Lord Howe

 

 


David Whitley finds himself gawping at near-extinct creatures on a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Tasman Sea

 

Ambling along the wooden walkway from the room to the restaurant, a little brown thing scurries through the foliage. It’s a bird; more specifically, the Lord Howe Woodhen. It’s not the most spectacular creature we’ll ever see, but the fact that only around 250 of them exist in the world makes the spotting truly remarkable. It’s this sort of thing that people come to Lord Howe Island for. It’s a romantic getaway destination, with a population of around 350 people, a maximum of 400 visitors at any one time and no mobile phone coverage.

 

The air of solitude is inescapable – Lord Howe lies on its own in the Pacific Ocean, around 375 miles off the coast of New South Wales – but it’s not just that the couples come for. It’s a staggeringly beautiful island, almost encircled by a lagoon and boasting the world’s most southerly coral reef. The world’s most popular indoor palm trees – the Kentia palms – come from here, and the trek up through the forest to the top of Mount Gower is often regarded as Australia’s most exhilarating day walk. But it is the wildlife that is truly extraordinary. The island is only 11km long, and a maximum of 2km wide, yet 450 different species of fish have been recorded around the island. 40% of these are native only to the Tasman Sea.

 

The numbers stack up elsewhere too. There are more seabird species, breeding in higher numbers, than anywhere else in Australia. There are also over 1,600 species of insect, around 60% of which can be found nowhere else, and 241 species of plant life. Of the latter, 47% are native only to Lord Howe Island. This remarkable array of unique fauna and flora means that Lord Howe is essentially in the same bracket as Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Indeed, both gained World Heritage listing at the same time in 1982 in recognition of their unmatched biodiversity and beauty.

 

Part of this range is due to its isolation. Lord Howe has never been part of a continent, and the species that have made it here have come from an awful long way away. The other reason is that it sits at an oceanic crossroads. Warm and cool oceanic currents meet; the East Australian current converges with the chillier ones from further south. This accounts for the coral and all the fish, and makes Lord Howe an extremely underrated diving destination. Nearby Ball’s Pyramid – essentially a big rock in the sea – is particularly good.

 

Another prime wildlife spot is North Bay. It’s a beach flanked by the ubiquitous Kentia palms and an outcrop of Norfolk Pines. The pines are an introduced species, brought over initially to provide a replacement in case a ship broke its mast or boom. They’re regarded as noxious weeds, but for now they’ll not be cut down – too many birds use them for nesting. On a warm day, North prime sunbathing territory, but the birds don’t come to soak up the sun. This is where they nurture their eggs, and bring up their young. There can be few places in the world where it is possible to get up so close to so many seabirds as they guard their eggs. Certainly towards the top end of the beach, every available branch seems to be taken up with a nest. The sooty terns, for example, take seagrass and guano and fashion it into something suitably comfortable. They only lay one egg, and need to protected well.

 

Through the trees and in the rookeries along the beach, there are thousands of birds. There are Black Noddy Terns, Bar Tailed Godwits and Red Tailed Tropic birds amongst others. Many of them are happy to just sit there posing for a photo, although there’s always the occasional crank. One of the more protective in the melee decides to hover above us, making menacing cawing sounds. He may as well be saying: “Get lost, paparazzi scum!”

 

You don’t need to go on a tour to take part in one of the island’s most memorable wildlife encounters, however. Ned’s Beach has been voted as Australia’s cleanest beach in the past and inside the little shack on the shore there is a poster of different varieties of fish that can be found in Lord Howe’s waters. On that poster is the king fish, and it’s a little smaller than the ones in the shallows. For these king fish, Ned’s Beach is a fine dining restaurant. They’re either extremely well fed by the tourists that keep coming down with bread, or they’re cross bred with sharks and leviathans. 

 

Step into the shallows, not even to waste deep and they swarm around you. The small ones get the rough end of the deal, fighting for the scraps. The big ones use brute force and the medium-sized ones are a little more agile – their reactions usually see them first to the party. They all have one thing in common, though. If you’re brave enough to keep steady, they will come up and take the tasty morsels right out of your hand. There are only ever two or three feeders in at a time, and this is an indication of how peaceful Lord Howe is. Anywhere else, this would be a complete circus, with busloads fighting over each other for the chance to feed the metre-long sea giants. Even so, it has now got to the stage where the fish are getting a little too fat – the islanders are now encouraging visitors to use special fish food pellets rather than bread. The pellets can be bought at the Thompson’s Store.

 

It’s lucky that the islanders appreciate what they have on their hands. Programmes are in place to help maintain and increase levels of native species, and in the past eradication schemes have been carried out to rid the island of interlopers.Native plants and animals have been damaged horrendously over the years by introduced species, often brought in by shipwrecks. Some creatures are either officially extinct or presumed to be so. But the eradication schemes have ridden the island of feral cats, pigs and goats, and discussions are underway about clearing out another major introduced pest: the rat. It’s not as easy as it sounds, of course, but the heart is in the right place. The limit on visitor numbers is just part of a broad plan to preserve a truly unique piece of that paradise.

 

  

Bowling

 

 

David Whitley gets ready to roll in Sydney

 

I step out through the glass door with a beer in hand, ready to go old folk-spotting. After all, that’s what bowling’s about isn’t it? A nice way for retirees to get some exercise in their gleaming whites. It’s fair to say that bowling (the outdoor on a green type, rather than the ten pin version) doesn’t really have the sexiest of reputations across most of the world. But in Australia, this isn’t the case. In the last ten years, the sport has undergone a remarkable resurgence and become cool amongst hip young trendsetters.

 

 

This is apparent as I step outside at the Paddington Bowling Club in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. There’s no wrinkly pageant here. Straddling either side of the greens is an army of twenty and thirtysomethings, most of whom look like they’d be more at home in a nightclub or sleek bar than on the hallowed turf. Actually, there’s a strong possibility that they may have stumbled out of some such venue. Most have sunglasses on, many are nursing a hair-of-the-dog drink, and just about all are sloping around in lazy weekend wear.

 

There are no prim white uniforms and bowling shoes - just a sea of shorts, fashionably crumpled shirts and bare feet. The Barefoot Bowling trend started as a way of protecting the greens from unsuitable boots and shoes, but caught on. Many now shed the shoes as a matter of course, not even questioning why others do it and just finding it a cool way of doing things.

 

It’s a scene that can be found replicated on the weekends across Australia. Not all bowling clubs have cast aside the old stuffiness – indeed many are still just as traditional as they have always been – but a fair few have cottoned on to what the younger generation want. For the bowling clubs, it’s not really about introducing the sport to new players, it’s about making money behind the bar. Those in trendy urban areas, in particular, cottoned on quickly. Turn the game into a social occasion, and more people will not only come, but they will spend money on drinks. They’ll also bring friends to a spot they may never have considered visiting before.

 

As a consequence, the Paddington (or Paddo) Bowling Club is thriving. The same applies to other clubs in the more sought-after areas of Australia’s big cities. It’s far more about the social aspect than the sport itself, but due to Australia’s climate and largely fine, warm weather, bowling has become an outdoor equivalent to pool or darts.

 

The transition to hipness came about in the late 1990s and the early noughties. The St Kilda Bowling Club in Melbourne is generally regarded as being the place where things started turning around. A dwindling membership at one of Australia’s oldest clubs led management to try and attract a younger audience. It worked, and then the TV cameras came along. 

 

The Secret Life of Us was one of Australia’s hippest – and most watched – TV programmes of the early 21stcentury. Set in St Kilda, it was a slick and occasionally gritty drama about twenty and thirtysomethings in Melbourne and their love lives. It was shown in the UK on Channel Four, and made stars of numerous members of the cast. When the characters weren’t sleeping with each other, bitching about their bosses and having personal crises, they could often be found on the bowling green. The St Kilda Bowling Club was the setting, and became a regular filming location. And if the coolest characters on TV are bowling, then others will follow in real life.

 

This was boosted in 2002 by the release of Crackerjack. It was a film about a typical Aussie bludger who decided to join a lawn bowls club in order to get a free parking space. It’s not the greatest comedy ever made, but it was the highest-grossing Australian film of the year, and clearly captured the imagination. The Secret Life of Us brought in the cool kids, and Crackerjack took a slice of the mainstream. Suddenly, people were venturing into long-forgotten bowling clubs, the shoes were coming off and the beers were flowing.

 

There was a high chance of this being a passing fad, and indeed the buzz has died down a little, but the bowling clubs prepared to cater for the younger market are still thriving. They’ve accepted that the game can’t be taken too seriously, and that it’s almost secondary to the socialising. And, as a result, the greens are heaving every time the sun comes out on a weekend. Part of the joy of bowling is that it’s relatively simple to understand, even for the complete beginner. I have the rules explained to me by Paul, an ex-pat ad salesman who lives in Bondi. “Essentially, you throw down the white ball, or jack, and whoever gets their ball nearest to it wins.”

 

Each player gets four bowls, although if playing as pairs, this can go up to four per player and a crowded green of 16 in total. Each goes in turn, trying to get as many bowls as possible near to the jack. If - for example - Player A has three bowls closer to the jack than the nearest of Player B’s bowls, he scores three points. It’s very simple to get the basics of, but hard to master. There’s also a certain amount of strategy involved. The bowls are not perfect spheres, and they’re weighted at one side. Try and roll one dead straight, therefore and it will tail off to one side. 

 

“The trick is to use that curve,” says Paul. “Aim slightly to the side, and use the natural arc to make the bowl travel around the others.” It soon becomes clear that it’s not about getting every bowl as close to the jack as possible. Some are left short, blocking the path. Others are sent further back in case the jack is struck in that direction at any point. Others are used as piledrivers to clear any irritants out of the way. As the game progresses, it becomes more engrossing. Paul and I try and play to each other’s weaknesses when we take it in turns to throw down the jack. He’s stronger when it goes a long way; I have more control when it’s left short. 

 

Paul isn’t a regular player – and many fit into this category. While some will make a regular thing of it – like a round of golf – others will just drop by when a group decides to get together and do something over the weekend. In practice, this means that nobody gets particularly good, and most games are fairly evenly matched due to similar levels of hopelessness. With our game meandering to a close, Paul manages to knock his own bowl – which had been closest to the jack – away into the gutter at the back. “Ah nuts,” he says lackadaisically, taking another sip of beer. It’s a moment that sums the barefoot bowling phenomenon up. Nobody really cares who wins, although there can be some gentle mickey-taking and gloating. It’s just something fun, and relatively wholesome, to do in the sunshine.

 

 

 

Snakes


It was a pretty normal morning. The sky was a solid, cloudless blue, the water was crystal clear, and the sunlight bounced off its surface like golden fireworks. I could feel myself getting sunburnt at 9am, and diving under a foaming, crashing and curling wave was a better wake up call than any cup of coffee I’d ever had in my life. It was paradise- and it was just an average day at Byron bay. 

Heading out after my morning swim onto the beach, something caught my eye. Amongst the seashells and crab holes, the river stones, florescent jellyfish and specks of dried seaweed, I saw something slithering on the sand.
 

A snake


Wiggling away in the sand was a small, foot long reptile. With its reddish belly, black back and head that you couldn't tell from the body, it was pretty clear that it was a red-bellied black snake. It was tiny and scared; trying to burrow into the sand underneath a footprint someone had left on the beach.

However, the red bellied black is found near water on the East Coast of Australia, so finding it on the beach wasn't entirely surprising. It could have been washed off the rocks, or came out of the dunes and scrub.

There's also some massive redevelopment in the Byron area and a big housing estate going in on the other side of the train tracks, where there used to be bushland. It’s the same old story: everyone wants to live in paradise, and the fauna have been pushed out of their habitat and into more urban areas as the humans move in.

On top of that, the snake is also being wiped out by a far worse enemy: the cane toad. These poisonous slimy pests are an introduced species in Australia and once snakes eat them as prey, the snakes quickly die from their toxic skin. Now, some people might see a snake and run a mile. Others might want to kill it. And given the huge number of kids in the area this was my biggest fear, that some panicky parent might give the snake a painful death by child’s bucket and spade.

However, the first thing anyone who knows anything about snakes will tell you is that snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. So, keeping that in mind, this animal lover decided to stage a catch and release in a two-piece vintage bikini
With a stick and a beach towel, I flicked it into my towel, wrapped up all four edges and headed off down the beach to a rocky area where most visitors don't go- and where you can frequently find the more aggressive brown snake sunning itself in the morning.
You might think I'm a bit silly to pick up a snake, and I fully agree with you. Pick up a snake that size in someplace in Africa, and one bite would kill you in a few hours.

Here, I took a calculated risk. The snake was possibly too small to get much venom into me if bitten. I had friends out on the beach with me, and the local hospital was four blocks away and well-stocked with venom. And when I tipped him on the rocks, the little guy happily just slithered away into freedom. He’d didn’t put up much of a fight.

So what are your chances of seeing a snake up in Byron? Pretty good, actually. A few days after I relocated the little guy, a big 6-foot diamond python took up residence in the garden where I was staying.

Best keep an eye out, or you might have your own reptilian encounter.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

Freak Bros

 

Byron Bay’s Great Northern Hotel is situated just a bare couple of miles from mainland Australia’s most easterly point.  The obvious paradox in the name is matched by the fact that the Great Northern is not even a hotel. In-keeping (no pun intended) with old-time licensing laws that restricted the sale of alcohol only to hotels, the Great Northern is one of many thousand Aussie bars that still call themselves hotels.

I pulled a battered stool up to the old timber bar and ordered a bottle of Coopers. The organic beer leaves residue at the bottom of the bottle and it’s a tradition that you must roll the bottle backwards and forwards over the bar. I had just opened the screw-top bottle – with that satisfying tsshhhhhhhh! – when a man who was sat just along the bar started up conversation, with typically easy-going Aussie camaraderie.

“Stayin’ in town or are yus just passing through...?” Bruce (name changed to protect the – allegedly – guilty) had lived quite a life. He was a board-shaper and aging beachboy but according to his stories he had been at times a successful pro surfer (at the height of his brief fame having vanquished Nat Young and the great Mark Richards), a minor dealer of dubious substances and a mafia hitman. Dispite Bruce’s talkativeness, the full facts of this part of his life were not forthcoming in the limited amount of digging I was able to do during the course of a single Coopers. He alluded briefly to friends whose professional lives formed the basis for the popular Aussie mafia series Underbelly...then he formed the two fingers of his left hand into a pistol shape and winked knowingly. I supposed that mafia hitmen were trained to be men of few words.

Hearing that we were just passing through Byron, Bruce expressed his condolences. Byron Bay is a seriously addictive place and few people who visit feel that their stay is sufficiently long. Some, like Bruce, never leave. However, on learning that our next stop was the legendary Nimbin Bruce brightened markedly. “Oooooh, you’ll lurrrrve Nimbin. Oh yeah! You’ll like Nimbin...a LOT!” He added another knowing wink but refused to give me even a hint as to just what it was that I would like so much about Nimbin. Bruce was a man who was able to imply entire oracles of information without ever telling you anything. “...you definitely wanna go to Nimbin!”  

Only a handful of people had ever heard of this little declining dairy village when, in 1973, the Aquarius Festival was held there. After the event the village’s ‘headcount’ suddenly quadrupled when many of the students, hippies, bohemians and random eccentrics refused to go home and founded communes in the pretty valleys.

It was raining hard when we drove into town but through the steamy windscreen I could see the garishly painted signs on the front of venerable old stores: Happy High Herbs, MardiGrass, Hemp Embassy, Bringabong.com. Cannabis is illegal in New South Wales but in Nimbin the hippy culture is alive and well and pot is sold freely in the alleyways and smoked openly in some of the cafes. There are periodic crackdowns and in 2008 a police sweep put many of the dealers out of business. But on an average day the village ‘High Street’ is like a slice of Amsterdam slipped into a gritty Dodge City backdrop. At times there might be too many day-tripping tourists and over-excited teenage backpackers but it’s a refreshing place and freedom of thought and counter-culture are still a big part of Nimbin. In the patio at the back of the Rainbow Café a blackboard was chalked up with such legends as ‘Jesus wore hemp’ and ‘Freedom of choice: I’d rather sell pot than be a cop.’

The Hemp Embassy (Help End Marijuana Prohibition) is where you go to ‘get the dope on’ cannabis awareness and also sells a crazy range of hemp related fashion goodies and everything in the way of paraphernalia (but the actual dope is not available here). Most tempting is a book of every Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic-strip ever done (but priced at 60 dollars it’s for bread-heads only). The Hemp Embassy also promotes the annual Nimbin MardiGrass, which takes place every April and features events such as the Hemp Olympix, the Pickers Ball, joint-rolling contests and the dance of the Ganja Faeries.

Nimbin Museum is full of bright colours, dubious artwork and hippy propaganda. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and occasionally shows old documentaries on the hippy days here. A disgruntled Nimbin farmer’s wife faces the camera and complains about the influx of naked, free-loving youngsters: “Well,” she tells the interviewer, “they seem happy...but really they’re all on drugs. The freely admit that. Maybe that’s why they are happy...”

She was very straight, very solemn. An upstanding pillar of the community...she was definitely not happy. Nimbin these days is worth its weight in gold for ‘freak value’...but twenty minutes down the road you find the pretty little town of Mullumbimby – ‘Australia’s Biggest Little Town.’ As I got my caffeine fix outside the ‘japunumop’ cafe (read it upside down and it makes sense) it occurred to me that Mullumbimby probably has the sort of sleepy charm that Nimbin had when the hippies first fell in love with it.

 

Kangaroo

 


 

David Whitley stumbles upon a magical wildlife encounter at Cape Hillsborough in Queensland

It’s that magical period of dusk where the moon is forming a perfect white circle in the sky, and the range of orangey pinks are layering stripes over the top of the water on the horizon. This would be pretty marvellous any evening; the massive 6.5 metre tide at Cape Hillsborough is on its way in, covering the bobbles made in the sand made by burrowing soldier crabs earlier in the day. Wedge Island provides a perfect backdrop, and the arm of the cape itself protects the almost unnatural glimmer of the beach. 

But it’s not just any evening. I’ve got company. There are a few children still on the beach, plugging away with their buckets and spades, but it requires a double-take to realise that one of the outlines isn’t child-shaped. 

We have been joined on the beach by a very special lady. 

One with a pouch and a very long tail. An eastern grey kangaroo has come to enjoy the sunset as well. I start off observing from a distance. She sits still for a bit, then hops over to what she must regard as a much more exciting spot on the beach. I don’t want to scare her off, so I approach gradually. She seems remarkably unthreatened – I guess that comes from growing up near a holiday park full of families with young kids – and I find myself getting almost within touching distance. 

She fidgets, trying to get a sandfly off her leg, but unperturbed by me. I move around to the side so that I’ve got the coloured sky and Wedge Island behind her. And then I just sit there on the sand, watching night come in. She’s not exactly the ideal model – she has an uncanny habit of moving her head just as I think I’ve lined up the perfect photograph. But after a while, I put the camera away and just lie there entranced. To get so close to such a magnificent wild creature, one-on-one, for so long and in such an incredible setting is one of those memory of a lifetime moments. And then she moves – not to hop away, not to go and investigate something more interesting, but to lie down on the sand less than a metre away from me. It’s around 45 minutes before I can bring myself to leave. It’s almost totally dark. 

I turn round to see the children still absolutely focused on building their giant network of sand canals. Philistines.