Opening image: “Pulling up to the base of Balls Pyramid was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

Trent Mitchell – “It Was Too Beautiful, Man. I Was Too Scared to Take a Picture”

Change is inevitable, change is everywhere, and the pace of change is accelerating, especially for coveted coastal strips. So, when photographer Trent Mitchell stepped off the plane on Lord Howe Island recently, he expected to see a changed place to the one he’d visited 20 years earlier on a surf trip with mates, a trip he’d taken after seeing a rock on a map and thinking it might be an interesting place to check out. “But nothing had really changed at all,” he says of his first impressions. “There were a couple of new shops, and a little brewery, but apart from that it was exactly the same. It was actually better.”


Protected by distance for millions of years, Lord Howe remained uninhabited until the late 1700s. Lord Howe today is still protected by that distance, sitting 600km east from the Australian mainland, but is also protected by the collective mindset of islanders and mainlanders alike who see it as a rare jewel.


That’s why Trent’s here. He’s on Lord Howe with the Rastovich family – Dave, partner Lauren Hill, their son Mino and Dave’s mum, Yvonne – to walk and swim around on the island for a week, ancient instincts fizzing up, marvelling at this magnificent rock… and marvelling at how it’s been kept in a primal state while the mainland coast continues to be kerbed and guttered. They’re on Lord Howe to film Kin, a short film celebrating the work that’s been done that’s seen the island become one of Australia’s most protected marine sanctuaries. As Lauren puts it, “what it looks like when we get it right.” 



“There was definitely a point when we arrived out at Balls Pyramid,” reflects Trent of the moment it really hit him. “All of that dolphin stuff happened on the way out, the dolphins just swimming around like old friends, and that was unexpected and amazing. And so, we've come off that high and then the ocean went slack, and the sun came out and the light was golden. We arrived at Ball’s Pyramid and there's thousands of birds flying around this crazy pyramid stack, and I am looking at the whole scene just hypnotised. Just… fuck. I couldn't take a photo. It was too beautiful, man. I was too scared to take a picture. I just couldn't sum it up in a photo. It was that overwhelming feeling of everything being so potent. The light was epic, the wildlife, the dramatic nature, the cliffs… just being in the presence of it all. There aren’t that many places that have that kind of effect on you.”

While doing justice with a camera creates challenges, putting it into words is something else again. The island’s geography lands it equidistant from Australia’s East Coast, the South Pacific coral atolls and the Pacific’s volcanic ghosts and depending on where you’re standing on the island you can see one or all of those landscapes. Dave might have summed it up best when he described the island as somewhere “between Forster and Na Pali.”

“It's exactly that,” nods Trent. “It's got all of those different notes. The beachbreak side looks like Forster, but then the shoreline has limestone reef on the beach. And then there's the volcanic side. The sheer cliffs definitely speak to the Hawaiian Islands. But then you've got the beautiful coral reef and it's like this fusion of every beautiful place you've been to in the Pacific, all on one island, each side of it being shaped in different ways.”

“My biggest memory from this day was poor little Mino in a world of seasick pain; it was quite bumpy. This photo was taken on the return journey coming around the headland into the passage... and things got a bit wilder. We were heading straight into the wind, the boat was rocky, winds going nuts and Dave’s just grabbing his hat as this rainbow pops out of nowhere from the clouds, the light just hitting it perfectly. That was a moment on our bumpy boat ride around the island.”

This was a surf trip first, but it never really encountered any… not nearly to the island’s potential, anyway. “We got a short period swell, which it was enough to light it up and see the shape of the reefs. There’re gems there for sure, but we never got the right winds with the swell.”

That’s not to say there weren’t memorable surfs. “That day we were headed out to Ball’s Pyramid, as we were getting ready to go the skipper said, ‘Maybe you should throw some boards in the boat. There’s a wave out there. You never know. We’ve seen it break before.’ From the exposed side, a wave was kind of hooking almost 180 degrees around the island, just wrapping. The outside would explode, and then the waves would hug the base of the cliff and run along it.” The wave wasn’t Cloudbreak, but as far as they knew nobody had surfed it. Once they got out there and killed the motor, they gave the honour of the first wave to the skipper, before Dave and Lauren paddled out and surfed together under towering, Tolkien rock.

“It was one of those things, a little reward comes your way if you keep persevering. We had a great little pop of light at the end of day, rainbows, birds, beautiful light and Lauren got to enjoy a session to herself.”

The pinnacle of the group’s saltwater time however might have been the bodysurfing day. Both Dave and Trent are whomp people, and they found a little reef at the bottom of the island with a short right spinning across it. “The wave was the perfect speed,” offers Trent, “a little three-footer and Rasta just couldn't get out of the water. I think we swam for four hours, at which point Dave offered to take pictures of me, so I had a couple of waves. We were just flopping around having a hell time. Dave was getting pitted out of his brain, just tucking in, riding these little foamballs and popping out the other end just screaming and laughing.”

The bodysurf day was a chance to get close to the reef, the southernmost coral reef in the world, a reef remarkably alive. “It felt like it was thriving. There were tropical fish swimming through the waves, just like you'd experience in Fiji or somewhere like that. And out back there were patches of beautiful colour. Dave said he felt like he was surfing across this coral garden, just looking down at all the fish and colour below.”

“As the tide came in this little wave started to show its form. Dave believed this wave was one of the best bodysurf waves he’s ever ridden, and his performance showed that. I love bodysurfing so much and to document one of the best guys out there doing it in complete joy... this is a cool little moment of him dolphining through the end of a wave at full speed, his hair flicked back and the white-water explosions above him.”

The island has been a high-water mark for marine and biodiversity protection for decades now and was World Heritage listed back in 1982. But while high conservation areas on the mainland are heavily signposted with threats of fines for interlopers, the protection on the island is casual, implied. They protect it with carrots, not sticks.

“You know how good design is just invisible?” says Trent. “It's like those systems are in place and the results are there, but you don't see all those things ticking away in the background. It's evident across every part of the island. It's clean, it's pristine, it's raw. But the whole mechanism that protects it is invisible. There are parts of it that are roped off to protect nesting birds, but apart from that there are no signs saying you can’t do this or that, people just understand it.”

“This is one of my favourite-favourites because it’s a one-in-a-billion frame. God knows how these air bubbles have formed around his eyes, creating these underwater aviator sunglasses.”

And this is part of island life. There are only 382 permanent residents on the island, and the numbers of tourists in and out are tightly capped. But while the island has been legally protected from across the horizon, the locals have created a closed loop system that creates the barest of footprints as they go about their daily lives.

“Just chatting to the guys at the brewery for instance, they're not interested in canning the beer they’re brewing. If they did, they’d have to import 10,000 cans from wherever, get them to the island, build a big canning operation, then someone just drinks a beer in five minutes and the can gets crushed and put in the bin, and then they've got to ship it back off the island. They just drink out of kegs and glasses instead. And there are decisions made like that across everything they do. Bringing things in and off the island, everything's highly considered, and it really stuck with me just how mindful everyone was about the impact they had on the island daily. If you had that mindset on the mainland, it’d be a very different place.”

“I could see myself living there, for sure,” half-laughs Trent, knowing that most everyone out there living on the island at some point has said exactly the same thing. “I guess I was drawn to the simple life that people live over there, and how in tune with nature everyone is and how their days revolve around the weather and the tides. I just love that idea, as opposed to every other beautiful place you've ever been to where it's just develop every spare scrap of land, oversell it, dump rubbish on the street out front and flush the toilet and it doesn't matter where it goes.”

Trent however was soon boarding the plane and flying back home to the Gold Coast. “I just wanted to run the other way at the airport. When you see what's possible and how you can exist in a different way, and you hang out with people who are living that life, and they're inspired and doing what they love, and you’re experiencing all these overwhelming, beautiful, natural things, leaving it is hard, man. Coming back home to your routines, your manmade structures and all of these things screaming at you is hard.”

He laughs. “I’m going from a million seabirds flying around Ball’s Pyramid to a million bin chooks flying around Q1.”

“I feel like these guys were coming at me to say hello maybe. But it just felt like one of those days where everything was in synch. That synchronicity is kinda summed up in this frame.”

Opening image: “Pulling up to the base of Balls Pyramid was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before."


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