Cling of the Mountain
We are human limpets, in red helmets, clinging with fingers and walking shoes to near-vertical sea cliffs at the foot of Mount Gower, Lord Howe Island's highest peak.
The all-day trek to its 875-metre summit is well known. My five companions and I, having signed up for the first Wilderness Challenge Week organised by Pinetrees Lodge, are taking the path less travelled, around its base.
After bush-bashing down a steep slope from the main walking track and boulder-hopping to a rocky cove, we'd edged carefully around the cliffs to where we'd planned to abseil 30 metres down to sea level. Alas, the tide is too high, the swell too big. As it is, waves smash against the rocks at our feet, threatening to take us with them as they retreat.
"If you go in - you won't, but if you do - just remember to keep your feet pointing towards the rocks," says our leader, Dean Hiscox. You get the feeling he'd jump right in after you, and enjoy it, but he's also the quintessential outdoor guide, alert to any peril, keeping us safe.
If that sounds extreme for lovely Lord Howe - with its pretty beaches, turquoise lagoon and bike-friendly roads - it should. This is a new way of experiencing the island Sir David Attenborough once described as "so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable", a way to see places usually off-limits to visitors.
"We'll be going to places even locals don't go," Hiscox had said when he'd met us at Pinetrees, the night before our week began. A former ranger, for 16 years, he has lived on Lord Howe for more than 30 years, has hunted feral goats on the island's remote mountainsides and still maintains rat-traps in secluded, never-visited spots.
Not that he can tell us what we'll be doing this week. Not yet. That's for each day's weather and sea conditions to decide.
So there are ripples of nervous anticipation on our first morning, when we wake to lashing rain, bowling-alley thunder and branch-breaking winds that have unleashed their fury on some of the lodge's eponymous Norfolk Island pines. What could Hiscox and our other guide, Luke Hanson, owner of Pinetrees and a former UN ecologist and mountain guide, have in store for us on a day like this?
We find out when they arrive for our breakfast briefing in hiking boots and Gore-Tex jackets: an off-track bushwalk to the ominously named Scab Point, where we lean into the gale and eat our lunches standing up in the dripping forest, before returning to Pinetrees soaked and, by accident or design, in time for afternoon tea.
This is not the kind of trip where you sleep on the ground and cook dehydrated meals over a portable stove. Our outdoor days are bookended by Pinetrees nights. It'd be hard to imagine a more comfortable "base camp". Think hot showers, garden-view rooms, cooked breakfasts, gourmet lunch wraps, sunset drinks and four-course dinners that almost make us forget why we're here.
Nor do you have to be hard-core to do a Wilderness Week. Although there is an adventure racer and Tough Mudder among us, there had been only three prerequisites: be able to walk 10 kilometres in three hours and swim 400 metres in 12 minutes, and be ready for anything.
By day three, the sea calms enough for us to kayak to the Admiralty Islands (there are 28 islands in the Lord Howe group). It's a highlight of the trip for me, a chance to see Lord Howe from the sea, and some of the thousands of migratory seabirds that nest on these islands every summer; wedge-tailed shearwaters bob in the water around us, sooty and noddy terns wheel overhead.
On our way back, we put on wetsuits and slide out of the kayaks for a half-hour drift-snorkel below the 200-metre Malabar Cliffs with some of Lord Howe's 490 fish species and 130 corals. Later in the week we'll be standing on these cliffs looking down on the backs of the red-tailed tropicbirds we're looking up at now. That's how it is all week: seeing the island from different angles, in different conditions, while Hiscox shares stories of its natural and human history.
The day we tackle the Mount Gower trek, he tells us about his kentia seed-gathering days, when local men would venture into the island's untracked palm forests, returning with heavy bags of seeds on their backs.
At the end of the week, we're all in awe of Lord Howe Island. It has been challenging at times, and we have the bruises, blisters and band-aided cuts to prove it. But our adventures have really been a means to an end: a way to experience first-hand the island's unique and wild splendour.
At the airport on my last day, I sit on the grass looking over the white picket fence between arrivals and departures, and up at the island's twin peaks, Gower and Lidgbird, which look as untouchable and as alluring as ever.
Lord Howe, how do you do it? Just when I think I can't love you any more, you give me a week like this, and I am gone again.
The writer travelled as a guest of Pinetrees Lord Howe Island.
GETTING THERE Qantaslink flies daily to Lord Howe from Sydney (two hours), from Brisbane at weekends, and from Port Macquarie February-June and September-December.
ADVENTURING THERE Pinetrees will run four Wilderness weeks this year. Wilderness Discovery Weeks, focusing on nature and conservation, from A$1465 (NZ$1556) a person, will run from June 9-14 and July 14-18. The more demanding Wilderness Challenge Weeks, from A$1565 (NZ$1662) a person, will run from August 18-22 and October 13-17. Trip costs include five nights at Pinetrees and all meals, equipment and activities. See pinetrees.com.au.
MORE INFORMATION lordhoweisland.info