Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lord Howe Island: The Last Paradise

When Bill and Janne Shead first took possession of their new Lord Howe Island property, it was euphemistically called, “zer dump”. Now the Arajilla Retreat is one of only two 5-star properties on the island and a beacon for relaxation and tranquillity.

Lord Howe Island was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1982 and is described as “a remarkable example of isolated oceanic islands, born of volcanic activity more than 2000m under the sea, these islands boast a spectacular topography and are home to numerous endemic species, especially birds.” Its fame is growing exponentially as the travelling world seeks out new and unusual locations away from the mass-market crush. The locals, and many others, believe Lord Howe Island to be the last true Pacific Island paradise.

The exclusivity of the location is enforced by remoteness and isolation. The only airstrip, a short sliver of tarmac in the shadow of the two iconic 1000m peaks, Mt Gower and Mt Lidgbird, was built by army engineers in 1974 amid some controversy. Rather than extend into the pristine lagoon, the islanders voted for a shortened strip with the knowledge that the smaller, less economical aircraft would keep visitations down - and the costs up.

Two hours by QantasLink Dash-8 200 carrying just 36 passengers is now the only means of arrival and departure, hence even a Super Saver return airfare is in excess of $800.

The Islanders, as Bill and Janne have become, continue to defend their patch against vulgar development with a parochial zeal. Only 400 guests are permitted onto the island at any one time and the once popular cruise ship visits are vigorously discouraged by a significant portion of the population of 350. A few expedition vessels land each year and receive a mixed welcome.

Arajilla’s original, long-demolished house was once the island’s curio shop, servicing the pre-war tourists, then delivered by steamer. It grew into a guest house of sorts offering rooms for the princely sum of $20. Outgoing proprietor, Hans “Schmutz” Ruekert boasted “ …we haff everyzing zat shutz and klozes”, but warned the new couple, “you vill hate zeez tourists!” Not only was Schmutz’s advice a little short of “best practice”, sadly it was indicative of the state of tourism on the island at the time.

Bill recalls his first visit to the island in the late ‘50s aboard one of the mighty Ansett flying boats that operated until 1974. He fell in love immediately. Bill’s father, with him for the trip, was a prominent real estate identity with an uncanny nose for opportunity, but Bill refutes any influence from his father. An avid blue water yachtsman, Bill made numerous visits to the island before seeing an advertisement for the property by chance in 1987.

“We just bought it on a complete whim,” he confesses, “and that’s the way it’s always been. It just called out to us and still does.”

“We began the transformation in 1988, pretty much straight away,” recalls Bill, “basically it was a demolition. Now, a few mill’ later it’s just a refurb every so often.”

When Bill refers to transformation, he really means it. Not only is the old building unrecognizable, but so are the hospitality, food and beverage standards of the whole island.

“We installed the island’s first espresso machine and it was the start of a minor revolution. Things were pretty ordinary back then,” continues Bill as we both tuck into a delicate chicken Caesar salad for lunch.

Daughter Kim, just back from an intensive Ayurvedic course, rejoins the family operation and will run the spa which opened this month. Set amongst imposing banyan trees and ferns on the 2.5 acre plot, the family is very excited about this new addition. Jo runs the superb restaurant, while the eldest, Emma, handles reservations.

Two additional, brand new suites have just opened and feature two bedrooms and family facilities, further enhancing Arajilla’s appeal.

Richard Rosebery, formerly of Select Hotels, took a very personal interest in the development of the property, assisting them with collateral and the website. “Of course every property is unique,” says Richard, “but Arajilla is like no other. Bill and his family have created an ecological and spiritual extension of the island that is both unpretentious and understated.”

But for anybody else considering opening up down the road, Bill reminds us that operating any business on Lord Howe, let alone a high end boutique resort, is a challenge in itself. The extraordinary Lord Howe Island administration imposes many difficult compliances and, as no freehold title exists, banks are very nervous about lending for development projects. But still, he and Janne sold everything to make Arajilla what it is today.

Consequently, Bill and Janne’s Arajilla Resort is truly a labour of love. For those few fortunate enough to stay at this remarkable property, the tenderness and care lavished on the resort spills over in gooey waves onto everything else, softening even the hardest stress-ridden hearts.

See for yourself at:

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Lion’s Tale

I could just see the young male’s eyes through the long grass as I focused my telephoto lens onto his face. The lion looked relaxed, satisfied and comfortable reclining on the grass barely 20 metres away. Click!

That tiny noise was enough to catch his attention in the silence of the savannah and he quickly turned to look me straight in the eye. My heart rate immediately shot up, but the next event completely took my breathe away. Lokuthula, the 16-month-old, 90kg African lion, stood to attention and begun a full charge with me as the target.

I reeled back in terror as the carnivore bore down on me. I’m a goner for sure. “No, cub!” yelled Paul, my guide, nudging me aside and standing in front of the lunging beast. “Stop!” he ordered, pointing a flimsy stick to the ground in front of the excited cat. Lokuthula, amazingly, came to an abrupt halt, looking imploringly at Paul and wondering why he was spoiling the fun.

Gasps turned to guffaws as the rest of the group realised the danger was passed and Paul was soon reassuring Lokuthula with a vigorous tummy rub. Langa, the twin, was also quickly on the scene for some attention while I stood, still quivering, relishing my “near death” experience.

When I was told we’d be walking through the bush with some lion cubs, here’s me thinking of little fur balls rolling and frolicking in the grass, nibbling each other’s ears. But these two guys are no cubs! At almost 100kg each, they’re about half grown and ready to start tearing into the other animals on the reserve.

“You must not show fear,” Paul reminds me of the briefing at the start of the tour, “and if he charges, you must stand your ground and say ‘no’. They are still cubs and just want to play. But they play rough and don’t realise they will hurt us, so we must stop them.”

Okay, I promise, next time a lion is about eat me, I will stand firm, look him square and chastise him sternly.

Zimbabwe’s Masuwe Lodge, near Victoria Falls, is unlike many of the surrounding big game reserves in that it has an active wildlife rehabilitation program. Volunteers from all over the world can come and take part, assisting with guided walks, feeding and exercising the animals. Masuwe is stage one in a four stage process of captive breeding and release that can take several years and is managed by the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) with Sir Ranulph Fiennes as its Patron.

Masuwe’s other attraction is elephant back mini-safaris, where you can ride aboard one of their tame African elephants for a few hours observing the wildlife from a much more confidence inspiring viewpoint. Unlike their Asian equivalent, you won’t see chains or rough-handling, African elephants only respond to kindness!

Access to the lodge is by car or minibus from nearby Victoria Falls township with accommodation in room-sized, safari-style tents. These are comfortable and sturdy, but are still open to the outside in places, so you must be diligent in keeping food hidden from prowling monkeys and sleep secured behind your supplied mosquito net.

Meals are served in a sheltered pavilion on a small hill overlooking a waterhole that ensures you are still in touch with the wildlife in between courses. Just as dessert was served, an almighty ruckus erupted down by the pond. Two tribes of elephants were engaged in an angry dispute over momentary water rights. Trumpeting and mock charges ensued for almost fifteen minutes while the mothers and their babies took to the water as the bickering males were occupied in jousts. Afterwards as I lay in my tent bed, I was disturbed by the occasional crashing of a nearby tree as one of the groups went about their midnight snacking.

In the morning the call rang out: “The boys have made a kill!” and I dashed breathless into the bush with my guide to see the two “cubs” ripping shreds off a water buffalo they brought down just moments before. Lokuthula had the poor creature in a vice-like neck bite, but his under-developed teeth meant the kill was slow. It was an agonising sight to watch the bull kick helplessly as Langa fed unperturbed. Such is the law of the jungle, I’m just glad it wasn’t me.

Our single-night stopover at Masuwe was just part of a larger exploration of the Victoria Falls region. The balance of our stay was at the glorious Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, a magnificent luxury lodge in true wild African style and just four kilometres from the roaring Zambezi waters. The Conde Nast Gold-listed, multi-award winning property gets consistent four to five star reviews on, not the least because of its dramatic location overlooking a busy waterhole that attracts elephant, antelope, wart hog, all manner of birds and the occasional lion – and all this just a short drive from town!

If you’ve read this far, you’ve no doubt asked yourself about travel to Zimbabwe and the moral and ethical entanglements. This writer is not about to preach one side or the other, but I can inform prospective travellers that at no time during our stay were we confronted with desperate poverty or hardship, begging or aggressive touting. Regular townsfolk just want to get on with their lives and were happy to do business with the encouraging number of tourists in town. Tourist Police are installed to ensure visitors are not subject to overenthusiastic commerce.

Most of the tourist operations and lodges will trade in US dollars and visitors should avoid Zimbabwe dollars for anything except souvenirs. My son’s eyes popped when I calmly handed him Z$0.25 Million when I got home (Value: about US$1.00).

Although many travel agents and tour operators are switching to the equivalent Zambian product across the border, I can see no reason why the Zimbabwean goods should be in any way inferior. The beer is cold, the steak is magnificent and my postcards all arrived. The lodge is able to import supplies directly from South Africa with foreign currency and this ensures the many staff and their families are also properly fed. Although I had my reservations throughout, I honestly felt my visit was of overall nett benefit to the Zimbabwean people.

The village of Victoria Falls has its own international airport where we arrived directly from Johannesburg with South African Airways. Customs and immigration procedures were surprisingly efficient and our visa (US$30 cash) was processed on arrival.

Outside a pre-arranged itinerary, there’s still plenty to do. Shearwater Adventures offer an exciting range of adrenalin adventures ranging from mild to wild. A helicopter ride over the falls is a must, or else there’s bungy jumping, jet boats, Zambezi River safaris, rafting or canoeing.

Be sure to stop by the delightfully colonial outpost of the Victoria Falls Hotel for an ice cold Zambezi Lager. Opened in 1904, this hotel has always been the place to stay for great white hunters. Now a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, a standard room will set you back about $300, including breakfast.

Highs: Close encounters with the wildest wildlife will leave you changed forever. The scenery and adventure possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Lows: Don’t forget the aeroguard and be sure to secure doors and windows at night from marauding primates looking for morsels. You make your own decision about the ethics of travel to Zimbabwe. I made mine and have no regrets.

Getting There:

For all enquiries about travel to Victoria Falls, contact Bench International on (02) 9290 2877 or 1800 221 451 or visit

South African Airways fly to Johannesburg and Victoria Falls
Five times per week from Perth with A340-200
Five times per week from Sydney with 747-400 (code share with Qantas)
Flights to Victoria Falls are daily from Johannesburg with 737 series
Ph: 1300 435 972



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