Lord Howe Island

Seen from the surface of the Tasman sea, Lord Howe island suggests to me some sort of sea scorpion, with the two high mountains at its southern end representing the sting in the tail. In fact no simile could be more invidious, because of all the islands of the world Lord Howe is, I would guess, the least toxic.

There are no vicious animals on Lord Howe. There are very few biting insects. There are no stinging nettles or poison ivies. There are no criminals to be mugged by, no high-rise building to fall out of, hardly any traffic to knock you down, no racial tension, no poverty, no litter, no touts, no rabies, no AIDS, and precious little envy. It is a very genteel paradise, an Eden without a snake.

Actually I suspect it to be more beautiful than the Garden of Eden, which was presumably in an early state of development. Lord Howe is at its peak. It looks as though it was created a couple of hundred years go by one of the great landscape gardeners of the Enlightenment - "Capability" Brown, perhaps - given carte blanche to produce the perfect subtropical isle. It is about seven miles long from north to south, never as much as two miles from east to west - a speck in the South Pacific, 400 miles east from the Australian coast, 1,000 miles northwest of New Zealand. But within these miniature limits it is virtuosic.

Those two big mountains, Gower and Lidgbird, rise to 2,800 feet, and their summits are often misty. They overlook an exquisite ensemble of rain forests, pasturelands, and wooded hills. In the western lee of the island, the world's southernmost coral reef protects a lagoon of marvelous fecundity, while on the other shore, only a walk away, sandy beaches are set in a rocky, foamy surf-washed coast. To cap it all, away to the south, like the resolving chord at the end of a great symphony, there rises sheer from the sea a stark pyramid of rock, 1,800 feet high: Ball's Pyramid, one of the great ocean sights of the world, and a perfect foil to the benign green composition of Lord Howe.

No Adam or Eve set eyes on this island until 1788 (five years, as it happens, after the death of "Capability"). It is one of the rare places that can truly claim to have been discovered by the explorers of the European expansion, because there were no indigenous natives. Even now, 200 years on, it seems odd to find no Aborigines here but instead to encounter a population that would not seem out of place somewhere like Orkneyor Borkum - weathered northern-type people, rather stocky and very tough, as who wouldn't be after a couple of hundred years 400 miles from anywhere else.

The earliest settlers were a mixed bag of wanderers, mostly British and American, together with some Maori women and a chieftain's daughter from the Gilbert Islands. Most of today's 300 islanders are descended from one or other of the founding fathers, and one very soon gets to know their names and pedigrees. Half of them are somehow related to each other, and they remember with pride their pioneering antecedents. I was only on the island a short while when I saw a name from one of those old clans on a weathered tombstone, decorated with seashells perhaps, or carved on the war memorial beneath its World War I machine gun, but I came to feel a pang of almost familial sympathy myself.

If there were no humans here when the first British seamen gingerly set foot in this place, there were plenty of other creatures. Lord Howe is an exhibition of nature's profligacy. It is clothed, for a start, in a thick tangle of forest, reaching from its shoreline to its highest peaks. Palm trees, banyans, the peculiar pandanus, stinkwood and pumpkin trees, vines, creepers, flowering shrubs of wonderful variety, roots, brambles, and ferns are inextricably massed, all mixed up, some growing one on top of the other, so that it is hard to know where one tree ends and the next begins. Sometimes the forest floor is made of hard dry sand, looking like elephant skin, sometimes it seems to be one treacherous expanse of knotted roots.

Around this foliage pullulates a cageless menagerie - an aquarium without glass and a roofless aviary. There are birds everywhere, flashes of sudden yellow, bundles of gray, blobs of white on headlands, shearwaters disappearing into burrows, hawks diving into grasses, kingfishers balanced on impossible twigs, and the ever-present squawks and groans and cackles and whistles. The green-winged pigeon forever forages about the undergrowth. The unique flightless woodhen was, until a few years ago, reduced to a troop of 30 living on the inaccessible summit of Mount Gower. But now it struts and screeches all over the place.

The lagoon is so aswirl with tropical colors, blues and pinks and yellows, that it looks to me edible, like some vivid dessert sauce, and it is alive with all manner of amazing fish. Whales and dolphins appear offshore. In the forests live 103 kinds of spider, not to mention 51 types of snail and 24 sorts of butterfly. The only mammal indigenous to Lord Howe is a small shy bat, but many animals have been introduced over the years, and today cattle amble around the pasturelands, feral goats haunt the mountains, and I am told that somewhere in the forest there is a single cunning survivor of a once numerous company of pigs, all the rest having been hunted out of existence.

Even now many of these creatures are relatively unafraid of man. They have not learned the worst about us. I opened my door one evening to find a plump shearwater (which they call a muttonbird here) resting with perfect confidence on my doorstep. Pigeons, blackbirds, and even woodhens scarcely trouble themselves to get out of your way. The providence petrel, which lives in the high mountains, will come fearlessly to a human call, and little kingfishers allow you almost within touching distance before they fly testily away, more irritated than alarmed.

At Ned's Beach, one of the sandy beaches of the eastern shore, it has long been the custom to feed the fishes. You have only to paddle into the water with a chunk of bread to find yourself surrounded by multitudes of them, gray, gold, red, and silver in the shallows. They are aggressive in their approach and sometimes nip you rather than the bread, but after all, they have to compete with a squadron of piratical ducks that follow you implacably off the beach into the water and seldom miss a crumb.

It is hard to realize, in the depths of this little island sanctuary, that the 300 islanders are all somewhere about, every one of them within a few miles, as well as the 400-odd visitors who are the most the island can accommodate. If you take a flight in a light aircraft over the island, however, all becomes clear. Up you circle, laboriously up the sheer gull-whirled cliffs of Mount Gower, over the forested plateau of its summit, high above the viscous lagoon and the rocky islets off the eastern shore, and presently it dawns upon you that the lowland center of Lord Howe is a little suburbia. Tucked there among the green are the white-roofed verandaed homes of the islanders, cozy as could be, linked by trim lanes, cars in their carports, and an air not of South Seas rapscallionism but of satisfied domesticity.

Lord Howe has sometimes been a haven for shipwrecked sailors, and I cannot imagine anywhere nicer to be washed ashore. On this infinitesimal dot in the ocean the benighted mariner, stepping from his life raft, would find every modern comfort. He need only cash a check at the State Bank, and he'd be set for the day: a restorative cappuccino at Trader Nick's Cafe, a stop at the Lagoon Store to get the Sydney morning paper, a beer at the hospitable bar of the Bowling Club, lunch overlooking the tennis court at Pinetrees Lodge. He could join, if he felt up to it, a game of touch football on the recreation field or a round of golf at the nine-hole course, pop in for a Devonshire cream tea somewhere, rent a video for the evening, pick up a quiche and a bottle of Chardonnay from a deli, and off to bed he could go in any of a dozen comfortable guest houses.

The first function of Lord Howe Island was supplying passing ships, mostly whalers, with vegetables and meat. When South Seas whaling declined, the islanders turned to exporting the seeds of the kentia palm, the indigenous tree that sprang into worldwide popularity with the advent of Victorian decor and that still ornaments the air-conditioned office of nearly every other Manhattan executive. Now, though the palm industry still thrives, the most obvious island purpose is tourism of a singularly restrained and environmentally conscious kind.

It is a very proper kind of tourism. There is nothing flashy or fancy to it. The Lord Howe style is resolutely unostentatious and is best grasped, I think, by wandering up some green frondy lane to one of those hidden-away houses. Doves loiter around this track, blackbirds mess about in the undergrowth, and a homely muddle tells you when you are approaching the homestead. In a small green paddock, hens are scrabbling. A line of washing hangs in the sun, and a motorbike leans against a tree. And when the house appears through a screen of flowering shrubs, it is everyone's dream of a settler's house, with its shady veranda among the hibiscus, wide eaves of corrugated iron, comfortably worn chairs on its porch, and the cool invitation of a parlor, family photographs on the wall, glimpsed through its ever-open door.

Open because in this small community, where everyone knows everyone else, and even the tourists are thoroughly respectable, nobody is going to steal anything. Not all of Lord Howe's islanders are figures of winning charm, but most of them seem entirely frank and honest, and for the visitor, life is very reassuring. There is no public transport, so a bicycle is the best way to get around (or tricycle, if you are able to find one of the two for rent on the island), and one's progress, however wobbly and breathless at first, soon becomes a mannerly exercise in acclimatization.

"Morning," "Hi," "Hullo there," "Lovely morning," says every single soul you pass, and if the islanders say it as a matter of habit, your fellow visitors are expressing a kind of astonished communal delight that you should be there at all, riding your bikes among the rain forests in the far Pacific. In no time at all you are pedaling down to the post office, along to the bank, up the road to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, greeting all comers as to the island manner born.

There is an Anglican church, too, and will soon be a Catholic one, and there are four country stores, and a bakery, and a boatyard, and a visitors' center, and a palm nursery, and a hospital with three beds, and a trim small airport. There is a lovely little school whose pupils come and go on bikes wearing colorful helmets and jaunty rucksacks on their backs. There is a jetty where the weekly supply ship comes through the reef from the Australian mainland, and up every other road there seems to be a restaurant: Elsie's or the Blue Lagoon, the Beachcomber or the Admiralty Bar and Grill.

In the center of the settlement, with a flag on a pole outside, stands Government House. Almost from the start Lord Howe Island was officially regarded as part of New South Wales, then a British colony, and this must be one of the smallest and most engaging of all the government houses, from palaces in India to Caribbean villas, by which Queen Victoria's empire expressed its supremacies around the world. Today the islanders are on electoral rolls in mainland Australia, but they have their own governing board, a majority of it elected, and their own chief of state, as it were, the occupant of Government House, in the person of a Manager and Executive Officer.

The present incumbent is Judith Mortlock, and she and her husband, Alan, live there in a most agreeable style. Lawns and flowers surround them, music fills their rooms, there are woodhens in their garden, and Mrs. Mortlock serves her visitors excellent tea and chocolate cake. On the wall of their sitting room hangs an official portrait of Elizabeth II, who as Queen of Australia (for the moment, anyway) is Queen of Lord Howe Island, too.

Mrs. Mortlock's authority is amiable but wide-ranging. "You must excuse me now," she said to me as we chatted outside my guest house one day. "It's time for me to marry that couple over there." Sure enough, a young couple coming down the lane had a distinctly festive air to them and appeared to be carrying a wedding cake.

"Have you decided where you want the ceremony?" the Manager and Executive Officer sang out cheerfully as they approached, and the last I saw of them they were off in her car to celebrate their nuptials, and presumably eat their cake, beside the lagoon somewhere or in a forest glade.

I am told that some islanders, descended as they are from bold adventurers of the past, rather resent the tight-laced, somewhat goody- goody way in which Lord Howe is organized. Since 1982 it has been a World Heritage Site, which means that it is almost excruciatingly Green. Planning restrictions are severe - 75 percent of the island's surface is defined as permanent park preserve. Building of any kind is strictly controlled, and a man can hardly dig a hole in his garden, so residents complain, without getting a permit. There is a speed limit of 16 mph. You must wear a helmet even if you are only riding a bike (though riders of those two tricycles are exempt). Spearfishing is forbidden, as is the collection of tern eggs, once among the islanders' favorite delicacies. The possession of dogs is discouraged, and except for a few aged survivors of more heedless times, cats are banned. They are bad for the native fauna.

No fauna, indeed, could be more privileged than the indigenous birds and beasts of Lord Howe Island, almost all of whom are protected by law and by technique. Things were different in the bad old days. The first human arrivals slaughtered and gobbled up anything that looked sufficiently appetizing or profitable, turtles to muttonbirds, and in 1918 rats swarming ashore from a wrecked ship swiftly wiped out not only half the kentia seeds, but also several species of birds. You may see examples of these lost kinds, flat on their backs and very dead, in the excellent little Lord Howe Museum - the Lord Howe starling, the vinous-tinted thrush, the robust silvereye, each one of them unique to this island, and now forever gone. How I would like to have seen the tints of that thrush, and how I would love to have seen another of the island's rare creatures, a large stick insect thrillingly called the tree lobster!

Today one of the few creatures that can be killed at will is the masked owl. This strikes me as tough luck for that bird, because it was itself introduced to the island in an attempt to keep down the rats. Only too late was it discovered that it had a taste for the woodhen...

The story of the owl indeed has a sort of allegorical meaning for the island as a whole. Everything here depends upon a most delicately maintained balance: between wildness and control, between the fierce and the decorous, the free and the disciplined. Five square miles of delectable island landscape, unpolluted in a glorious climate - in an age when an aircraft takes only a couple of hours to fly here from Sydney, and Australian TV is in almost every home - the character of Lord Howe is terribly vulnerable.

Few would argue that so lovely a place needs very special treatment, but there are moments when the island seems not quite natural as a result, neither fish nor fowl as it were, a jungly island where you must wear a helmet to ride a bike. At the end of forest tracks you find garden seats and well-mown swards. Surf-loud beaches, from which you may watch the storms of the South Pacific raging out at sea, are equipped with barbecues, picnic tables, and trash bins. There is a strong element of recycled earnestness to the place.

"What am I going to do there for a whole week?" I had asked an Australian friend of mine in a feeble moment.

"I think," she replied severely, "you are expected to do some walking."

Walking and fishing are indeed the chief things to do, and, except for honeymooners, most of the visitors I met on Lord Howe were elderly Australians of a fairly sinewy kind - aging backpackers, mature bush-walkers, members of adult education groups or environmental protection societies, liable to be wearing T-shirts with slogans like Operation Challenge. Their stamina seemed to me amazing. High on rainy ridges, as I staggered, slithering and panting from tree to tree, I would come across groups of laughing elders in easy and agile promenade. There was apparently no shortage of candidates for the guided climb up Mount Gower, which takes nine hours, which involves creeping along a cliffside path three feet wide high above the sea, and which rainstorms fortunately excused me from undertaking.

Twice a week for more than a decade, weather permitting, Mr. Ray Shick has led this expedition, and he seems to me the perfect exemplar of the well-balanced islander. He lives on the edge of pastureland toward the south end of the island, and until only the other day twice daily milked his two cows (now retired and seen happily mooching about the green attended by a variety of esoteric birds). His house is well-couched in flowers and foliage, and an elderly grace-and-favor cat sits benevolently on its veranda.

Mr. Shick, who is shortly to hand over his mountain guide duties to one of his sons, can remember when Lord Howe was quite another place. He can remember when the only tourists came by ship, or later by flying boat. He can remember going pig hunting all alone with his dogs in the high forest (though he never ate the consequent pork, being a Seventh-day Adventist). When he is recalling those days he talks like a pioneer and a mountain man. Yet twice a week for all those years, he has shepherded tourists from Pinetrees Lodge and Ocean View, from the Leanda-Lei Apartments and the Waimarie Holiday Flats, with cameras and picnic lunches, up the track to Mount Gower.

He has succeeded, in short, in combining the organic with the commercial, and so on the whole has Lord Howe Island, tamest, most genial and most civilized of South Sea islands.

If there is one temptation that does frequent this serpentless paradise, it is perhaps the maverick urge. Like some of the less conformist islanders, every now and then I felt like breaking out, disgracing myself, behaving with Environmental Incorrectness or just subsiding into languid decadence. It was a shame, a particularly green person said to me on my last day on the island, that I had missed the opportunity to make the ascent of Mount Gower: I might have seen one of Lord Howe's most curious creatures, the minuscule freshwater crab, Halicarcinus lacustris, which lives in rock pools along the way.

I allowed my eye to stray up the mass of the mountain, up the dizzying cliff path, to the forest-clad summit veiled in cloud. Temptation struck, and I felt rising within me the spirits of the original Lord Howe islanders, some of them scamps and swashbucklers I feel sure, with their Maori women and their Gilbert Island mistresses, their pig herds and their taste for roast muttonbird.

"Bugger the freshwater crabs," I heard myself saying, there beside the sweet lagoon.