Getaway to Lord Howe Island

Night suddenly fell on the tiny yacht, an insignificant speck in the turbulent Tasman Sea. Ominous clouds closed in and the rain fell heavily. The same ten- and four-foot waves that had been so exhilarating in daylight surfing turned into menacing monsters, intent on spewing tons of foamy water onto Levi’s deck and into his cabin. The sails were hoisted twice 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. He had arranged to clear customs at Lord Howe Island, as is popular for many yachts that sail between the two countries.

My crew: Orit, a 24 year old Israeli girl, a brilliant backpacker, who had no sailing experience. She spent time in the military after school and wanted to become a marine biologist. And Nick, 50, who had sailed most of his life and manned yachts in Queensland inshore regattas, though he never had his own yacht, considered himself an expert in marine sailing.

Orit and I were on call all night. Searching in the dark through the pouring rain, we finally made out the black triangle known as the Balls Pyramid and the towering mountains of Lord Howe Island.

I found it strange… I couldn’t see any navigation lights… just the growing size of the black landmass. I searched the chart for the magenta flash mark to indicate a beacon and couldn’t find one. I couldn’t even see the light that should be on top of the mountain for air traffic. I make a call on channel 16 on the VHF periodically throughout the night. No response.

At last dawn broke, gray and gloomy, with boisterous 25 to 30 knot winds from the southeast churning the sea. At 06:00, the radio came on and I got in touch with someone outside of our little world. What a relief, I was looking forward to getting the marine weather forecast. I was told that the weather and tidal conditions were not favorable for navigating 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 dark and the exhaustion made us nervous. “As soon as my feet hit the ground, I’m heading 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 over us as the harbormaster led us through the narrow coral inlet, where the wind still whipped white caps in the calm waters of the lagoon. He shined his high-beam flashlight on the two unlit triangular navaids and lined them up. There were no port or starboard markers, and what I thought was a main light turned out to be a lone shore light. The mooring was close to the coral entrance and the chain was difficult to lift and secure in the still stormy conditions.

The island was dark and threatening. Where was the town, the lights of all kinds (navigation, street, automobile!) and all the familiar signs of life that have accused us. This was really weird for me. In all my travels I had never experienced it 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 summits shrouded in mist. The enticing emerald and turquoise waters of the crystal clear lagoon met sun-kissed sand and lush tropical forest. Ivory foam cascaded over the world’s southernmost coral reef. We hand feed schools of fish.

We waited impatiently for the wind to die down and then climbed aboard my inflatable, swinging 3 garbage bags of wet and smelly clothes. After a long line we loaded our load up the boat ramp. Mainland how wonderful it felt. The customs officer, barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt, met us at his office (the back of a SUV). I paid a fee of A$150 and arranged for the quarantine check.

Now it was time to indulge our desire to explore. Nick headed over to Wilson’s bike rental. From time to time we would see him, with his head down and a multicolored helmet, pedaling furiously. Orit and I decided to walk.

At Aunt Sue’s Garden Restaurant we devoured a meal of fresh fish and garden salad. What a treat after the last eight days. Leanda Lei Apartments allowed us to use her laundry. Orit and I rowed back to Levi. Nick was still doing his thing and chose to get acquainted with 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 sped down the mountain at staggering speeds, swinging us and pulling us against our moorings. He was afraid the chain would break and we would end up on the rocks or coral. In a lull, we strapped on our harnesses (yes, on a mooring) and ventured out, securing the boat with more ropes and chains. Our first night was very shaky. At intervals throughout the night I checked GPS and waypoints to make sure we hadn’t drifted.

Travel brochures described 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 dominate the reef-fringed lagoon and its surf.

Many of its 300 inhabitants are descendants of the original settlers. The Wilsons, who have operated ocean view condos for more than 90 years, have collected many memorabilia from visiting boaters and travelers during that time.

Nick, unsurprisingly, decided 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 fearlessly walked in pitch darkness as there are no street lights all the way to the bowling club under a canopy of dense tropical foliage. Keys are left in car ignitions and doors open, no one steals them where they would go. Car accidents, the worst thing they told me was crashing into a tree while drunk after leaving the bowling club. The speed limit is 25 km throughout the island and bicycles have the right of way.

We enjoyed happy hour at the bowling club, live music at Pine Trees Resort and played bongos with some of the locals while playing guitars and singing.
No, we didn’t find a McDonald’s or even an ATM. High-rise buildings, grand hotels, movie theaters, shopping malls, and marinas were conspicuously absent. But there 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 unspoiled and serene, a haven for rare and beautiful birds, a mecca for anglers. You can scuba dive or snorkel in the crystal clear lagoon and there is deep sea fishing just beyond the reef. It is a place to escape from fast-paced life… and lazily embrace beauty and simplicity.

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