later when you pay. When they return the gear, the borrowers obediently wash it down, and stack it according to instructions.

There is alleged to be a policeman on Lord Howe. Certainly, there is a sign, pointing off into a palm grove, saying ‘Police Office’, and a police car that we see from time to time, generally parked in a visible place. We begin to suspect that it is merely one of the island vehicles, especially when we finally see it being driven by a man, clearly not in uniform, and carrying a load of people up from Ned's Beach.

There are unlocked cars all over Lord Howe. Most people leave their keys in the ignition, just in case somebody needs to move their car. Lord Howe is a friendly place, where you expect to greet each person you pass on foot or on a bike, and where you wave at the occasional car driver.

Norfolk Island is larger, and people often remove their ignition keys, but cars are left unlocked with the windows open, for your car can get quite hot there in midsummer. Norfolk is much more hilly, so people drive everywhere, but you still wave. The right hand grasps the steering wheel lightly, and the index and middle fingers are opened in greeting to each person you pass. You soon learn to break out of the habit, once you get back to the Big Smoke.

There are about 600 visitors and 1600 residents on Norfolk, and fewer on Lord Howe. Acquaintances are quickly made, and you cannot go anywhere without meeting the people you sat next to at dinner last night, or went on a breakfast walk with a few hours earlier. Quite obviously, if you tried thieving, you would be seen and recognised rather fast. Small is indeed beautiful . . .

A bookmark from Lord Howe

The woodhen is a more or less flightless bird (it has wings but rarely bothers to fly), found on Lord Howe Island. When the first known human visitors landed there in 1788, the birds were entirely fearless. Here, reported the simple sailors, was a marvellous source of fresh food on a long voyage.

One visitor, a few months later, explained how he broke the legs of a woodhen, and " The pain caused them to make a doleful cry, which brought 5 or 6 dozen of the same kind to them, and by that means,I was able to take nearly the whole of them."

The word spread, and during the 19th century, many Yankee whalers called to take birds for food, either catching their own, or buying them from the islanders. The numbers fell away. In 1918, a stores ship was wrecked, and rats came ashore. Owls were introduced to destroy the rats, and these set about the woodhens as the rats ate the eggs. They got most of the ones that were not eaten by the pigs, which ate, birds, chicks, eggs, and disturbed the leaf litter where the birds normally fed.

By 1970, there were just a few woodhens left on the top of Mount Gower, 900 metres high, where they were protected from the pigs by a line of cliffs known as the Get Up Place. War was declared on the pigs, and three years later, 183 pigs had died: today, there is said to be just one pig left alive on the island.

By June 1980, three pairs (the woodhens mate for life) had been brought down and placed in a marauder-proof enclosure (well, almost marauder-proof -- one of the first birds was killed by an owl), and as they laid eggs, these were stolen away and put in an incubator. obliging the birds to produce more clutches. Releases began soon after, but for quite a while, Gower was the only place where they were seen regularly.

On our first visit, Chris and I decided that we had to see this rare bird, and we headed up Mount Gower with a guide. At about 500 or 600 metres, my legs were rubbery, and Chris was losing interest in heights -- she is not really a heights person. The Get Up Place was the end for her, a place where people had to swarm up ropes, so we elected to wait for the party to return, and our son Duncan headed on up, where he photographed the birds -- but I have already told poart of that story.

On our second visit, Duncan went up Gower again, taking Cate, his older sister and also my godson with him, and once more, we stayed below, but now we had heard of woodhens near the shore at the other end of the island. We cycled down there and sneaked through, peering around, but saw nothing. The next day, an old islander reminded us that the birds were intensely curious. Make silly noises, he said, and they will come to you. We walked down through the area again, this time with two friends, cacophonating all the way, and two woodhens bobbed out to see what the commotion was about.

On our third visit, I carried a portable recorder, and after we attracted the same birds (they are very territorial), I placed the tape on the ground and stood back. The birds wandered around, chirping at the microphone, so on my next visit, I will be able to take an augmented tape, and maybe flush a few more out of the undergrowth to make territorial protests.

As we walked away, after I had photographed them (they revelled in the flash, like starlets with their first paparazzi), I found a coppery feather on the ground, which now marks my place in Kip Thorne's "Black Holes and Time Warps". Somehow it seems an appropriate resting place for a memento of a species that nearly went down the gurgler, which is now being restored to the place it held before the humans came.

Bookmark 2: a cicada's wing

All of the senses can be used to bring back remarkable memories, as Proust reminds us. A whiff of the scent worn almost forty years ago by a teenaged girl-friend, a glimpse of a colour or a logo, the taste of a tannin-rich rough red such as they concoct in the broad valleys of northern Italy, or the feel of wet summer grass under the feet. Any one of these can bring back a whole complex of memories, recalling what each of the other senses detected.

For me, the best sense to use as a trigger is hearing. I worked for several years in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and each day would see me passing through the interactives area, just metres from a busy road on the other aside of a brick wall. All day, cars would rush by, the engine noises blanked out, but the thump-thump of their wheels hitting the expansion gaps in the roadway would pass through the walls, and form part of the background. I never really noticed it at the time, but when I hear that sound now, or something close to it, the whole scene comes back to me.

The sound of my voice has the same effect on an old friend, who worked in an exhibition in Melbourne, just metres from a giant house-fly, where a voice-over commentary ran, every ninety seconds, explaining in hideous detail just what and how flies eat, declaimed in my most sepulchral tones. I had written this charming piece, and put so much of myself into it that I just had to do the words, and as the exhibition travels, so does my moment of fame. All around her, insects called and other voices spoke, but the sound of Australian bush cicadas, shrilling in the summer and my voice, in person or at a distance, take her straight back to that time in Melbourne, she says.

High summer is looming here as I write this page, and the cicadas have been with us for almost two months now. The night I heard the first cicada of summer, it was the prelude to a morning when a southerly was blowing up from Antarctica, taking us below 20 Celsius, back into winter almost. But we always know that sort of thing will pass, and more cicadas will emerge over a couple of weeks, to enliven our summers

I had thought that our cicadas were unique, until I read a book by Oscar Commettant recently. Late in the 19th century, he came here and wrote "Au Pays des Kangourous et des Mines d'or", "In the land of kangaroos and gold mines". Commettant writes:

"Last of all, there are cicadas in Australia, like the ones in Provence. Without wishing to over-enthuse about this noisy insect which was for that reason consecrated to Apollo, nor loving it enough to eat it, as did the ancient Greeks, I nevertheless have for the cicada, with its monotonous, strident, deafening song, a lifelong affection."

Yet the cicadas of Provence are not like the cicadas of Austraia -- Marcel Pagnol wrote two volumes of childhood reminiscence that were exquisitely translated and recreated onto film and shown here on television a couple of years back, and filmed in the hills above Marseille, these feature the incessant din of the Provencal insects. No, the summer shrillers of Provence are more like the cicadellas who will flourish in January, or like the cicadas of Lord Howe Island who flourish from November to January.

We sometimes forget how important the insects are in any ecosystem. I certainly cursed the cicadas of Lord Howe on my first two trips, for they blotted out the birds I was trying to record, so our most recent visit, out of cicada time, gave me a needed opportunity. When I recorded the "voice of the fly", it was stored digitally on a ROM chip, so we were able to use sophisticated software to remove a glottal click that I kept making, just with a stroke of the mouse, but I lack that sort of software, and need to work with what I can get. So I often cursed the Lord Howe cicadas as overgrown mosquitoes.

But as I say, we forget how important the insects are. The sooty terns have laid their eggs, all over the top of Mount Eliza, so that they area is now off-limits to walkers, and in a week or two, the eggs will begin to hatch. Then the parents, for all that they are sea birds, will begin to fatten themselves and their chicks on the cicadas that begin to fill the trees. Land food leaves the parents closer to home, better able to defend their territories and their camouflaged chicks, and guarantees that extra nutrients are carried up to the top of the mountain for the natural bonsai plants that struggle against the winds, vegetable versions of Marcel Marceau.

For all that they spoiled my recordings, I missed the cicadas this last time. In fact, I began to fill them in as I wandered the trails that criss-cross the island, just as I used to fill in the gaps in the inadequate recordings of Delius, Beethoven and Vaughan Williams that were all I could afford as a university student in the 1960s. In some ways, I think I used to get more from my filling-in than I ever did from a live performance, but the cicadas this time, even if they lived only in my head, seemed more shrill, more real, and more pleasurable.

The illusion of their presence was helped when I found a cicada's wing in a spider's web below the bungalow we were staying in, which must have either blown there, or have remained there since last season. It is there no more, because I took it. As a small boy, I would have seized it with glee, because we small boys had all been told that the chemist (that's possibly a pharmacist, or druggist to you) would buy matched pairs of cicada wings, and it would take many refusals to relieve us of this belief. But I did not take the wings to sell, for there is no island pharmacy, just a small hospital, a place to lie in while dying or waiting to be air-lifted out.

I took the cicada's wing to place in one of the books I had brought with me to read. I did not have Marcel Pagnol's recollections, but I had lazily brought an English translation of his "The Water of the Hills", better known to film buffs as "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des Sources". I have only started to read it since I got back, and it is an altogether gentler tale than the film version. Only time will tell if the choice was an appropriate one, when I see if the cicadas rate a mention in these two stories -- I rather think they will, around the time that Gerard Depardieu is toiling up the hills with loads of water for his crops.

So just in case, I hope something made a good meal of the rest of the cicada

Some useful links

Environmental links

What UNESCO says about LHI
A detailed environmental data sheet
Volcanic facts
LHI Marine Park
More about biological diversity

Accommodation links

The official LHI Tourism Association site
Blue Lagoon Apartments
Capella apartments
Ebb Tide apartments
Leanda-Lei apartments
Pinetrees guest house
Somerset apartments
Trader Nick's apartments


The official LHI Tourism Association site
Coates Wildlife Tours
Lord Howe Island Nature Tours, Ian Hutton

General information

This has useful information, great pics
All about LHI's unique Zemail
The Gosford to Lord Howe yacht race

There are probably more links, but that lot, and the links from them, should get you started. Please note: no charges of any sort will ever be levied for a listing here: I list what I know is good, or what I have been told is good, and I do reserve the right not to list anything I don't like — but that said, I have yet to find anything unlikeable on LHI.

This file is http://www.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/lhitext1.htm
It was last amended on August 23, 2006.
It was created by Peter Macinnis -- macinnis@ozemail.com.au
Unless otherwise indicated, all materials shown here are free of any copyright restrictions.
If you got here from somewhere funny, this is where the links to the large versions of these pictures are to be found, along with captions.