During our first visit to Lord Howe Island I decided not to go on the Mount Gower Trek. I was not properly equipped, the weather was poor and, to be honest, I didn’t think I was up to it. So before returning four months later I bought a new pair of quality boots and also worked on my stamina by tackling the Mount Coot-tha path early mornings once or twice a week. When we returned to the island almost the first thing I did was to head up to Malabar, a steep 208 metre climb to the top of the northern cliffs where there are spectacular views of the ocean and the red tailed tropic birds that congregate there.
The night before the trek was not my best. I couldn’t get to sleep for hours due to a mixture of excitement and anxiety that drove my mind around in circles. If ever there was an example of how what the Buddhists call the ‘uncontrolled mind’, this was it. I finally fell asleep around 3.30 am, only to wake again around 5.30 feeling listless and drained. Surely I could not take on the trek in this condition! But then I’d have to wait another week and also chance the weather. I had to go.
Once I was up I felt better. A bus turned up on time at 7.00 am and took a small group of us to the end of the road beyond the airstrip. Here we disembarked, signed the waiver form and collected a red plastic hard hat each. We met our guide, Dean, who has a wealth of knowledge about the island and had led the walk many times before. We then set off along the 1 1/2 kilometre track to Little Island where the trek actually begins. At Little Island the track emerges from a low mixed forest to a small, crescent-shaped grassy area that looks out on a curved beach from which arises the sheer cliffs of Mount Lidgbird and, looming beyond it, the dark bulk of Mount Gower. To get to the start we had first to cross the rugged and rock-strewn beach. Before that, however, Dean informed us that the ascent from the beach to the rock ledge that we’d be taking was steep. We’d ‘feel our hearts pounding and we’d wonder why we ever set out on this’. He was right. The path led straight up from the beach – a near vertical scramble, but one made easier since ropes had been installed all the way up.
One of the things that had kept me awake was a description I’d read of the path across the face of the cliff: “The track follows the basalt cliff until it connects with an open grassy ledge known as the Lower Road. Assisting ropes have been installed here. Even so, it is an unnerving experience to walk this narrow track with a sheer cliff rising on one flank and a precipitous fall of over 100 metres on the other.” (1)
This, it turned out, was what the hard hats were for, although I felt that they were unnecessary. But what also surprised me was that the path was by no means as ‘unnerving’ as had been described. Apart from a couple of tight places where the ropes certainly provided a welcome hand hold, I found this bit really quite easy and had no more sense of vertigo than I’d had standing a couple of days earlier on the edge of the Northern Cliffs at Malabar. We left our plastic hats hanging in a bush and then proceeded around the corner into Erskine Valley. Here an easy walk took us to Erskine Creek where we were able to re-fill our water bottles and take a welcome rest in the shade.
From here the walk became more strenuous as we were now about to ascend the lower slopes of Mount Gower. A group of younger males went on ahead, followed by what I dubbed the ‘B group’. At a few points I wondered if I was going to make it and had to pause more than once to regain my breath. But what I found was that if I slowed to a certain pace I could continue. I found a kind of ‘baseline’ capacity that kept me going. After about 45 minutes we emerged at the Saddle where we had wonderful views of Mount Lidgbird and of the surrounding coast. At this point the vegetation was stunted and windswept and here we finally emerged into the mid-morning sunlight. The mountain rose nearly vertically ahead of us and looked rather intimidating at such close quarters. Someone said, sotto vocce, ‘we’re going up there?’
From here the track alternated between rock scrambles and steep rock sections where, again, ropes had been provided. Since only one person could be ‘on rope’ at any time, this meant that the group had to pause at each of the larger rock sections. For me this was an obvious gift and I found it quite easy to ascend in this manner. Clearly my long-term and regular swimming had provided me with sufficient upper-body strength. The most difficult spot came near the top at a near vertical 20 metre rock face called the Get Up Place. But, again, there were plenty of footholds so it was easier than expected to make one’s way up this last obstacle.
Near the summit we stopped in a small clearing and Dean proceeded to ‘call up’ the Providence Petrels. As we’d ascended the mountain we could hear their calls getting louder all the time. Now we were surrounded by them as they skimmed the trees not far overhead. Dean emitted a loud wailing sound. Almost at once several birds crashed through the canopy around us and settled on the leaf littered ground. They’re known for being inquisitive and completely unafraid of humans. Dean even picked one up without it showing any sign of distress.
I quickly took the chance to photograph several that were sitting nearby. Looking at the photos later I was fascinated to see the colour variation in some of the feathers – from near black, to brown to grey and, around the characteristically hooked petrel beak, pure white. The way the birds took flight again was equally striking. They used their hooked beak, their clawed feet and their beating wings to ascend the nearest tree, catch the wind and soar off again into the bright sky.
At the summit we finally found ourselves in the cloud forest – a densely tangled and unique environment. Here’s how Hutton describes this ‘dwarf mossy rainforest’. He writes: “Because of the frequent cloud cap, abundant moisture allows ferns and mosses to grow over the ground an on the tree trunks. This miniature forest of mosses and filmy ferns is perhaps the most unique of all the island’s unusual flora. Common trees are Hotbark, Island Apple, Pumpkin trees and many tree ferns. The numerous burrows are those of the Providence Petrel, which nests in the winter months. It is also common to see one of two pairs of Woodhen in the vicinity of the summit. These flightless rails nest in petrel burrows, or hollows formed by tree roots. The nests are lines with twigs, grasses and mosses – and are very hard to find.” (2)
At the very top a barely-discernible path led across to a tiny clear space with views back across the whole island to the north. Here we had lunch and watched the petrels gliding and wheeling around us, their calls echoing near and far. I learned later that some 40,000 pairs nest here, and only here, on the high elevations of Lord Howe Island. The birds we saw were clearly happy to be ‘home’ and seemed to spend much of the day calling to each other, circling, courting. I’ll never forget the way the sun shone on the grey backs of these birds as they passed so close above us turning grey into a constellation of iridescent shades of refracted light.
Also accompanying us throughout much of the climb were Lord Howe Currawongs. Now, at the summit, they came very close indeed, glaring down from nearby branches, seeming to question our right to encroach on their territory. A pair of Woodhens also appeared – one chasing the other – and disappeared as quickly. This truly is a magnificent place with its dense undergrowth, stunted trees, a few larger Mountain Palms and countless mosses, liverworts and epiphytes on almost every available surface. In season orchids and wild flowers also bloom here in profusion. Who knows how long this unique place will continue to exist for as global warming takes hold?
All-too-soon it was time to leave. The last photos were taken and we embarked on the descent. While the 875 metre ascent required muscular strength and stamina, the descent was much more awkward, requiring far greater care. Most accidents occur on the way down and it was not hard to see why. The rope sections were again the easiest as one could lean back on the rope and sight the footholds below. But in the frequent tumbles of rock and vegetation it was sometime difficult to see just where to place one’s feet and a couple of people took minor falls as a result. Everyone’s legs certainly took a pounding and it was sometimes difficult not to slip on wet ground. We were lucky in that the day was bright, cool and dry. Descending in the wet would have been far harder and more dangerous.
Back at Erskine Creek I had to take off my boots as the toes on my right foot had become bruised. (I later found that I needed arch support and could have gotten away with wearing one pair of socks instead of two.) Luckily I’d brought my runners along and a spare pair of socks. So I garnered a few envious glances as I washed my feet downstream from the resting place and put on new footwear. The lower descent was not so physically demanding but, since it was late afternoon and we were heading into the north west, we emerged from the slopes of Mount Lidgbird into the direct afternoon sunlight which bore down upon us rather too strongly. Soon we were back to the Lower Road which now seemed so non-threatening as to make the rope redundant. At the same time I was aware of being over-confident and so made use of the latter as necessary.
At the other end Dean put us all to shame by showing us how islanders ascend the palms to collect seeds. (Lord Howe is known for being the source of the Kentia Palm and has a variety of other species as well, but unfortunately not a coconut-bearing variety.) Rock-hopping along the last section of shoreline was difficult with such tired legs and everyone was glad to be back on the level path back to where the bus was waiting. Here we returned our hard hats, exchanged stories about the day and also received handsome certificates for having made the trek. It had been about nine hours since we started out. The first port of call was Humpty Mick’s café and, on that day, the most welcome cold beer in the world.
That night I slept for nearly 12 hours. Later, and surprisingly, I had no aches and pains or other after effects. Just the satisfaction that on this occasion I’d made it to the top, had had a profoundly satisfying experience and also brought back some lovely images of the petrels.
28th March, 2009