Friday 28 June 2013

10 reasons to love Lord Howe Island

There's one question I'm always being asked, as a travel writer: "What's your favourite place in the world?". Which is, of course, impossible to answer. So I usually mumble something about having lots of favourites before remembering that there is one place I really love: Lord Howe Island.

World's most beautiful place?
It might sound parochial, picking somewhere in your own country when you've been to places like Mongolia and Madagascar, but this little island is a special place.

The first time I went to Lord Howe was for the 25th anniversary of its World Heritage listing six years ago. It was love at first sight. I was almost in tears flying in, seeing this mountainous tropical island appear out of the blue, so pristine, so natural.

Afterwards I fantasised about living there, vowed to return. And earlier this month, I did. For a week-long break from travelling and writing - which amused the owners of Pinetrees Lodge (where my lovely friend Emma and I stayed), who blogged that Lord Howe is where travel writers go on holiday.

Happiness is a Lord Howe holiday:
(with Em on our first day)
It was a week of peace and plenty in a natural place. I came back feeling as if I'd been away for a month. I felt healthier for breathing sea air, bushwalking and riding a bike (instead of a desk) every day and eating well (without having to cook!). And happier for the friendly vibe and for having time and space to relax, look at the trees, the sea, the tropicbirds.

Ah Lord Howe, let me count the ways I love thee:

1. Natural beauty - Lord Howe has it by the truckload: mountains (the twin peaks of Mt Gower and Lidgbird at the southern end, Mt Eliza at the northern end), a long, tropical-island lagoon encircled by the most southerly coral reef in the world, and wild surf beaches that'd fit right in on the NSW mid-north coast.

2. An island attitude - in a good way. Supplies come by sea every fortnight, supplemented by the catch of the day (usually kingfish), kids go to school barefoot (it's allowed under NSW law). You soon get used to waving at everyone as they walk, ride or drive by (there are a few cars on the island). After a day or two you can start to feel as if you've been living there all your life.

View from the dinghy
3. You can surf there - sometimes. The waves aren't reliable enough to put Lord Howe on the surf-trip map (thank goodness) but you can be lucky - as I was. The morning after I arrived Luke Hanson of Pinetrees kindly found me a wetsuit, borrowed a surfboard for me from his friend Bonky (true) and took me out to the edge of the reef in his aluminium dinghy. It was like surfing in Tahiti (I imagine): aquarium-blue water, those imposing mountains, long left-handers and only two of us out. I was as happy as a puppy for the rest of the day.

4. It's safe. Wherever you stay on the island, you won't have a room key. Nor will you get a lock when you pick up your rental bike from Wilson's Hire (only $32 for the whole week!). And when you want to go snorkelling at Ned's Beach, just drop a few coins in the honesty box; there is a price list, but it doesn't seem to have been updated since 1975, the rates are so low. At $3.50 an hour for a mask and snorkel, you're not renting it, you're borrowing it and leaving a tip!

Lord Howe's Norfolk Island pines
5. Pinetrees Lodge - the oldest lodge on the island, still family-run after 120-odd years (Luke and his wife Dani Rourke's daughters Elsie, 4, and Pixie, 2, are the seventh generation of the Rourke-Kirby dynasty). It has the best location - across the road from the middle of the lagoon beach, where its Boatshed is the perfect place for sunset drinks. Meals are included in the room rates - including afternoon tea (especially welcome in winter), a picnic or barbecue lunch delivered to your beach of choice when you're out exploring, and fine dining at night in the lodge's communal restaurant.

Sunset from Little Island,
beneath Mt Gower
6. The stars! Being 600 kilometres off the east coast of Australia, there's no light pollution, which makes for spectacular star-gazing. Em and I got into the habit of taking our after-dinner cups of tea over the road to Boatshed just to look up at the night sky, framed by the feathery tops of the Norfolk pine trees. The sunsets aren't bad either.

7. Birds. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest on Lord Howe and its satellite islands every year, including providence petrels. One afternoon we walked to the base of Mt Gower to call them down out of the sky. They'll land at your feet, apparently, or in your outstretched arms - but not for us. We did have a close encounter with an RAAF Hercules, however. Having seen it fly low around the island a few times, we joined a few locals on the breakwall at the end of the airstrip to watch this great, grey bird fly towards us over the ocean and right over our heads. So LOUD, so exciting!

8. It's off the grid. Seeing the Hercules was the high-tech highlight of our week. You can leave your phone, your mini iPad and your laptop at home when you come to Lord Howe; there's no mobile reception, no wifi. No TVs in the rooms at Pinetrees either. Long live printed newspapers: that's the only way you can know for sure the outside world still exists, thanks to daily Qantaslink deliveries. The perfect place to unplug.

9. You can go car-less. I loved exploring the island on my trusty rental bike, particularly the strip of road between the island's "main street" and the airstrip, a cathedral of green punctuated by fishing buoys tied to the trunks of palm trees (the locals' way of marking the secluded paths and driveways to their houses).

The view from the Mt Eliza track
10. It's an adventure playground. Unlike so many tropical islands, Lord Howe is rugged and wild. There are cliffs, canyons, offshore islands you could kayak too (on a calm day). I hiked up Mt Gower last time, a 10-hour epic you can do only with a local guide. This time I was content to take some shorter tracks that are no less spectacular. We hardly saw another soul.

I could go on, but you get the picture. As Emma put it, in her Lord Howe Love-in post: "If I could live there, I would, but failing that I will simply spend my days telling anyone with ears to go." Exactly.

Want to go? See the Lord Howe Island website and check out Pinetrees Lodge's winter deals and walking, wellness and wilderness weeks. I'll see you there.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Camping in Cambodia

Who knew you could camp in the jungle in Cambodia? Or that Cambodia even had any jungle left, apart from those voracious Tomb-Raider vines and strangler figs that seem to be holding up various crumbling temples in Angkor Wat?

In fact, Koh Kong Conservation Corridor in Cambodia's south-west is a vast, lost world of rainforests, rivers and wild things. I spent a couple of days there earlier this year, including a night camping in the jungle, sleeping in a hammock beside a silent river, and it was one of the highlights of my whole Cambodia trip. It's all in my latest travel story, in this weekend's Sydney Morning Herald:

Boat approaching Tatai Falls,
Koh Kong, Cambodia
Somewhere, just over the rainbow
There's jungle in every direction. Bird calls I don't recognise. Monkeys watching us from boulders as we putter along the river in an open, bright-orange boat. 

It's just the start of our two-day stay in Koh Kong province and already I feel as if we've stumbled upon a Cambodia I never knew existed, one that pre-dates Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields, even Angkor Wat... Read the full story here.

I do love Cambodia, and it's so cheap to get there now I'm thinking about going again soon. Permit me a plug: Air Asia has return flights from Sydney to Phnom Penh (via Kuala Lumpur) from $448 including taxes. (Remember to keep the eco-theme going when you get back by offsetting your flights with Climate Friendly.) Happy jungle-travels!

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Solitude, surfing and simplicity

You've probably had this conversation with friends before: if you were marooned on a desert island (and had time to pack), what would you take with you? What couldn’t you live without? How little would you really need?

My Dutch friend Simone Knaapen, whom I met in the surf when she was in Sydney a few years ago, found out first-hand what she could (and couldn't) get by without when she went to Great Barrier Island (Aotea) recently. 

“The Barrier”, as locals call it, is in New Zealand, just east of the outstretched, north-west pointing arm of the North Island - and forms a natural barrier between Hauraki Gulf and the open ocean.

Simone and the
catch of the day
Escaping winter in Holland, Simone flew to Auckland, rented a bicycle, a trailer and some camping gear, stocked up on a few provisions (the shops on the island are ridiculously expensive) and caught the ferry to the island. (You can also fly there.)

Her real destination, however, was a month of solitude, surfing and simplicity. 

Sounds like heaven to me, so I asked her about it (by email) on her return. 

What inspired you to go to Great Barrier? 
I heard about it from a Kiwi I met in Western Australia a few years ago and I’d been dreaming of doing a surf trip by bike since I started surfing five years ago. Because the island is only 47 kilometres long, it seemed like it wouldn’t be too far to ride between surf spots – although for a Dutch girl used to flat terrain it was a bit challenging cycling up the island’s hills, with camping gear and a surfboard! Also, I was curious about “off the grid” living. So staying on this tiny island for a month I hoped to get to know its people and way of life.

How would you describe the island, in five words? 
The purest way of living.

What was a typical day like for you?
I’d wake up with the warmth of the sun coming over the nearest hill, then I’d walk to the beach barefoot to check the waves, do some stretches or go for a swim. 

Living on “Barrier-time”, taking things hour by hour, not knowing what the day would bring, every day presented unexpected adventures: surfing, fishing, cycling, snorkelling for paua (abalone), hiking in Great Barrier Forest, or playing table tennis and chilling out with the locals.

At most of the campsites I was the only person camping. When night fell, especially around the new moon, it was so dark I couldn’t see my own hands if I stretched my arm in front of me. The sky was full of stars.

Washing day
What did you like most about being there?
Although I was by myself almost all the time I never felt alone. I was constantly surrounded by the sounds of the wind and birds and the amazing views of the hills, trees, beach and sea, even when I was doing simple things like making porridge or washing clothes. And I think I experienced all this so intensely because I was alone - four weeks with a total lack of brick, concrete, billboards, fashion, mobile phones, traffic lights and only a handful cars not driving faster than 45 kph. 

Simple living
Also the attitude of most people I met impressed me, their commitment to a simple way of living. Which I think isn’t so easy. To make ends meet financially, to catch your own dinner every night and to be truly dependent on your home-grown veggies requires a lot of hard work and determination. Only 800 people live on the island so everybody waves to each other, stops to chat and is very welcoming – people would invite me over for a cup of coffee and I stayed with some people I met in their tiny hut which has no electricity. 

Did you miss anything about civilisation?
One outcome of this "back to basics" trip that I never expected is a greater appreciation of my daily life back in the Netherlands. For the past few years I’ve been complaining about how noisy, busy and cramped Amsterdam can be. 

But on this trip I realised I’m really happy to live in a place with such a great diversity of people with different cultural backgrounds, different outlooks on life. It’s also the only place where all my friends and family live, and where I can go to a gay bar on Friday night and be at the beach surfing on Saturday morning within a 40-minute drive.

The "Into the Wild" bus
Has your life changed since the trip?
My stay at the Barrier really helped me focus on living a simpler life in Amsterdam and cutting out things I don’t like anyway like commercial entertainment and buying clothes. I’ve started my own veggie garden and have decided to only buy second-hand things on ebay (from individuals) and from local shops, and no new clothes for the next year. It feels great, I believe I'm helping the environment and it saves a lot of time and money too. On Great Barrier I was happy not having to go to the supermarket. In Amsterdam I’ve deleted the supermarket from my world too (well, almost)!

What advice would you give others wanting to do something like this?
My only travel advice is to take it slowly. Lose the goal of trying to see everything. For me travelling is not about “seeing” so much as about getting in touch with the place and its atmosphere, with the locals and their way of living. You can only get to know and feel that when you hang around for a while.

[Simone's now happily back in Amsterdam looking forward to a European summer. Meanwhile, I'm dreaming of escaping the Sydney winter...]