RDTalks: An Island of Wonders

RDTalks英語有聲讀物推薦:夢幻之島
David Levell 撰文/Zoe Meunier 朗讀

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Lord Howe Island is a pristine South Pacific paradise, and home to one of Australia’s oldest family businesses, which still offers visitors an unspoilt and enjoyable holiday experience.

Lord Howe 島是南太平洋的一個原始天堂,也是澳大利亞最古老的家族的企業所在地之一,至今仍然為遊客提供著可享受原生態且愉悅的度假體驗。

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An Island of Wonders

By David Levell

There are few places on earth as pristine as this, a place where bushwalks through lush ancient palm forests lead to magnificent clear ocean views. The waters are rich in sea life, while rare and unique birds roost and potter everywhere, unfazed by the occasional human who passes by.

Yet Lord Howe Island, a World ­Heritage-listed natural treasure, is rich in human history, too – even if it was one of the last places on earth to be settled. The spirit of the hardy ­settlers who made this oceanic outpost home lives on in their descendants, who carry on the first business that began on the island – taking care of visitors.

Few know this better than Dani Rourke, who grew up at Pinetrees Lodge, a tourist lodge on land her family has occupied since the 1840s. After years practising law in Sydney, Dani returned to care for her ailing mother Pixie, a much-loved island personality and long-term Pinetrees manager. When Pixie died in 2010, Dani and her husband, Luke, ­decided to take over the business and raise their two children on Lord Howe.

“When I was a lawyer I used to deal with unhappy people,” says Dani. “Dealing with happy people on ­holiday is a complete revelation. It’s very rewarding.”

Tiny Lord Howe sits in the Pacific Ocean 780 kilometres north-east of Sydney, an 11-by-two kilometre sliver of forested peaks curling around a luscious coral lagoon. With hardly any roads or cars, no mobile reception and limited wi-fi, coming here comes very close to literally getting away from it all.

“Living on the island is incredible,” Dani says. “There’s a lot more trust, a lot more freedom. It’s really nice to lead a much simpler, easier life.”

Across the road from the Pinetrees Lodge sits Lord Howe Lagoon. ­Beneath its waters is the world’s southernmost coral reef, formed by a fortuitous sweep of current that brings warm water and coral larvae from the Great Barrier Reef, 1000 kilometres north. It’s an underwater wonderland of vibrant coral – blues, purples, yellows, brilliant whites – and reef fish in dazzling variety.

Diving at lagoon sites such as Comet’s Hole, a quick boat trip from shore, reveals all this and more: a big white octopus, purple-tinged lobsters, black stingrays. Reef sharks are also often seen, usually unaggressive Galapagos whalers. Snorkelling in the lagoon is similarly rewarding, but no boat is needed to snorkel cliff-fringed Ned’s Beach on the island’s other side. A reef just off the sand shows plenty of sea life including ­occasional ­turtles, although Old Settlement Beach is usually rated best for turtles. Ned’s is more renowned for the countless fish that converge on waders, hoping to be hand-fed pellets sold at a beachside dispensing machine.

Lord Howe Island has no pre-­European history. The first known sighting was in February 1788, when a British convict ship from Sydney sailed by. The commander, Lieutenant Ball, named it after his boss, the head of the Royal Navy, Lord Richard Howe, and noted an abundance of turtles and birds. Although part of New South Wales ever since, the island remained uninhabited for the next half-century, visited only by ­occasional whaling ships.

The first residents arrived in 1834, and comprised of three ­couples who set up as ship provisioners. Dani Rourke’s great-great-great grandparents, Thomas and Margaret ­Andrews, came in 1842 as servants to a man who took over the first-comers’ business. He soon sold up and left, but Thomas and Margaret wanted to stay, so in 1848 they bought the house and land of their employer’s partner – for two tons of potatoes. The ­property wasn’t yet called Pinetrees, but 171 years later it ranks among ­Australia’s oldest family businesses.

One of the first priorities for Thomas and Margaret was to ensure regular harvests of onions, which they sold to sailors, who relied on the vegetables to prevent scurvy. Their daughter Mary Nichols, who was born on Lord Howe in 1846, began welcoming guests at The Pines (its prior name) around 1895, just after a steamer service from Sydney opened. By the 1920s, Pinetrees was one of two tourist lodges.

“People were incredibly adventurous back then,” says Dani. “They’d get on a steamer somewhere, show up and be here till the boat came back. They didn’t know anything about it. But the sort of holiday they had was the sort of holiday people have now. Very little is different – you don’t come here for new attractions. In guest diaries from the 1920s, they go fishing, see the reef, climb a hill for the view, come back and eat way too much for dinner.”

From 1947 to 1974 – when the airstrip was built – Lord Howe was linked to Sydney by the world’s last flying boat service, using ex-World War II Catalinas and Sandringhams.

Tourism expanded greatly, although visitors are now limited to 400 a time, just outmatching the resident population of 350 people.

Many of these islanders are descended from either Mary Nichols or an American whaleman, Nathan Chase Thompson, who settled in 1853 after visiting Lord Howe while “chasing those big sperm whales”, as fifth-generation descendant Jack Shick puts it. “He obviously fell in love with it. When he went back to the States he packed his bags and came back on the first ship that was coming past here. He settled with a Micronesian girl.”

For the last 27 years, Jack has guided tourists up Mount Gower, the island’s highest peak which stands 875 metres high. He’s been to the top over 2000 times, starting as an eight year old in 1969. “It feels like home up there,” he says. “It’s a special place.”

Jack’s day-long trek is a visitor highlight. Mount Gower’s cloud-capped summit is moist and humid, and home to a tangled ‘mist forest’ of ferns and moss. Climbing to the summit involves skirting neighbouring Mount Lidgbird on a narrow path beside a sharp drop to the sea way below, and sometimes using fixed ropes to haul yourself up rock faces. And Jack ­often does it barefoot, thanks to a hardy free-range island childhood.

After time away in the 1980s – as a mechanic in Sydney – Jack is glad to be back permanently. “I think you just fall in love with the island,” he explains simply. “It’s a good spot to live. It’s pretty laidback.”

Just after Jack’s ancestor arrived in the 1850s, the decline of whaling brought lean times for the islanders who lived by supplying ships. The solution turned out to be all around them – kentia palms, soon the world’s most popular indoor palm tree. Originally unique to Lord Howe, subtropical kentias cope better than tropical equivalents with low light and cold, making them ideal for European rooms. Queen Victoria’s enthusiasm – she even had them placed around her coffin – helped spark a 19th-century kentia craze. The trend struck on time for palm seed exports to save an ailing economy – 1881 saw the first bulk seed shipment and the last whaling ship.

The seed trade continues today; kentias are Lord Howe’s biggest global legacy. They’re one of four ­local types, each evolved for specific micro-climates. Ascending Mount Gower, you’ll see each one dominating successive zones of elevation. All seem perfectly evolved to give hikers hand-grips on the steep slopes.

Magical as the mountain’s mist forest is, Jack points out it’s actually a little too tranquil. “There should be small birds all through that forest. An ornithologist who visited before rats got here wrote about the noise of the birds singing at dawn. He came back about 20 years afterwards and wrote, ‘the forest was quiet’.”

At first this seems surprising. After all, Lord Howe is a premier birdwatching destination, with over 170 species and seabirds nesting in hundreds of thousands. An eco-volunteering programme enables visitors to safeguard the island’s natural charms with weed removal and species surveys.

But introduced species can take a toll, even in paradise. Lord Howe woodhens, now numbering a healthy 300, were down to 15 birds in 1980 when the removal of feral pigs saved them.

Another near-loss was the Lord Howe phasmid (stick insect) or ‘tree lobster’, now called the world’s rarest insect. Once plentiful, phasmids ­vanished soon after rats arrived (via jettisoned ship’s cargo) in 1918. Believed extinct for decades, a few were found in 2001 on Ball’s Pyramid, a 562-metre-tall rock tower lying 20 kilometres offshore. A viable population now thrives in a mainland facility.

This year, a long-awaited baiting programme should eliminate rodents from Lord Howe. Then another kind of return will become possible – not islanders drawn back to their ancestral home by its siren call of beauty and simplicity, but fauna with no ­other place on earth to be.

Marvellous as it would be for Lord Howe to have its unique phasmids reintroduced, even more exciting, Jack reckons, will be the increase in birdlife in a rodent-free ecosystem. If the tree lobster reclaims its trees and the dawn chorus rings anew from the forest, then the island David Attenborough famously called “so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable” will be even more extraordinary, even more unbelievable.

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