Lord Howe Island - The Island Tuner

I’ve been tuning pianos…  on Lord Howe Island. It is hard to imagine travelling to a more contrasting and utterly different world – yet still finding myself in New South Wales – I haven’t even left the state – surreal! What a fabulous (if slightly nerve-wracking) opportunity. You might wonder what would be nerve-wracking? The combination of troubled pianos and limited time and tools. 

I thought carefully about what tools and materials to take (you never know what is too much or too little). I tossed out things like hammer, pliers - borrow if needed. I took plain music wire string lengths and stringing tools (sincerely hoping not to use them). Once I put my tool bags into my small suitcase, it was full. I squeezed a few clothes in, and the rest of what I wanted to take went into the backpack (7kg limit). I travel light, that's no real problem. My tiny suitcase with any 'normal' pack would not come near the 14kg limit, but tools are deceptive (heavy). There are many things that could break or go wrong that I would not be equipped to resolve. I had a mixture of stories about the general state of island pianos potentially keeping me awake at night.  

An island greeting for my first piano in a private residence (as opposed to church or resort). I clearly sounded a little nagivationally nervous about finding the house. There are no house numbers on Lord Howe Island, so directions are,  '...opposite Thompson's Store') which should be sufficient, but if you're me, possibly not. The little notes assuring me I was on the right track (literally) were so sweet I just had to photograph them. 

Then another - in case I got lost in the yard! Ha! By then, I had encountered the lovely couple, who were amused that I was photographing the notes, then photographing their amusement at my behaviour as they took time out from their gardening. 

The piano is in the original part of the house - a heritage-listed room with those doors that have two halves, upper and lower. Wonderful. It was the first cottage built on the island (discounting simpler dwellings with 'thatch' palm roofs), and is the only remaining example of such architecture. I could have quipped that the centenarian piano should be also heritage-listed. Instead, we set out discussing the risks and determining that tuning the piano closer to where its pitch largely sat, was a realistic goal today. I was delighted to make such a positive difference to its musicality (albeit at a quarter-tone flat) and Nathan got to be very blokey with shed ingredients as we set about de-squeaking the pedal mechanisms. Nowhere near the action with these shed-lubes! 

Preparing to blow the cobwebs out of the venue piano at Pinetrees Lodge in more ways than one. It's not unusual to find webs on, and definitely IN pianos - it is not an Island peculiarity at all. Funny that the webs are on the pedal most-used. The middle pedal has been disabled and the hole blocked up - because such openings sometimes prove to be perfect vermin access-points. Indeed, it was not I who had to replace a series of felts that had been devoured - mercifully!

Folk consistently apologise when they see the state of spiders' webs inside their piano. I say, 'Don't - it's bad enough that we're all racked with guilt about the state of the rest of our houses, without adding something never normally seen (in the case of uprights) nor thought about, into the equation'. 

John Adams coaxes sweet sounds out of the freshly-tuned piano once the band arrives. The band (with the exception of one member who was on an earlier flight) was a day late. Weather and other issues regularly cause flight cancellations and turn-backs, it is the nature of things on the Island. Small planes, small airstrip, it is all just a fact of Island life. Associated issues like evicted luggage are also commonplace occurrences if the plane needs to carry more fuel.

Observe the neat way that the piano's fallboard (or more accurately, music books thereon) are kept from interfering with the action movement. The 'tidy technician' in me sought to remove that bottle, but I realized that it was there for a reason.

The previous night I got back from ‘town’ to hear the sound of a clarinet in the distance. I imagined I was hearing it on top of a band – the band is here! Then I realized, no, I’m hearing a solo clarinet, unaccompanied - the sterling efforts of band member Jo Stevenson (on the previous day’s flight) romp through some favourites to entertain the expectant audience. Full room, but no plane, no band. To my room to dump my bags, then I'll head towards the action, I guess.

Next, the proprietor knocks on my door and asks me to join in and play. I explain apologetically that I’m not a pianist, but in a simple way I can have a go, but I'm NOT a pianist... but... I am a musician... He says, ‘I’ll buy you a drink if you’ll get up.’ He knows the way to a musician’s heart (on this occasion, wine), and just what I might need to steady my nerves. So, on we soldier (well, it was line-and-length for Jo, but I was soldiering, or is it labouring?) to appreciative applause. I was just warming up when we finished (for scheduled dinner) and I wished I’d been there (and been bolder) earlier. 

Audio enhancement for the piano, photographed through the ceiling-to-floor windows.

Cycling folk and others still stop and watch the airstrip activity. Languishing cows and a sleepy calf don't bother. One can only imagine how much more of a highlight this was (for cows) in earlier days. The airstrip was finally built in 1974. Before that, flying boats were used. Before that, non-flying boats, of course (also known as ships), which are still used for freight delivery and (non-organic) waste removal. 

With a few pianos (especially the 'important' ones) under my belt, I heeded the advice to make sure I also explored and enjoyed this unique place. I already had a bicycle, an essential, and part of getting TO the pianos (when I wasn't being kindly chauffeured at 25kph). The first time I got into a vehicle I reached for a seat belt and was quickly told, 'Oh, don't bother with that', although they're unusually particular about bicycle helmets!

I immediately set about cycle-snooping up every highway and byway (there are no highways!) meandering in much my usual manner (with little navigational focus) or city-girl ways (gravitating straight to the 'CBD', about three shops!) Wonderful. 

Yes, it certainly was a steep descent - I'm on the brakes for all but the most gentle decline, 'That's just how I roll!' That is how I roll (cycling tips 1.01).

It wasn't realistic for me to plan a Mount Gower climb (875m) in my limited time, but finding so many who had 'done Gower' several times, plenty older than I, it made me think, 'Next time'. Nevertheless I spontaneously thought, 'I should do a walk' and left my bike at the start of the Transit Hill walk having just happened upon it. A moderate mound, but spectacular views all around from the lookout. 

Typical me, I accidentally descended on the other side (thus going further, I did realise along the way) and found myself at secluded and beautiful Blinky's Beach, but with my bike miles away! At least I did not fear it being stolen. No-one locks anything, very few keys (unless you're making jokes about the pianos). It's simultaneously disconcerting and liberating - one eases into the idea as one relaxes and shrugs off suspicious city-folk ways. 

After two generous wines on the plane, and a third welcome wine on arrival at Pinetrees, I thought, 'Was I just not concentrating when I was given my room key?' Then I remembered these were the ways. Perhaps not all Lodges do this, nor all individuals. There is a safe if your 'lucky pillow' is encrusted with diamonds.

When you think about it, if you steal a bike, how far can you take it? What extreme lengths of disguise and dissection would you need implement to repurpose it and remain undetected? I learned sometimes folk do lazily 'borrow' and ride from one end to the other, but one imagines in such a tiny community that you might earn lifetime ire.

I'm photographically collecting milk crate bikes and I quite hoped I'd be issued one, for my piano tool bag. I wasn't, but got away with the basket on the front of my step-thru ladylike pushie. The milk crate: simply the most perfect instant enhancement to almost any bicycle. Milk crates and baskets are always seen with a helmet therein when bikes are parked on Lord Howe.

I had actually photographed this milk crate bike parked, then saw it in transit with local owner. I snapped this pic while riding behind on my little step-thru cycle. I could have sped up, engaged and asked what she carried in those two white vertical tube affairs attached to the rear of the milk crate - but I didn't.

These pines were planted to perform a navigational duty. No, not where little lost Cazzbos should wait for their parents, but rather, when they are aligned and appearing as one, a vessel is assured that it is at a safe entry point to the lagoon. That tiny beach is known as Lovers' Beach, so I'm told.


Lord Howe Island Woodhen. Tame, curious, flightless. They suffered a predictable (although not at the time) decline at the hand (hoof) of introduced species and peckish sailors. The elimination of the implicated species (pigs) and careful breeding programs have raised numbers to what is probably optimal for the island. The program to eliminate rats continues (and it would be hard to ever guarantee that it was complete). 

I love this Braille palm (not Braille, not a palm).

The view from Clear Place. Behind the main Island you can see the tip of Ball's Pyramid, an uninhabited spiky volcanic remnant, 562m tall. It is where 'the rarest insect in the world', the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect (thought to be extinct) was rediscovered.

Falling Rocks: Gotta love a specific and descriptive sign. If I had pursued graphic design, would I have found myself crafting the most direct way to 'see stars' in silhouette?

Speaking of stars, apparently the night skies can be spectacular on Lord Howe. There is very little lighting, therefore very little light-pollution. Just a few periodic gentle lights to lead you along the main roads. I heard of someone thinking that they were following subtle and helpful lights, only to find they were following luminous funghi (and getting more lost). Sounds like me (no consumption of fungi is implied in either instance). I'm definitely myopic enough to follow fungi (and overlook starry nights) but I did none of these things because there was another 'nightlife' alternative!! The band. Of course. 

Can you imagine what a highlight a visiting live band from 'the mainland' is when it only happens a couple of times a year? Folk come from all around to enjoy the music, it's not just for Pinetrees patrons. It's quite the focal-point. Well, of course I didn't meet the folk at home watching TV.

Jo Stevenson, sax, clarinet - and father of four fine youngsters. 

Sports reports. Perfectly adequate (some might argue, excessive). For those keen to monitor actual events, there is always the Bowling Club TV. Lord Howe Island gets all the 'normal' TV channels via satellite. The satellite 'footprint' is shared with NT (or something like that) so it's normal to see ads for things in Birdsville, which must be amusing!

I tour to perform a lot. I normally take my tiny portable digital radio. This trip I also tucked a tiny portable analogue radio into my bag. I certainly didn't expect digital radio reception (outside the capital cities, this is still largely non-existent). All I picked up on the analogue was wooshy Triple J. Of course, I have mp3 players loaded up with intelligent talk podcasts (from Radio National and other sources) for late night gentle insomniacal listening - and even white noise tracks to aid the light sleeper. But, essentially, there is no radio on LHI (except those ones that come through on the TV channels). They are not the stations for me - you see I find it impossible to listen to music for leisure, I seek intelligent gabbin'.

The Island Trader comes once a fortnight from Port Macquarie. The flat-bottomed vessel sits as cranes lift the cargo. Generally folk shop online (or by landline phone) and here's how it arrives, with considerable additional freight charges. Small trinkets and things might be flown in, (along with mail and newspapers) but the bulk of groceries, building materials, cars, furniture, pianos, the mind boggles, all chugs its way across. Bundled car tyres, dead whitegoods and electronic items, and whatever else can't be successfully re-purposed, chugs its way back. There have been interesting experiments using pulverised glass as a road base - but this is mostly valuable in leading every wine-supping quipster to say, 'I'm doing my bit!' Or, it might just be me a-quippin' and a-sippin'! There is probably a Heritage Order outlawing simply building a house out of empty wine bottles (just one of my idle island daydreams), but wouldn't that solve so many problems?

Beach, rocks, pier and groceries at dusk.

Rosé-coloured glasses?

Somehow I was never quite where I wanted to be at sunset - half the time I was doing futile things like trying to retrieve my bike from the 'wrong side' of Transit Hill, befuddled by which road that even was, as night fell all-too-quickly. 

With a tiny suitcase full of piano tools, what instrument can I possibly bring to have fun with? None of my real instruments, that's for sure. Impossible. I can't claim to be a pianist (although I can claim to have played opening night of Jazz Week on the piano I'd tuned that morning) but I won't be angling to play piano with the band. Being the good little Girl Scout that I am I had already concluded that my only option - lest I'm thought completely mad to suggest it - was the slide whistle. Easy to tuck into the bag, and pocket... for the 'what ifs' and to keep my options open. No question, I love performing, love making music. Consequently, I did THIS... every night. It was well-received, fun, and earned me smiles, accolades and wine! 

Someone dubbed me 'the golden whistler'. 

Oooh, not one, but two slidey things! Collective harmonizing with trombonist Chris Ludowyk.

The Fireworks Jazz Band.

I meant to photograph the iconic 'Mutton birds on road' signs, but every time I saw one (while circuitously cycling) I'd think, 'Oh, I can get one more evenly lit, or with a better background'. Consequently, it never happened. I didn't see any actual mutton birds, they are yet to return to their summer residences. Their holes, filled with leaves, are everywhere in the sandy centre of the island, although I doubt I would have recognised (or even noticed) one if it hadn't been pointed out to me. Then when I went to find a 'Mutton birds crossing' signs at dusk, I lost both light and patience. I should have headed away from, not towards, town.

Birds, roadways. Woodhen, Woodchook.

Certifiably the hackiest humour: why not some chicken-crossing-the-road gear?

"I have right of way - I'm an Islander."

Why did the Woodchook cross the road? I don't know why - but this is Howe!

I got back from yet another troubled centenarian piano, this time a semitone flat and very rusty, to find fellow guests telling me that the plane can't come today, it's too windy. 'Don't pull my leg, you'll hurt my dicky knee.' But, it was immediately confirmed - whaddayaknow? Another day in paradise!

Fortunately, I had nothing immediately scheduled - a day's blow-out mattered not one iota. The 'lesson' is to build in a buffer either side for the very common flight changes and cancellations. Travel insurance is strongly recommended and a 'note from Qantaslink' is standard fare. Qantas ate my homework.

Wow, I sure did live it up! The food at Pinetrees was sensational. A varied selection of gourmet three-course dinners, different each night, choices for cooked breakfasts, lunch, afternoon tea. But I'm not turning this blog into a Trip Advisor submission. Suffice to say that even the most scaled-down minimal version of my usual tour 'methods' - keep-that-sandwich-from-the-plane-you'll-be-glad-you-did-later - were absolutely not necessary! 

And then, all too soon (straight after breakfast) 'Leapin' and hoppin' a Lagoon Shadow'... so sad to leave. 

But, there you have it!

I don't usually even seek a window seat, let alone (internally) wave goodbye!

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