Reasons to visit Lord Howe Island in winter
Photography: Ian Hutton
Mount Gower is a domed volcanic relic rising steeply from a sweep of Pacific beach on Lord Howe Island. The aim of a day-long trek to the 875-metre peak is to enjoy the astonishing views. Paradoxically, however, the summit is not always the high point.
When we're an hour from the top, guide Jack Shick gathers us together at a clearing shrouded by canopy and bids us to be still. We're hot from the four-hour climb, weary from the staircases of rock, the cliff ledges and at least one section where we have to haul ourselves up a short rope.
We can hear a cacophony high overhead - the cries of 30,000 seabirds, many of them circling the mountain like a coronet. Then Shick cups his hands and issues a strange, high-pitched cry.
Suddenly, as though someone is hurling rocks through the trees, birds come crashing through the canopy, one after another, and land at our feet. In disbelief I watch the splashy display of wings, squawks and big, webbed feet.
Shick carefully picks up one of the seagull-sized birds. "A providence petrel," he says. The grey-brown bird is warm and silky, and perfectly unfazed. The name "providence" was given by 18th-century colonists on Norfolk Island, because the birds' arrival saved them from starvation after their supply ship was wrecked - they harvested the birds and their eggs by the thousands.
There are many reasons to winter on Lord Howe Island, 780 kilometres and two hours' flight north-east of Sydney: pristine beaches, endemic wildlife, sensational fishing, and the lovely Capella Lodge, one of a trio of properties operated by Baillie Lodges. But, at this time of year, the Mount Gower climb is something else entirely.
Reduced humidity means a cooler climb and improved chances of clear views from the summit. And this is when the petrels are in residence. They arrive to breed in March and respond best to the bird-calling around May, steadily decreasing in responsiveness until they leave in November.
Regarded as one of Australia's finest hikes, the 14-kilometre trek is classed "strenuous", though in his 27 years of guiding Shick has regularly taken older people to the summit - including a 72-year-old who went on to share his enthusiasm with the world. "In 1998 I took David Attenborough to the top for the BBC series The Life of Birds," says Shick. "When I called the petrels, he was like a kid in a lolly shop."