Walking on Phillip Island, Paul Rush discovers that the humble swamp hen has become an apex predator.

Lonely Norfolk Island, our nearest overseas neighbour, is a beautiful volcanic outcrop that boasts 101 things to do for holidaymakers.

The island is a mass of bright colours: turquoise waters, lush green pastures, stately pine trees and steel grey cliffs plunging into the sea.

It comes as a complete surprise to find that just 6km south of Norfolk is an island that rivals the vivid reds, oranges and purples of Australia's impressive Ayers Rock.

This "Uluru of the South Pacific" is Phillip Island, an eroded volcano made of basaltic tuff and lava, dating from the Miocene epoch of three million years ago.

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Sheer cliffs of black basalt and grey conglomerate plunge straight into the water and look unassailable at sea level.

However, my guide, Damien, explains that there is a walking path up the face of the cliffs. "It's no problem," he assures me. "I've had a super-fit 84-year-old New Zealand lady scale these cliffs without working up a sweat."

Damien's paternal grandmother was from the Quintal family, a descendent of one of the nine Bounty mutineers who lived on Pitcairn Island. Serious rivalry for their Tahitian women reduced their numbers to a sole male survivor, John Adams, who created a pious and happy family of Pitcairn Islanders.

They outgrew their island and settled on Norfolk in 1856. Many descendants still speak a hybrid sing-song language, which blends the mutineer's Old English and the Tahitian language.

Once we have gained some height we see yellow shingle slopes streaked with outcrops of vivid red iron oxide that are dazzling in the bright sunlight.

Scattered scrub and hardy wind-resistant vegetation clings to the exposed faces, while wild African olive trees and hibiscus thrive in the gully heads.

Steel grey cliffs plunge into the sea.
Steel grey cliffs plunge into the sea.

Nature's bounty is most obvious on this lonely island in the form of prolific bird life.

The cliff faces are pockmarked with grey ternlet nests; petrel and shearwater burrows litter the ground under our feet and sooty tern homes are scattered among the vegetation.

We stumble over a female masked booby sitting on her nest and she gives a nervous honk to warn us we're a tad too close.

The most striking seabirds we see are the soaring Australian gannets with their golden heads and glistening white bodies.

But the strangest bird of all is the pukeko, the purple swamp hen known locally as the tarler bird as it has a liking for the taro (tarler) wetlands on Norfolk Island.

The most remarkable feature of this species is that they fly at amazing speeds at high altitudes as if they are trying to emulate the gannets.

At home, I have observed that the pukeko is slowly losing the ability to fly long distances.

In the absence of predators within our prolific wetlands, it has no need to leave the ground unless disturbed.

On Phillip Island, there is no standing water whatsoever so the swamphens eat seeds and grasses and find their moisture by raiding the nests of other avian species and eating their eggs and chicks.

Thus, in a classic Darwinian adaptation of the species, the humble swamp hen has adopted a T-Rex complex and become the apex predator on the island. It has free rein because Parks Australia has made the island free of all feral predators.

As we climb higher, the uneven terrain is strewn with moving gravel slides. The final knife-edge ridge to the summit stops us in our tracks as it is extremely hazardous.

There's great bushwalking on Norfolk Island.
There's great bushwalking on Norfolk Island.

It did not deter a notorious criminal called Jacky Jacky in the grim days of the second Norfolk penal colony, established for the "worst of the worst incorrigibles" from Tasmania.

He was tasked with looking after the pigs and goats. When the redcoats came to return him to the prison he refused to go and scarpered for the summit. After the freedom of Phillip Island he couldn't face incarceration. As the soldiers approached his precarious position, he cursed them and threw himself over the cliff to his death.

I've enjoyed the great bushwalking here.

But there is so much more to experience: themed heritage shows, stunning beaches, gourmet dining in 35 restaurants and cafes and tax-free shopping for branded quality products.

It's such an enjoyable holiday destination I find it hard to understand why it's still the Pacific's best-kept secret.

Catch it while you can.

Emily Bay.
Emily Bay.

CHECKLIST

Getting there

Air New Zealand operates a weekly service from Auckland to Norfolk Island with additional services via Sydney and Brisbane.

Details
Helloworld's seven-night Norfolk Island package starts at $839 and covers accommodation, tours and a rental car. For details, go to helloworld.co.nz.

Online
norfolkisland.com.au