Basalt, Birds and Balls Pyramid!

Last Updated on May 4, 2021 by Red Nomad OZ

Balls Pyramid, via Lord Howe Island
Balls Pyramid, via Lord Howe Island, New South Wales

‘The current’s running like a cut cat round the island,’ Jack shouted. He fired up Noctiluca‘s powerful 200 horse power engines and guided the eight-metre vessel into the bay.

Boat Tour to Ball’s Pyramid

If not for the camera in one hand and a convenient strut for balance in another, I’d have high-fived Pilchard. On our first trip three years ago, our tour had been cancelled due to bad weather. Two days ago, bad weather struck again.

Balls Pyramid through the Sea Spray
Balls Pyramid through the Sea Spray aboard the Noctiluca

But the third time was the charm, and we were finally en route to Balls Pyramid.  At 552 metres (1811 feet) in altitude it’s the highest volcanic rock stack in the WORLD!

It was going to be a bumpy ride.

That’s because the 23 km (14.2 miles) trip to the distinctive hunk of rock that is Balls Pyramid crosses a deep water trench. But the rare combination of open ocean and land makes the Pyramid a unique crossover habitat.  And that made it perfect for bird-watching and diving!

But first we had to get round the island.

Eastern side of Island from Malabar Hill
Eastern side of Lord Howe Island from above on Malabar Hill

As we rounded the northern cape with sheer cliffs plunging into the tossing seas, my psychic powers told me we’d entered the less protected waters. That and the wild westerly wind, rough, choppy seas. And the current which was indeed running like a cut cat as we headed for the islands.

Balls Pyramid, via Lord Howe Island
Classic view of Balls Pyramid, via Lord Howe Island

Lurching and heaving in the boiling blue waters swirling round the rocks, we edged closer and closer to the cliffs.  We spotted a cloud of Grey Ternlets,birding lifer #1 for the trip, with five more to come before the tour was over. As all cameras except mine clicked wildly around me, I was in serious danger of being knocked overboard by thousands of dollars worth of giant lenses swinging wildly in the heaving waters.

What a way to go!

But as the spray rained down on all that expensive camera equipment, I caught my first sea-level glimpse of Balls Pyramid, visible from only a few places on Lord Howe Island.

An Extraordinary Tour Guide

Mt Gower from Western Side
Mt Gower from Western Side, Lord Howe Island

Tour guide and skipper Jack Shick, a 5th generation Lord-Howe-Islander and co-owner of Sea to Summit Expeditions, has all the island’s bases covered. When he’s not running fishing charters and Balls Pyramid tours, he’s guiding climbers up the 875 metre (2871 feet) high Mt Gower. Round the more rugged, eastern side of the island the view of the long, exposed ridge, last leg of the strenuous14 km hike that led to its summit gave me the cold shivers. Jack’s climb with his father at 8 years of age was the first of 1700+, the most ascents made by anyone ever.

All that despite being around my age!

Colours of Balls Pyramid
Colours of Balls Pyramid, via Lord Howe Island

Bird Life on the Open Sea

I resolutely put the thousands of metres of water between me and the bottom of the trench out of my mind as we entered the open sea. I braced myself against the side of the boat and tried desperately to keep the horizon level for yet another shot of Balls Pyramid.

Flesh-footed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater

We’d entered the ocean-going bird zone and the Flesh-footed Shearwaters wheeled and dived in a feeding frenzy. Can you guess why they’re also called ‘Muttonbirds’?  A flock of White Bellied Storm Petrels, world’s smallest seabird, fluttered around us their long, trailing legs looking like they were dancing on the waves. And a lone South Polar Skua on a rare excursion this far north cast a giant shadow on the deck as all cameras but mine clicked furiously.

Ball’s Pyramid

White-bellied Storm Petrels
White-bellied Storm Petrels

Balls Pyramid is impressive from wherever you view it.

But nothing had prepared me for the reality of the Pyramid with its massive, bare basalt peaks rising straight up out of the ocean, the intriguingly coloured rock towering high above our tiny boat.

Masked Booby, Balls Pyramid
Masked Booby, Balls Pyramid via Lord Howe Island

Wild, wet and windswept, the heavy seas crashed around the rocky reefs at the Pyramid’s inhospitable 1100 x 400 metre base as Masked Boobies soared around the peaks.

Balls Pyramid Western Face
Balls Pyramid’s perpendicular Western Face

Climbing Ball’s Pyramid

The first successful ascent was by Bryden Allen and party in 1965.  This followed an unsuccessful attempt the year before by a party including legendary explorer and entrepreneur Dick Smith.  In 1979, Dick Smith returned to the pyramid. With fellow climber John Worrall completed the ascent where he then claimed Balls Pyramid for Australia!

Me? AAAAARRRRGGGGH! Not ever, no way!

A Rare Creature

Lord Howe Island Phasmid
Lord Howe Island Phasmid at Visitors Centre

Inhospitable though the Pyramid may be, a remnant population of the endemic Lord Howe Island Phasmid was discovered here many years after it had been given up as extinct on the island. It’s the only known colony in the world.

As we chugged around the Pyramid, I was awestruck by the ever-changing vistas of its stupendous bulk. Colours and patterns swirled through its jagged peaks and sheer cliff faces, with massive cracks criss-crossing the rocky layers and perpendicular walls. I finally started snapping away.  Pilchard was horrified when he realised I hadn’t been quite as busy snapping the wondrous array of birds he’d never seen before.

And would possibly never see again.

Balls Pyramid from Noctiluca
Balls Pyramid from Noctiluca

Tragically, a reduction in photographic activity wasn’t the only clue as to who wasn’t a very good sailor as we slapped through the swell, spray swirling in all directions. Bracing myself against the side of the boat and Pilchard, I snapped the retreating Pyramid in its ever-changing guises as the rain moved in from the west.

Leaving Balls Pyramid Behind

Rounding Lord Howe Island’s southern end, the monstrous bulk of Mt Gower soared above us. Providence Petrels whirled and spun against the cliffs in the world’s only known breeding grounds as Balls Pyramid disappeared from view.

Balls Pyramid from Gower Island
Final View of Balls Pyramid from Gower Island, Lord Howe Island

The extreme upper body workout I’d had from hanging onto the Noctiluca railings to stay upright in the heaving seas and monstrous swell had been tiring.  But I furiously pedalled my bicycle homeward against the wind, in a successful attempt to outrun the rain. Happily, we’d had the foresight to lay in supplies.  As the night closed in and turned to rain and I collapsed, exhausted, onto the lounge.

Fisherman, Lord Howe Island
Fisherman on the reef at sundown, Lord Howe Island

But unlike skipper Jack, I hadn’t climbed Mt Gower the day before. I still had a LONG way to go!

Balls Pyramid
Balls Pyramid, Dead Ahead!

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    1. Stewart, you’re the only other person I know who’s been to LHI!! We’ve also been twice – but 3 years apart. We’re trying Norfolk this year – but part of me says to ditch that plan and head back to LHI! This tour was the BEST Aussie day trip EVER 😀

    1. You won’t get any argument from me, Tony!! Most people say ‘Wow! Where’s that?’ whenever I show them pix of LHI – they’re always surprised to find it’s in OZ!

  1. My goodness! Such magnificence! I’m referring to you, for being brave enough to go on that tour. I was hanginger onto the railing there, for a moment.

    And your book is AWESOME. I love it!

    1. Hey Tina! So glad it arrived safely – I was a little concerned as the post office guy seemed a bit clueless 😀 Someone told me I should do something that scares me every day. This trip (in March) has lasted me all year!!!

  2. another fabulous post from you Red. This is a part of Australia we are yet to see – but don’t worry – it’s on my list! Thank you for taking us along for the ride – I am now pre-warned about the boat ride. Rough ocean and boats aren’t a good mix for me after a boating accident 10 or so years ago. You would think I would be over it by now!
    Happy travels and have a wonderful Christmas Red. By the way – love your “Loos” book!
    Looking forward to Edition 2 in 2016???

    1. I’m lucky I don’t get travel sickness, Jill! Although it was touch & go at times 😀 I was in a plane struck by lightning over 20 years ago now and I’ve been a nervous flier ever since – so maybe getting over it just doesn’t happen?? Glad you like my book!! As for Aussie Loos #2’s (appropriate title, yes?!) – watch this space!!!

  3. I love the ruggedness of this coastline. Ball’s Pyramid is a bit like a ‘dragon in the sea’. I admire your bravery negotiating the rough seas to get your photos. I would have been throwing up over the side of the boat! Lol.

    1. Kathy, the scenery was SO amazing at the Pyramid that any thought of danger – or seasickness – disappeared! It’s exactly like a dragon in the sea – and about as prehistoric!

  4. One of my favourite places in the world, Lord Howe Island. It didn’t sound like wondrous trip for you to see the pyramid. I was happy just to see it from Lord Howe. I know exactly what you mean cycling home against the wind. I did that a few times.

    1. Diane, the trip was pretty rough – but it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again! The pain is SO worth the gain!! I think I lost several kilos with all the walking and cycling – this means I’ll have to return to lose the ones that have crept back on!

  5. Far out Red, that sounded tops. You’ve certainly been to some places. I would love to visit Lord Howe and surrounds and Balls Pyramid sounds like a beauty! Love the colours shot too.

    1. It’s the most amazing place I’ve ever been, Andy and part of that is the difficulty in getting there! I’m usually a fair-weather traveller, so this is my definition of RUGGED! But would I do it again? yes, Yes, YES!!

  6. Such an amazing pyramid and not at all man made like all those Egyptian ones! The colours on it are fantastic, almost like someone threw buckets of paint and let them streak. I really like your very descriptive narrative this time Red. A trip to dream about.

    1. This is the Aussie way, River!! Who needs all that hard work to get a Pyramid?!?!?! From a distance, it’s grey – but as you get closer, the colours are more noticeable and get brighter! Thanx for your kind words too 🙂

  7. Awesome birds and fantastic scenery.. I would love to add these birds to my life list.. The photos are amazing considering the conditions..
    Thank you for linking up, have a happy Sunday!

    1. Eileen – this is the most AMAZING birding spot we’ve ever experienced! And if (when!) we go again it’s possible there will be a whole different set of birds! Thanx for dropping in!

  8. That’s great story, well written and very descriptive photographs. There are some rarely seen sea birds there which made me quite jealous, although I do prefer to see seabirds from land if you see what I mean.

    1. Thank you Phil! For me, birding was only one of the reasons to visit Balls Pyramid – my keen birdo partner Pilchard would probably beg to differ! This is a ‘lite-pelagic’ in my opinion – while it can be a rough trip, you’re never actually out of sight of land!! It’s a rare opportunity to see some of the birds – South Polar Skua was an AMAZING pick up – the OZ rarities committee had to confirm the sighting (which they have). Thank you for dropping by – hope to see you here again sometime!!

  9. I absolutely loved this post, Red! It’s a dream of mine to visit Lord Howe Island one day and in particular see Balls Pyramid up close. Very inspiring!!

    1. Bonny, if you are thinking about it you MUST do it!! Lord Howe Island is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been!! Balls Pyramid is the icing on the cake … keep watching, I’ve got more on LHI to come in future posts!

  10. Oh…
    It reminds me of a whale watching cruise in Sydney. It wasn’t cancelled, but the weather was not good enough. Some people got terribly sick on the bumpy ship. They couldn’t move at all even after the ship returned. No whale for them. I was all right, but it was a lesson for me that a trip on a boat is not always comfortable.
    Be careful of weather condition and have a good trip, Red!

    1. Kozue, I LOVED this trip!! Even though the weather was rough, it didn’t affect me badly, but I was one of the lucky ones!! I would do this trip again if I had the chance, but they DO cancel about half of the trips scheduled due to bad weather 😀

    1. Thank you Margaret! I think my photographic technique for these shots is best described as ‘experimental’!!! My camera (and persona!) isn’t really set up for bird photography, so it’s always a bonus when I get a shot that’s OK!

  11. I knew I had heard of Balls Pyramid before….the stick insect. Aren’t the colours of the cliff just amazing. It must have been nice to be back on stable ground.

    1. Haha, Andrew – I was actually surprised at my ability to withstand hours of heaving and pitching while balancing to take myriads of photos with one hand (thank goddess I don’t have a BIG camera!). It IS amazing – and so is the stick insect!

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