Adventures in Paradise 2 – Cyclone Uesi on Lord Howe Island

Cyclone Uesi, a Category 2 cyclone was scheduled to hit Lord Howe Island at 4pm Thursday. Barbara gave us a Bureau of Meteorology update, showing the path of Uesi passing directly over Lord Howe with wind speeds predicted to reach 150km/hour at 1am, Friday. She recommended having enough provisions for 2 days as we were likely to be cabin bound. She was making no dinner trips on Thursday night!

Bureau of Meteorology warning for Cyclone Uesi
Bureau of Meteorology warning for Cyclone Uesi

On Thursday morning, we walked out from the Broken Banyan along the track to Middle Beach. The wind was already picking up in the huge banyan or Ficus Macrocarpa sp Columnaris, so named because their aerial roots walk out from the trunk and form columns reaching the earth around them.

Soon we were needing to avoid mutton bird or shearwater burrows. Mutton birds fly as far as Siberia but return every year to the same burrow on the tiny speck of Lord Howe Island to breed. The burrows can be 1 metre deep. We didn’t see any and hopefully didn’t crush any eggs. Reaching the headland, we were nearly blown off the cliff as we looked down onto the sand and round volcanic stones of Middle Beach.

Cycling into town a bit later, we visited the excellent museum. Here we learnt about Lord Howe Island‘s discovery in February 1788 by Captain Henry Lidgebird Ball, who named the island after his boss the First Lord of the Admiralty, Howe. We also learnt how the whalers and sailors ate much of the bird life into extinction and settlers introduced pigs, goats, cattle and rats. More recently some like the Woodhen and the Plasmid insect have been brought back from extinction by captivity breeding and extinction of feral animals. Cattle are the only introduced species to remain.We watched 2 excellent documentaries about the history of the flying boat service from 1947-1974 and the export of the native Kentia palms.

Meanwhile outside the winds were picking up. Back at the Broken Banyan which is on the eastern ridge of the island, we decided to venture up the road to the cliffface on the eastern escarpment. The wind was howling through the canopy and coming out into open ground we watched 4 Norfolk Island pines bending into the wind. We could hardly stand against the wind coming in off the ocean and decided we should return to shelter.

Barbara once again updated us from the BOM and told us if anything happened to us in the night to get to her little transit lounge where there was the only landline phone and ring the police. The policeman was the emergency coordinator. We wondered why there was no evacuation centre. Perhaps that’s because LHI has only had 13 cyclones in its 136 year history. We packed our bags after a very frugal dinner ready to leave. The television reception outlining the dire weather situation cut out at 9.30pm. By the time we went to bed the wind gusts were crashing leaves and fronds around from the Kentia palms against our window. Through the night we lay awake hearing the roar increasing to a terrible crescendo, as the wind picked up speed and thrashed the trees outside. At midnight, we heard the tin shed next door get ripped apart and had visions of flying metal, flinging it’s way into our windows. We could see the trees bending almost to the ground as the moonlight still managed to give the whole night an eerie glow. We lay awake for hours.

Then at 5am everything went quiet. The wind died down and the limited rain abated. By daylight we went outside to inspect the damage. Two trees lay across Barbara‘s driveway uprooted. Several of our travel companions were also gathered around. Nothing like a disaster to bring people together. The shed next door lay in pieces its contents all exposed for public view. Soon the ever vigilant Barbara was back telling us to get back inside because we were in the eye of the cyclone and “it was coming back!” But the tail end of Uesi, which had been downgraded to a tropical low was tame in comparison.

Later, when the winds had died down to 60km/hr we returned to the cliff face to find one Norfolk Pine closest to the weather had been uprooted and lay neatly in pieces. The trunk diameter showed how many layers of growth this old tree had sustained – over 100 years. Things were getting back to normal. The wonderfully cheerful SES men in the orange hi vis pants and their work boots, were wrapping SES warning tape around trees about to fall. The sound of chainsaws punctuated the continuing wind howls. Leaf litter lay everywhere carpeting the roads and walkways. The indefatigable Barbara appeared to let us know the Golf Club would be open for dinner and she was happy to drive us there.

With two other guests we jumped in the car, moving the ever present Charlotte off the back seat and zoomed off at 25km/hr, the island speed limit to survey the western lagoon side of the island. Barbara had to drive over the sand dune which had deposited itself at the southern end of the runway. The Golf Club was rocking, the bar full of locals. So we spent Valentine’s Day having a special drink and meal together, swapping cyclone survival stories with our new found friends.