The red-earth island that's been dubbed 'the Uluru of the Pacific'

Looking out over Emily Bay.
The Unique Tourism Collection

Looking out over Emily Bay.

Flying in, I see it. Not the hulking green mass of Norfolk Island, which looks like a dairy farm plonked in the middle of the ocean, but its smaller sibling six kilometres to the south, a rugged, uninhabited (except by thousands of seabirds) red-earth island that's been called "the Uluru of the Pacific".

Getting there involves a mini-expedition that starts with a short, often rough boat trip from Norfolk; you then have to leap ashore onto slippery, wave-sloshed rocks and scramble up ladders and ropes to reach the island's higher, drier slopes.

On my first visit to Norfolk a few years ago, the weather had been against me. This time I've got three days to make it happen. Not that there aren't other outdoorsy things to do while I wait.

Norfolk Island: Where the air is so fresh you can buy tiny glass bottles of it at the Sunday market.

Norfolk Island: Where the air is so fresh you can buy tiny glass bottles of it at the Sunday market.

Despite its reputation as the kind of place your grandparents would love, Norfolk Island is tailor-made for nature-lovers and outdoor adventures.

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With a mild, northern NSW climate (it's 1400 kilometres due east of Byron Bay) and sea temperatures to match, it has 32km of wild coastline punctuated by beautiful beaches and the second most southerly coral reef in the world (after Lord Howe Island's).

Emily Bay was named one of Australia's top 10 beaches by TripAdvisor earlier this year.

Emily Bay was named one of Australia's top 10 beaches by TripAdvisor earlier this year.

The air is so fresh you can buy tiny glass bottles of it at the Sunday market next to the Visitor Information Centre. And the island's eponymous pines really are everywhere, photo-bombing innocent snaps of grazing cows and convict ruins.

Even the main settlement is called Burnt Pine, and it's an island tradition to plant 100 trees for every Islander (they don't call themselves Australians) on her 100th birthday (all three so far have been women).

Just driving around is my first outdoor experience, thanks to the brand new Moke I've rented. It's like being in a loosely pitched tent in a high wind, in a good way.

A good day for some Norfolk Island kayaking.

A good day for some Norfolk Island kayaking.

Arriving on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I have to roll down the clear plastic sides before driving to my accommodation, a holiday house 10 flapping minutes from the airport. The next morning the sun is shining and I roll the sides up again, all the better to feel the sea-kissed wind in my hair and greet the cows grazing by the island's narrow country roads. (The maximum speed limit is only 50kmh and cows have right of way.)

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On my first visit, I'd made the mistake of going in winter, though that gave me a chance to get my head around the island's fascinatingly convoluted history with its successive waves of settlers from Polynesians to Pitcairn Islanders descended from Bounty mutineers.

This time it's late summer, which is ideal for aquatic activities. I have morning swims at Emily Bay, a protected cove of white sand with water as clear as lemonade, named one of Australia's top 10 beaches by TripAdvisor earlier this year.

I snorkel at nearby Slaughter Bay which, despite its uninviting name, is a turquoise lagoon fringed with coral, where tropical fish swim right up to your mask. While we're out there my snorkelling guide, Karlene Christian, picks a handful of "seagrapes". "Also called dead man's fingers," she says, unappetisingly. Back on the beach she mixes them into a ceviche-style salad of local trumpeter and they taste salty and refreshing. Best post-snorkelling snack ever.

Foraging is more than an island pastime, it's a way of life. Because of strict biosecurity regulations, no fresh produce is imported so almost everything you eat on Norfolk is grown, caught or made on the island, even coffee and wine (from the Two Chimneys winery).

Late one afternoon I pick up a hamper from Island Nectar – which includes local delicacies such as smoked kingfish, guava paste and Hilli's goat's cheese – and have a picnic at Puppies Point while watching the sun set into the sea. (There's also a Saturday farmers market and roadside stalls with honesty boxes; just look for the signs that say, "Bananas 10c!")

There's even a new foraging tour led by chef, historian and 8th generation Islander Rachel Nebauer-Borg. As we drive around, we stop to pick peppery watercress from trickling streams and wild spinach from around 100-year-old Norfolk Island pines. In the hollow base of a long-dead tree, we find three freshly laid eggs; you can't get more free-range than that.

With no snakes, ticks, dangerous spiders or leeches on the island, Nebauer-Borg says she often forages in her "birthday shoes" (barefoot).

As we're walking back to her van, a small yellow guava falls on my head from an overhanging tree. We'd just been talking about people's increasing desire, no matter where they live, to know where their food comes from.

"When it falls from the sky and hits you on the head you know where it's come from," she laughs. "It's manna from heaven."

For a small island just eight kilometres by five kilometres, Norfolk is big on walking trails. There are 10 just in Norfolk Island National Park, all relatively short but interconnected, so you can design your own walk. I follow the 1.7-kilometre (one-way) cliff-top Bridle Track then the 700-metre Red Stone Link Track along the north coast, looking down on Apostle-like rock islets while red-tailed tropicbirds wheel overhead.

There I discover another aspect of Norfolk's natural side: it's blissfully uncrowded. I walk for almost three hours in the middle of a sunny, late summer Sunday without seeing another soul.

It's about the only time I can't see Phillip Island, which is like a portrait whose eyes follow you around the room.

But there it is again when I drive to Mount Pitt for a 360-degree view (there's a shady 500-metre rainforest walk from there to Mount Bates, the island's highest point, 319 metres above sea level).

Every night, a phone call from my Phillip Island trekking guide rules out a trip there the next day; the sea is too rough. My hopes leapfrog to the next day and the next, until I run out of days.

It's too rough for sea kayaking too, and to swim in the island's two rock pools (Crystal Pool and The Chord). But I do manage to go surfing. There are no surf shops, there's no surf school. It's BYO board or ask the Visitor Information Centre to put you in touch with a local who can lend you one.

That's how I meet goat-farmer Emily Ryves and her photographer husband Zach Saunders, both Islanders, who take me to their favourite surf spot, a rocky cove hemmed in my pine-forested hills. There's just one other surfer out. It feels wild and free and as we sit on our surfboards waiting for the next set, there's Phillip Island, elusive as ever, daring me to return.

TRIP NOTES
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norfolkisland.com.au

FLY

Norfolk Island is a two-hour international flight from mainland Australia. Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Brisbane. See airnewzealand.com.au

VISIT

Visitors can now just show photo ID, but it's a good idea to take your passport in case your flight is diverted to another country. The best time to go is spring or summer (September-April) to make the most of the warm weather and water. Moke rentals start at $50 a day, see mokeaboutnorfolkisland.com

STAY

Auwas Island Holiday Home is a contemporary three-bedroom house five minutes from town with views over forested valleys to Phillip Island and all mod cons including an espresso machine. Rates from $200 a night for two people. See auwasholiday.com

TOUR

Baunti Escapes (bauntiescapes.com) and Pinetree Tours (pinetreetours.com) are the main tour operators on the island. Foraging and snorkelling tours can be booked through the Visitor Information centre, open every day from 8.30am, phone (6273) 22147 or email info@nigtb.gov.nf. Charter Marine runs the half-day Phillip Island treks, see trekking.nf

Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism and Air New Zealand.

Traveller.com.au

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