Mt Gower

Posted Tuesday 11th October 2016

Lord Howe Island is as close to paradise on Earth as you could hope for: the landscape is fabulous, the waters around the island teem with life, the inhabitants are friendly, and the lifestyle is very relaxed.

The island is situated about 600 km off the coast of New South Wales, well to the north of Sydney. Travel to the island is currently with small Dash-8 200-series aircraft. Coming in to land you get a fantastic view of the western side of the island. The landings and take-offs are very exciting as the airstrip is rather short, despite spanning the full width of the island.

Landing at Lord Howe Island (footage sped-up).

A couple of years ago we spent a week on Lord Howe, and managed to cover most of the walks on the island. Mt Gower was definitely a highlight. From afar the mountain appears to be a gigantic block of stone, so the idea that you can walk to the top seems crazy. However, it’s actually a reasonably straightforward route to follow, though steep and gruelling.

Mt Gower (875 m) on the right is the highest peak on Lord Howe Island. On the left is Mt Lidgbird (777 m): a prettier peak, but inaccessible except to climbers.

The ascent of Mt Gower is by guided walk only. This may not appeal to some, but it does mean you get a lot of expert knowledge about the island during the walk. We made our booking, and on the appointed day rose at 5:30 to prepare. A shuttle bus collected us at 7:00 from outside our accommodation. This costs a little extra but is well worth it, especially for the return leg at the end of the day.

Our walking group was full-up: there were 16 of us plus our guide Dean and two of his teenaged children, who would be helping. We started by signing an indemnity, received a talk and a helmet, then we were on our way.

We started off in drizzle, which soon increased to light rain. It didn’t seem like a promising start, but you never know. The first part of the walk was an easy stroll along the coast with some nice forest sections.

We arrived at Little Island, and began to pick our way over the rocky beach. Ahead of us the cliffs towered above in the mist.

The track clings to the cliffs about half way up (at the top of the green fringe).

The easing of the rain was signalled by a rainbow appearing out to sea.

Soon we left the beach and headed up into the forest: the first of many sections where a rope has been fixed to help with the climb.

This first easy climb ended amongst palms at the base of the black cliffs. It was a beautiful place, with an eerie prehistoric feel.

We had a short rest before we tackled the next stage: The Lower Road. This section of the track traverses the cliff face, with the sheer rockface towering a couple of hundred metres above and the ocean a hundred metres below. Definitely a time to watch where you put your feet!

Little Island already seemed a long way behind us.

The whole western coastline was visible: the airstrip, The Lagoon (where the main settlement is located), and right up to the northern extremity at Mt Eliza and North Head.

A hundred metres below in the ocean we could see a school of fish, one standing out with its brilliant orange colour.

At the end of The Lower Road it was helmets off, before heading up the Erskine Valley.

Below us the Erskine Creek flowed into the ocean in a rocky little gulch.

And above us loomed Mt Gower, its summit lost in the clouds.

A recent landslide is visible at the lower left.

We followed the valley up between Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower through some beautiful forest, which began to change as we slowly gained altitude.

We stopped for a rest at the pretty Erskine Creek. The creek wasn’t flowing much, though apparently it is a reliable source of water.

Erskine Creek signalled the start of some proper climbing. The steepness combined with some dampness under foot made for a slippery time as we clambered over rocks and tree roots.

The weather was clearing, and up at Gower Saddle we got some great views across to Mt Lidgbird and along the northern expanse of the island. One of our group was feeling worn out and decided to stop here to wait for us to return.

Mt Lidgbird emerges from the cloud.

A kestrel off the shoulder of Mt Lidgbird.

Off to the southeast at a distance of 23 km lies Ball’s Pyramid, a spire of rock 562 m high jutting straight out of the ocean.

Mt Gower’s summit ridge towering above reminded us that the steepest part of the day’s climb was still waiting for us.

Nearing the “Get Up Place” the ropes placed to aid with climbing became very frequent. For the most part they were helpful, though not essential. One downside of being in a large group was the inevitable waiting for fellow walkers to clear the ropes one by one.

The flora was changing again as we ascended and neared the cloud forest. There were now plentiful ferns and smaller palms. We also saw the pumpkin tree, whose closest living relative is (incredibly) the African violet. Another two of the group stopped here: injury (nothing too serious) and exhaustion.

The further along this walk you go, the steeper it gets. In the final kilometre (from Gower Saddle) the ascent is over 500 metres. This does mean the views improve quickly!

We saw a few of Lord Howe Island’s woodhens strolling through the forest, unconcerned by our presence. These birds once came very close to extinction, but their numbers have now recovered quite well with the help of the islanders.

Along the forest path were burrows which are used by providence petrels to raise their chicks, though they were empty at this time of year (early spring).

Follow the rope…

A currawong eyed us off while we waited for everyone to catch up…

Is he going to peck me?

We reached the cloud forest proper on the summit plateau of Mt Gower, and it was indescribably beautiful! Magical, even. A wonderland of ferns, moss, treeferns, and palms. The photographs can’t do justice to how truly beautiful it is, but I hope they convey some of the feeling.

The climb ended at a small clearing, which was a bit of a tight squeeze for our large group. Being at about 850 m elevation we had a view over virtually the entire island. And we were very fortunate with our timing: within a few minutes of our arrival the cloud returned and the view was gone.

We ate our lunch, and the currawongs turned up immediately looking for a meal. A few sat right above me, and when one deposited its droppings right between my boots I waved my finger at it to ward it off. The bird wasn’t deterred: it had a go at my finger with a “snap!” of its substantial beak. So I didn’t do that again…

Twice while we were there a pair of woodhens wandered through, ignoring us completely. They’re nice birds despite their spooky red eyes.

After half an hour at the top we left, retracing our route through the cloud forest.

As we made the descent we collected those who had stopped short. Going downhill was naturally much less strenuous than our climb, though easier to slip or stumble — the ropes were even more useful on the way down than they’d been on the way up.

A break at Gower Saddle again provided spectacular views of Mt Lidgbird and the rest of the island beyond.

The Admiralty Islands off the north coast.

Cliffs guard the summit of Mt Lidgbird.

By good luck we were at the front of the group when we reached The Lower Road, and took the lead while our guide stayed back to help the rest of the group.

This gave me the chance to video LS on the spectacular Lower Road, though holding my camera meant I had one less hand to steady myself. The resulting video was well worth the risk to life and limb.

The traversal of The Lower Road.

We paused at the prehistoric overhang, waiting for the rest of the group to catch up.

Once we got moving again it was an easy walk back to where we’d started the day. According to my GPS we had covered 10 km with a total ascent of about 930 m.

Little Island.

Finished!

Mt Gower again crowned with clouds.

It had been an absolutely fantastic day of walking. There’s no way the photographs can convey how amazingly beautiful the scenery is. It’s really something you need to experience for yourself!