The day after we sailed into the relative safety of the Lord Howe Island lagoon - Sunday 24th December 1995 - everyone except Bruce jumped into the tinny and motored in to the island from our mooring about half a kilometre off-shore. Peter and Ron headed straight for church to give thanks for their deliverance from the perils of the sea. Karen and I asked them to put in a few extra thanks for us. We walked around the main settlement, familiarising ourselves with the layout and reminiscing about our previous trip to the island almost five years before.
The Ferros at anchor in the lagoon
Bruce stayed aboard the Ferros, packing his gear in preparation for a flight back to the mainland in the afternoon. The attractions of the island are not a priority for Bruce - he prefers the adventure provided by the sailing. Karen and I could not relate to this attitude at all, but were grateful for it nevertheless. Bruce's place would be taken by his wife Toni - Peter's sister. Holiday time spent on the boat is normally paid for by service as a crew-member on the voyage to or from the island. Bruce and Toni get around this technicality by sharing - he sails and she holidays.
At the conclusion of the church service, Karen and I went looking for Peter and Ron. We found them enjoying tea and scones in a small hall next to the church, and we were invited in to have a cuppa with Frank, the minister. Afterwards, he showed us around his garden and even gave us a couple of capsicums from his vegetable patch. Nice bloke, but I guess it goes with the job.
Peter returned to the boat to fix up side buffers for the Ferros which would allow easier access to and from the tinny. He also cleared out the back cabin to allow Karen and I a room to ourselves, and later ferried Bruce to the airport. The two large mountains which make up the southern part of the island are joined to the string of hills which make up the north by a narrow stretch of sand. This isthmus is the only flat land on the entire island large enough to contain a runway, and even then it is a tight squeeze. The tarmac stretches from one side of the island to the other, jutting out into the lagoon at one end, and is still only suitable for aircraft capable of short take-offs and landings.
Ron, Karen and I took a walk to the Goat House, a rocky overhang halfway up Mount Lidgbird often used as a shelter by the feral goats that have made the mountains their home. The views from the cave were superb, with the entire northern half of the island laid out at our feet. We stayed at the Goat House for an extra ten minutes to watch Bruce's plane take off, and snapped a photo as it passed low over the Ferros. Peter met us on the beach late in the afternoon for barbecue of shark steaks.
Back on board the boat, Karen and I moved our gear into the rear cabin, setting up a double bed on its large wooden shelf. The sleep deprivation I had experienced on the voyage over soon disappeared, although sleeping was occasionally difficult when the high tide sent its swells into the lagoon.
On Xmas Day we dropped Peter off for his second visit to church in two days! The trip over must have been even more dangerous than we had realised! Karen, Ron and I were introduced to another Ron - Ron Owens, a resident on the island who has lived there for thirty years - almost long enough to be considered a local. He invited all of us to his house for Xmas lunch later in the day. Before Karen and I joined everyone at Ron's place, we walked over to Ned's Beach on the eastern side of the island for a swim. A body-surf in the ocean has been a long-held tradition in Karen's family and we have followed it religiously. The waves at Ned's were tiny however, so we had to content ourselves with just a swim.
At Ron's place we were introduced to his wife Beverley and his daughter Kylie. What can I say about Kylie? Perhaps she had been on the island too long and gone troppo or perhaps she had been dropped on her head at birth. Whatever the cause, she now believed she was God's gift to men, and she did not have too much to base that belief upon. True, she was blonde, and young, but that's where the good news ends. She was also overweight, with no muscle tone and her skin looked like it had never seen the light of day. She wore a skimpy and diaphanous outfit of see-through silk (or nylon) and took great delight in showing off her ample curves. As the afternoon wore on, articles of her clothing seemed to disappear, like a great white whale doing an extended dance of the seven veils. We left the party at 7pm, luckily before Kylie was fully naked.
Another guest at Ron's Xmas party was a delightfully batty older lady, the mother of Ian Sinclair, former leader of the National Party. Karen had worked at Coca-Cola with Ian Sinclair's daughter Jane. Karen and I had met both Jane and Ian at a cricket test between Australia and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground when all of us had been guests in the Coca-Cola private box, during the summer prior to our leaving Sydney. We had now met Jane's grandmother on an island five hundred kilometres off the Australian mainland!
Mt Lidgbird and Mt Gower dominate the south of Lord Howe Island
The week between Xmas and the New Year was a continuous round of typical Lord Howe Island activities - walks to lookouts and other scenic spots, swimming and snorkelling - both around the boat and from the island's beaches, diving in some of the deeper holes in the lagoon - Erscott's Hole and Comet Hole, dinners at resort restaurants or at picnics on the beach, and fishing. Lord Howe has some of the southernmost coral reefs in the world, so the diving and snorkelling is spectacular. On one of our forays to Comet Hole, I had the pleasure of swimming with sharks! Well, one shark anyway. And although it was only about two feet long, it looked much bigger due to the magnifying effect of the face-mask. But not too much bigger. Our fishing was not too successful - we were plagued by hordes of small, useless, ugly fish that stole every bit of bait instantly and were affectionately known as "bung-eyes". Peter's sister Toni, twin brother Mark and wife Melissa joined the crew during this time - Toni because Bruce had "paid" her way by crewing on the outward journey, Mark because he would be captaining the boat home, and Melissa because Peter was the captain of the boat and the rules did not apply to him!
The crew - Karen, Mark, me, Melissa, Ron, Toni and Peter
After Mark's arrival, the Ferros effectively had two captains, and this was to cause a slight demarcation dispute. The entire crew of the boat had been invited to a New Year's Eve party at Ron Owens house. Everyone was keen to go, with the exception of Mark, who wanted to attend the public festivities near the wharf of the main settlement. Peter decided that the tinny would be used to take all of us party goers ashore, and that Mark could be dropped off along the way. In a huff, Mark decided to stay on the boat.
The Owens party was a raging success, with people coming and going all night. It is a common practice on the island for people to drop in at a New Year's Eve party for a couple of hours, and then go on to a second party, and then a third or fourth. Not only did we meet a lot of locals, we also met a couple of pilots from the company who would be flying us home in a couple of days. They got nicely smashed. Kylie again tried to be the centre of every man's attention, but most of them were too drunk to care, or even notice. Ron and Beverley were perfect hosts, providing plenty of food all night, and even some old bottles of red wine when our limited supply ran low.
Shortly before twelve, the Ferros crew gathered and walked down to the water with the intention of motoring up to the wharf to witness the midnight celebrations which would be centred around a big bonfire. When we reached the beach, however, the tinny was gone.
Lord Howe is an amazing island because of the honesty of its inhabitants. Karen and I first noticed this on our honeymoon, when we saw surfboards left unlocked and unattended at all times down on the beach. The island's golf course has an honesty system - put your money in a slot and take all the golf clubs, balls and tees you need for your round. And hire bikes, used by almost everybody for travel around the island, are always left unattended outside shops or resorts, or at the start of walks.
Of course, this inherent honesty may be caused by the knowledge that it is almost impossible for anyone to steal anything large and get away with it. A local acquiring a new boat, or surfboard or set of golf clubs would soon be noticed in the small community, and tourists would find it particularly difficult to smuggle a surfboard on board the plane for their return flight home as well. Yachties are the usual culprits when anything goes missing, and it was a yachty that we suspected had stolen the tinny - Mark.
We all trooped off into the darkness for a three kilometre walk to the bonfire. Melissa was going ballistic, threatening all kinds of nastiness should Mark be the one who borrowed the boat. Midnight came and went, almost unnoticed in the middle of the walk. We found Mark drowning his sorrows on the beach near the smouldering bonfire. He had swum in to the beach, picked up the tinny, returned to the boat for some clothes and then motored in to the celebration of his choice, not caring about the inconvenience it would cause six other people later on in the night. It was a very tense group that made its way back to the Ferros an hour after midnight.
We were all up late in the morning, the atmosphere only slightly improved by the cold light of day. Peter and Melissa went walking for a bit of rest and recuperation on the island. Ron and I went walking too, first to Ned's, and then south to Middle Beach and the Clear Place. In a typical display of the kindness, tenderness and sensitivity of women, Karen and Toni took pity on Mark and joined him for diving off North Passage. Almost everyone met at Ned's for a swim and lunch in the afternoon, returning to the yachty showers near the wharf in the early evening to clean up and dress for dinner at one of the resort restaurants. We watched a fisherman hook into something big on the jetty, playing it for about a quarter of an hour as he made his way down to the beach to land it in the shallows. Some of us walked down to the water to watch the battle. He eventually pulled in a four kilogram silver drummer, then astounded us by saying that he did not eat fish, and unless we wanted to take it off his hands, he would have to release it. The offer was too good to refuse.
The fish would have to be stored overnight as everyone was committed to a restaurant dinner with the crew of the Gently, a yacht on which many of us had been (or would be) twilight sailing back in Sydney. While Karen walked to the nearest shop to buy a bag of ice for the fish, Peter radioed the Ferros and asked Mark to bring an eski with him when he came ashore. Because I had my trusty Swiss Army pocket knife with me, I volunteered to gut and clean the fish. I think Karen and I got the raw end of the deal, especially as we would be leaving the next day and would never share in the bounty.
We have been assured since that the fish was delicious.