Learning to identify the indoor plant, Howea forsteriana, for my up and coming RHS exam in England, I didn’t think I’d see the day that I would visit an isolated 1,455 hectare island, 500 kilometres from Australia, where every single Kentia palm originated: the UNESCO World Heritage listed Lord Howe Island.
And what a place it is; completely impossible to convey its essence with words and photos alone. The only place I have ever experienced being entirely overcome by beauty; a moment of emotional exhaustion. Emotion along the lines of elation, satisfaction, joy, uplift and peace, but so strong, it almost felt all too much. So beautiful that you were entirely lost in the moment.
Or you would have been, if you hadn’t felt some strange sensation deep inside which literally made you need to sit down. On one other occasion I was actually brought to tears, just cycling along (but don’t tell Paul, I did try to cover it up!).
Coming round from these experiences, the phrase ‘what have we done to our world?’ kept coming into my head repeatedly, during our extraordinary five day stay.
Some 85% of the island is still covered in native forest and it is surrounded by turquoise waters and the most southerly barrier reef in the world. There are only 320 residents and a cap of 400 tourists at any one time and the resultant ‘feel’ is nothing short of magical. There is a great sense of sharing; of we are one, united community.
You ride your bikes to the beach, people waving and greeting you as you go, where upon you decide to take a walk up into the mountains. Some three hours later you return, with no thought of whether your unlocked bike will still be there, and see the barbecue picnic lunch your hosts have just dropped off. You cook freshly caught kingfish over the chopped firewood thoughtfully left at perfect picnic spots around the island, as you gaze through the distorted warm air to the beach. Where else in the world could you do this?
The warm atmosphere is created by the islanders. Not only are they ultra friendly, they also genuinely seem to care and really go the extra mile to make an effort. It seems ingrained in their psyche. Not once did I see either a key or a plastic bag over the five days. A food co-operative was established to reduce packaging coming on to the island; dried foods in huge, recycled containers are measured out into glass jars that are returned and used over and over again.
Crime is non existent. In fact a prison ‘cell’ had been sent out from Sydney in 1891, only to be rejected and returned on the next boat. The powers that be on the mainland didn’t think much to that, sending it out again, where upon the islanders decided that actually it would make quite a useful onion store. During the next official visit they were made to empty the onions out, where upon it became a place to store cricket equipment out of the rain. By the time of the next visit the key was nowhere to be found and the cricket bats remained.
But the island is so much more than this; there is astonishing flora and fauna here. In fact, some 105 plant species are only found on this one small island; nowhere else in the world.
We were game enough to climb to the top of the highest peak, some 875 metres from the beach, where an incredible 86% of the summit’s Misty Forest plants are only found in this one tiny part of one tiny island.
Our visit was an holistic sensory experience, extending beyond the aesthetic beauty. The earthy smells, the calls of unfamiliar birds, the feel of soft sand under your feet and the taste of fish caught that morning, served with salad grown within ten metres of the table. All these glorious senses combined in that euphoric exhaustion I experienced.
And what about the gardens, I hear you ask? As we walked and rode about the island, there weren’t really any gardens that stood out. And just as we experienced in Haida Gwaii this July, I realised that the lack of standing out was actually their strength. Subtle, indigenous plants were used to create the most wonderful gardens imaginable.
No, they may not have been awash with colour, but sitting in the lounge of our lodge, surrounded by the naturalistic garden, I couldn’t think of anything that could possibly have worked better. Sipping herbal tea, with soft music playing, there couldn’t have been a more serene setting.
I was delighted to realise that this setting, surrounding the lounge, was no more than six metres wide. It was a revelation that this idyllic atmosphere could actually have been set in an small urban garden; it genuinely would have been equally as fitting there.
I was so excited to see, in front of me, this example of a small, ultra-naturalistic garden that really could work in the city. We just need a bit more thought and effort and innovation and we’d be there. We really could create an oasis that would feel and look as beautiful as this.
Everything at Lord Howe Island feels just right. Nothing frustrates, nothing is too slow, nothing too fast; you can’t help but feel 110% content whilst you are there.
What a very lucky English girl I am to have been able to visit the home land of Howea forsteriana.