Trail Of The Unexpected

The tiny Australian island with a very inquisitive bird population
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The Independent Travel

The first shipwreck brought rats, the second Royal Navy sailors.

The court martial is coming soon for the captain and commanding officers of HMS Nottingham, which in July 2002 became Lord Howe Island's second famous shipwreck.

Popping dramatically out of the ocean, Lord Howe lies about 500 miles to the east of Sydney, about one third of the way from Australia to New Zealand. The mountainous little hideaway could easily fit in the same postcard collection as Polynesian islands such as Rarotonga, Moorea or Bora Bora. In fact Lord Howe, with its population of 300, is a World Heritage-listed part of the Australian state of New South Wales.

Lord Howe Island is simply, impossibly, idyllically, relaxed and, well, polite. Nobody seems to be in a hurry, perhaps because there's a maximum speed limit of 15mph. Those low speeds are not a problem, it's less than three miles from one end of the island road to the other. Anyway, most visitors find their way around by pedal power, a couple of bicycles seem to come with every room. The island also seems to have no locks. Your hotel room won't have one and nobody bothers to chain their bikes up.

Nor is there any untidiness. Every lawn looks neatly mowed and if you want to buy a new car, you first have to ship the old one back to the mainland, just to keep things orderly.

Tourism is Lord Howe's chief money-spinner but there's also the kentia palm. This pretty little palm tree not only doesn't grow too tall, it also puts up remarkably well with life indoors. As a result it's become the palm tree you're most likely to encounter in restaurants, offices and shopping centres around the world. Every year a couple of million kentia palm seedlings are exported from Lord Howe Island, most being airfreighted to the Netherlands where they're grown to a few feet before being dispatched all over Europe.

Once you've settled in on Lord Howe, lazing on the beach and walking are the two main activities. Having stretched your legs on shorter and easier walks such as the stroll past Mutton Bird Point or up to Kim's Lookout, it's time to climb 2,870 feet to the top of Mt Gower, the island's highest point. If you're fit, strong and have a head for heights, that is.

You're also strongly advised to pay £15 and sign up for one of Jack Shick's ascents which he makes several times a week. The round trip takes the whole day, from an early start, and the trail to the top can be easy to lose. You haven't climbed far from the beach before you're clutching a fixed rope to sidle around the edge of Mt Lidgbird, a crash hat on your head just in case any rocks tumble down from above.

Half way up, my group paused for an encounter with one of the island's more unusual bird species, the providence petrel. Jack cupped his hands and shouted, it doesn't matter what he shouts, he explained, just as long as it's loud and sustained. There was a crash and a large bird flopped down from the tree tops, landing at our feet and looking around with a puzzled expression. Seconds later another bird plummeted down, bouncing awkwardly from branch to branch as it tumbled to the ground. Then another and another until, within minutes, we were surrounded by birds which seemed quite fearless and utterly unconcerned if we picked them up for a closer look.

"They're simply curious," said Jack, "but it wasn't always a very good habit." The petrel was named by marooned sailors who, running low on food, were "providentially" saved when they discovered how easy it was to shout for their supper.

When walking or lazing on the beach palls, there's the nice little museum to investigate, a small cinema, excellent scuba diving, a pretty little nine-hole golf course, fishing trips, kayaks to rent and even joy-flights around the island and out to Ball's Pyramid, a spectacular 1,807ft rock spire which simply spears out of the sea 15 miles south-east.

And there's bird-watching, which would be even better if it wasn't for Lord Howe's other famous shipwreck. Like HMS Nottingham in 2002, the unfortunate Makambo, which ran aground in 1918, managed to escape but not before its population of rats deserted ship. and wreaked havoc on the island's bird population. Eight-five years later, the islanders are still trying to kill off the rats.

It's just under two hours with QantasLink from Sydney or Brisbane to Lord Howe. The round-trip air fare from Sydney costs around £250 but most visitors go on a package deal. For more information call 00 61 7 5522 9435 or visit www.lordhoweisland.info

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