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Lord Howe Island Getaway
Night fell suddenly on the small yacht, an insignificant blot on the rough seas of the Tasman. The clouds were thick and the rain was pouring. The same three- and four-meter waves that surf so exhilaratingly during the day turn into menacing monsters intent on dumping tons of frothy water over Levi’s deck and into her cockpit. The sails were furled for the stormy night.
We left New Zealand’s picturesque Bay of Islands 7 days ago on board my yacht Levitation (a Cavalier 32) for Queensland, Australia. I have arranged to clear customs on Lord Howe Island as many yachts are popular between the two countries.
My crew: Orit, a 24-year-old Israeli girl, a smart backpacker with no sailing experience. After school she joined the army and wanted to be a marine biologist. Nick, in his mid-50s, has sailed most of his life and raced yachts off the coast of Queensland, and although he has never owned a yacht of his own, he considers himself a sailing expert.
Orit and I were on duty all night. Searching the darkness in the pouring rain, we eventually made out the black triangle known as the Pyramid of the Balls and the towering mountains of Lord Howe Island.
I find it very strange…I can’t see any navigation lights…just a growing area of black land. I searched the diagram for the magenta flashing marker representing the lighthouse, but couldn’t find it. Not even the lights for air traffic that were supposed to be on the top of the mountain were out of sight. I make regular calls on VHF channel 16 throughout the night. no response.
Dawn finally broke and it was gray and overcast with a 25-30 knot wind blowing from the southeast churning the sea. At 0600, the radio blared and I got in touch with someone outside our little world. What a relief, I’d love to get the marine weather forecast. I was told that weather and tidal conditions were not conducive to navigating the narrow reef inlets, but by mid-afternoon things were expected to improve.
Exhausted, we all wanted to get in before night fell, fatigue made us impatient. “As soon as my feet hit the ground, I’m going to the nearest McDonald’s and have a Big Mac and a thick milkshake,” Orit fantasizes. “For me, it’s a long hot shower, clean hair, dry clothes, and then I’ll settle for a glass of chilled Chardonnay,” I replied. Nick is quiet! As the harbor master led us through the narrow coral inlet, night fell, the wind still whipping the white caps on the calm waters of the lagoon. He illuminated two unlit triangular navigation devices with a high-beam flashlight and lined them up. No port or starboard markings, what I thought was a leading light turned out to be a lone light on the shore. The mooring point is close to the coral inlet and the chain was difficult to get up and hold while there was still a storm.
The island is dark and forbidding. Where are towns, lights of any kind (navigation, streets, cars!), and all the familiar signs of life we’ve taken for granted! This is really weird to me. In all my travels, I’ve never experienced it before. It was a far cry from the tropical island getaway we imagined.
As the sun rises in a new day, so does our spirit. We were in awe of the majestic twin mountains of Gower and Ligard, their summits shrouded in mist. The stunning emerald and turquoise waters of the crystal-clear lagoon meet sun-drenched sandy beaches and lush tropical forests. Ivory foam pours off the world’s southernmost coral reef. We hand feed the schools of fish.
We waited impatiently for the wind to die down, then we climbed into my inflatable boat and balanced 3 wet and smelly trash bags. After a long queue, we hauled our cargo up the boat ramp. What a wonderful feeling Terra firma feels. We were greeted by a barefoot customs officer in shorts and a T-shirt in his office (the back of the quad). I paid a fee of $150A and arranged for a quarantine inspection.
Now is the time to indulge our desire to explore. Nick heads to Wilson’s bike rental. We occasionally see him, head down, in a colorful helmet, peddling wildly. Orit and I decided to walk.
At Aunt Sue’s Garden Restaurant we wolfed down a meal of fresh caught fish and garden salad. What a luxury after the past eight days. Leanda Lei Apartments allowed us to use their laundry room. Orit and I rowed back to Levi. Nick was still doing his own thing and opted to meet some locals at the bowling club.
As night fell, the wind whipped up the lagoon waters. Levi wobbles amazingly, recovering at times. The bullets of the wind accelerated down the hill with incredible speed, rocking us and pulling us to the moorings. I fear the chain will snap and we’ll land on rock or coral. In calmer times, we buckle up (yes, at the moorings) and venture out, securing the boat with more rope and chain. Our first night was very disturbing. Throughout the night, I checked the GPS and landmarks every now and then to make sure we weren’t procrastinating.
Tourist brochures describe Lord Howe as “not just another island, but another world”. That’s it! Discovered in 1788 and settled in 1833, Lord Howe Island was one of the first three islands in the world to be inscribed on the World Heritage List and is awe-inspiring in its natural beauty, sea and plant life. It is 11 kilometers long and 2.8 kilometers wide and is located 700 kilometers northeast of Sydney, Australia. The island has two volcanoes and overlooks a lagoon surrounded by coral reefs and crashing waves.
Many of its 300 residents are descendants of the original settlers. Wilson’s has been operating Ocean View Apartments for over 90 years and in that time has collected many memorabilia from visiting yachtsmen and travelers.
Not surprisingly, Nick decides to fly home. Orit and I stayed together, and we embarked on a leisurely lifestyle, making repairs while waiting for a favorable weather window.
One night we walked without fear in pitch blackness as the bowling club had no street lights under a ceiling of lush tropical foliage. The keys are left in the car’s ignition, the doors are unlocked, and no one will steal them anywhere. Car accident, the worst I was told was getting drunk and hitting a tree after leaving the bowling club. The island-wide speed limit is 25 kilometers, and bicycles have the right of way.
We enjoyed happy hour at the bowling club, live music at the Pines Resort, and played bongo drums with the locals as they strummed guitars and sang.
No, we didn’t find a McDonald’s or even an ATM. High-rise buildings, large hotels, cinemas, shopping malls and marinas are all conspicuously absent. But so are those things that can only grow with growth; pollution, traffic jams, high crime rates and stress.
We have indeed discovered that a great deal is the most important thing that nourishes the soul. Unspoiled and peaceful, Lord Howe Island is a haven for rare birds and a sanctuary for fishermen. You can scuba dive or snorkel in the crystal-clear lagoon, or go deep-water fishing off the reef. It’s a place to escape the fast pace of life…loosely embracing beauty and simplicity.
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