For most of the year, Jim and Rachael McFadyen’s home is the most peaceful place on earth. Perched on top of a cliff on World Heritage-listed Lord Howe Island, their low-slung bungalow looks out to an endless vista of the Pacific Ocean. Apart from approaching showers and the occasional storm, there’s nothing between them and the next landfall, some 11,000 kilometres away in Chile. But for four months of the year, this peace is shattered, as a colony of sooty terns takes up residence and the family’s front yard becomes a nursery for the thousands of birds that nest there. Jim and Rachael’s children, Hayley, 10 years, Zoe, eight, and Max, five, are well versed in the habits of their noisy visitors, one of 14 species of seabirds that nest on Lord Howe and part of a wider population of more than 130 permanent and migratory species living there at different times.
Among the fun facts the children share are the terns’ nickname of “wideawake”, due to the cacophony that accompanies the nesting season and the information that because terns can’t float, they have evolved to be able to take restorative mini naps while flying. From having such an intimate insight into the wonders of life on earth to the joys of attending their little three-teacher barefoot school, the McFadyen kids appear blissfully unaware of the privileges they enjoy on their island paradise. Rachael and Jim, on the other hand, have not forgotten the pressures of life on the mainland and give thanks on a daily basis for the lifestyle they now enjoy. The former police officers became part of the island’s permanent population of about 350 in 2010, when they gave up their careers in Sydney to run a resort on Lord Howe.
“Jim’s auntie is fifth-generation islander,” Rachael explains. “So he has been visiting since childhood. As a teenager, he spent school holidays here doing various hospitality jobs. I first came here when I met him in 2001 and I was hooked pretty well immediately. It’s a very hard place to get out of your system. Something like 70 per cent of the visitors are repeat customers. The beautiful landscape, the crystal-clear waters, the beaches, the wildlife and the fishing are all world-class. But it’s the lifestyle that gets you hooked. Lord Howe is basically a little country town, with a laid-back lifestyle and some very civilised amenities attached. There’s negligible crime, not many cars, the speed limit is 25 kilometres per hour and most people walk or cycle to get around. It’s a wonderful place to bring up children and we couldn’t be happier.”
These days, Jim works as the manager of assets and infrastructure for the island board and Rachael works for the Australian Border Force, checking arriving planes and boats for anything that might impinge the island’s strict biosecurity regulations. Shortly after they arrived, the couple bought their home, one of the first prefab houses on the island, and they have been gradually doing it up ever since.
Their first task was to clear the property of the dense scrub that had enveloped the house during years of being unoccupied. “It was so overgrown you couldn’t even get up the front stairs,” Rachael explains. “To see it now, it’s hard to believe you couldn’t even see the ocean for the trees.”
Having opened up to the view, the McFadyens added a deck to one side and christened it with a significant decade party, the first of many celebrations that combine the good fortunes of a spectacular location with a preference for home-based entertaining. “The bulk of our groceries comes from the mainland,” Rachael says. “So you become accustomed to doing a three-monthly shop. We supplement with purchases from island suppliers, but it does tend to generate a self-sufficient mentality. We are all accustomed to baking our own cakes, making things like curry pastes and pasta from scratch and that in turn encourages the country custom of having people over rather than going out. Though, of course, there is fine dining available at some of the resorts.”
Although Jim and Rachael are hard-pressed to name any downsides to living on Lord Howe, they do admit that the island’s small population means organising team sport is difficult. “Swimming lessons are another thing the children miss out on,” Rachael says. “They can always touch the bottom in the lagoon.” She hastens to point out that these skills will come when the children head to boarding school on the mainland. “Most go away for high school,” she says. “There is an option for them to stay home for the early years and do distance ed classes at the school, but it’s part of island life to board as they get older.”
The freedom to play and roam with no fears for their safety is one of many privileges Lord Howe children enjoy. “We feel completely comfortable leaving the children at home in bed while we go for an early morning walk,” Rachael says. “We have an amazing lifestyle and I can’t imagine ever going back to city life.
The complete story was originally published in Australian Country issue 21.4. Click here to subscribe to our magazine
Words Kirsty McKenzie
Photography Ken Brass