At age 36, Lee Abbamonte became the youngest American to visit every country in the world. When asked where he was most eager to return, his answer was a tiny island just 11km by 2km two hours off the east coast of Australia.
Southeast of the Whitsunday Islands, famed for white sands and the Great Barrier Reef, Lord Howe Island is not well known outside of Australia. It’s not even that well known among Australians. Those who have heard of the island speak of it casually but admiringly, like a famous second cousin they’ve never met. A rare UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s home to birds, a few cows, and little else. Because of its UNESCO status, only 400 tourists are allowed on the island at any given time. Its closest neighbor is Port Macquarie on the mainland, 600km directly west.
Discovered in 1788, it wasn’t colonized until nearly 40 years later. Lord Howe Island’s first inhabitants supplied whalers, then moved on to export Kentia palm, which was quite fashionable in European and American drawing rooms. Palm exports are still highly profitable, though the island’s economy is now driven by tourism. Six generations later, 370 locals live on the island, most if not all of whom descended from those first families.
Lee’s endorsement aside, I chose Lord Howe for its combination of my favorite things–hiking, diving, fishing and beaches. Also to overcome a huge personal challenge; unplugging. The island actively resists cell phones; there is not a single tower. Accessing the internet requires a trip to the local museum café where a pay-by-the megabyte service buys speeds that made me nostalgic for AOL dialup. The real time feed from Burning Man this year served as a reminder that very few places in the world remain where a complete break from tech is even possible anymore. (She says while writing on a wifi-enabled flight somewhere between Sydney and San Francisco.)
So it was after a productive work week in Sydney that a QantasLink puddle jumper sped over iridescent moonstone water dotted with whitecaps, the shadows of clouds, and absolutely nothing else for two hours to Lord Howe. The strict 14kg (31lbs) baggage weight limit was a challenge for a trip requiring attire ranging from conference speaker to scuba diver. But with one of the world’s shortest runways, the consequences of an overloaded plane trying to take off are non-trivial. Also at play: the island’s only real daily interaction with the outside world. When the plane is too heavy, newspapers are not delivered. Nor is the mail.
Most visitors were, in local terms, a mix of “newlyweds and nearlydeads”. Home for my weekend away was Pinetrees Lodge, named for its position under a grove of pines (which seems odd on a tropical island yet somehow works) and owned by one of the original island families that settled in the 1840s. Situated next to town, it was central to trails, and came with the added benefit of a boathouse bar pointed west over the lagoon, an idyllic spot for sunset.
Doors only lock from the inside, as the island is crime-free. There is a general laissez-faire attitude about ownership among locals, and many claim to no longer have email addresses. Bikes and scooters outnumber cars.
My life accommodates a great deal of geographic flexibility, as much of what needs to be managed with Bitty can be done from anywhere, and there is a lot of interest in what we’re doing from all over. But it also makes even the most ardent attempts to stay offline tough when there’s a lot going on.
My first tech breakdown happened when sheets of rain fell, day 1.
The museum café’s cast of local characters were primarily men over the age of 75, who only took breaks from local gossip to call out “Hey, girlie” and snicker when females of any age walked by. I optimistically purchased a 200MB plan from a shrewd-looking 85 year-old woman working the front desk. The benevolent giver of megabytes smiled knowingly as I handed her my credit card for the first of what would be many times, as I was not the only technology-addict to singlehandedly support her monthly salary.
Island weather turns in a moment. That means any hint of a dodgy forecast and the tour or dive is off, as are flights back to the mainland. Fishing boats normally used to charter punters (tourists) will cancel trips if they haven’t been able to get out for a few days themselves. Balls Pyramid, the famous dive I came to do, was not accessible due to unseasonably high swells. Cancellation-related disappointment only lasted long enough to realize that the alternatives were still pretty great.
Though the weather was dodgy at best for my visit, and I didn’t get to do much of what I’d planned, the hikes were incredible. The vistas from Goat House Cave and Kim’s Lookout were two of my favorites, though not a single meander on the island was a let down.
The weather report was THE hot topic over breakfast each day. The staff looked despairingly at the storms and swells (topping out at 4.5m) the afternoon I was to leave. When asked what the odds were I’d make it off, they enthusiastically shared stories involving similar weather and five day flight delays. So I did what any reasonably seasoned traveler would: got the hell out of dodge. Packed bags in hand, I showed up for the “sold out” flight the day before (as it was already dumping rain) and asked nicely for a seat back to Sydney.
The pilot warned us it might be bumpy on takeoff, then, there is no other word for it: he floored it. The plane roared and jumped off the short runaway, leaving the beautiful green peaks and valleys to memory.
My attempt to unplug completely was an epic fail, in part because of the rain but mostly because my self control most resembles this:
However, I recovered my ability to limit communication floods to just a few times per day. Rather than be a slave to my email, as I’m one of those inbox zero (or at least teens) people, I created the mental space to think and plan and write. Remembering to create unstructured periods of completely distraction-free time is perhaps my favorite trip souvenir.
As for the island, I’ve never been anywhere like it. There was nothing pretentious, nothing fancy. Between the effort it takes to actually get there (only two slightly treacherous hours on a small plane) and the strong cultural foundation (seriously, every single local can be traced back to a colonizing relative from the 1840s), I have a feeling it will remain that way for some time. Hopefully until I have the chance to visit again.