There’s something in the water in Byron Bay.
No, really, there’s something in the water in Byron Bay, and I think it’s the psychoactive chemicals left by the thousands of hippies who have been coming here since the early 1970s. They’re still coming, trundling down the Pacific Highway in their psychedelic campervans, stuffed with surfboards, guitars, and everything you might need to enjoy a decade chilling out on the beach. They are everywhere, dancing on the sand at sunset, strumming and chanting on the esplanade, dozing by the side of the road in the backs of their vehicles. In this country of hard edges, conformity and strictly enforced rules and regulations, Byron feels mellow and at times even hedonistic. It’s the ultimate chill out zone in an area of spectacular natural beauty, which keeps people coming back year after year.
We arrived here about a month ago. When we were planning our Australian adventure, we knew we’d need to slow down after three months on the road, so we booked a cabin for six weeks in the Byron Bay Hinterland – an old converted dairy tucked away in the corner of a 100-acre farm, a 30-minute drive from the coast. It’s where the grown-up hippies live – the ones who settled in the area a couple of decades ago, and managed to buy land and property when it was still affordable (it’s nearly as expensive as Sydney now). The area is just stunning, with patches of rainforest interspersed with meadows and tiny, hidden-away villages, where locals grow their own organic food, make exquisite produce, and sell it for pennies from little wooden huts at the tops of their driveways. Everyone who lives here seems to rejoice in the quirkiness of their little patch of heaven. It’s that folksy, homemade, “she’ll be ‘right” earthiness that is much more typical of New Zealand than Australia.
Trevor (the local man who owns the land we’re staying on) will only rent out his paddocks to biodynamic farmers who allow their animals to have a full and happy life. Yes, that’s right – in the macho land of the barbeque and live animal exports, there are Aussie men like Trevor who care deeply about animal welfare. He’s eccentric, to say the least. He never locks his house, even when he’s away for days, and he leaves the doors and windows wide open to the elements, day and night. “I like to share my house with the local wildlife,” he told me, when we met. “I like to have it around me, fluttering and alive.” Hmm, I thought, I know what you mean, Trevor, but that’s Australian wildlife we’re talking about here: deadly spiders, killer snakes, and huge fruit bats that shriek and squabble through the night and are quite happy to share your bedroom. Like I said, definitely something in the water…
Our closest neighbour, Jack, is a young (20-something) organic gardener by trade and a surfer by lifestyle. He and his friends come and go in their hippie vans, looking like blonde versions of Captain Jack Sparrow – shaggy and bearded and wild. When we arrived, Jack immediately came and introduced himself to us in typical friendly fashion. Since then Bailey has become best friends with his dog, a huge Labradoodle called Mindy. They go around together, treating both houses like their own home, and trotting across the paddocks to see each other at every opportunity. It’s amazing to see the bond they’ve created in such a short time. When we get back to the house after a day out and about, Bailey can’t wait to jump out of the car and go off in search of his new friend. We’re certain they get up to all sorts of mischief when they’re out together, but we’ve learned to relax about it and let them have their space. (Admittedly, we make sure Bailey is wearing his GPS tracker).
We love it here, as you can probably tell from this blog post. After four years living and working in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, and feeling like foreigners, the Byron Bay area feels a lot more like home. The quirky towns, beautiful shoreline, lush landscape and the breathtaking wildlife (the humpback whales, especially) have all pulled us in and reminded us of what rural Australia has to offer. But the best part is the people, who are warm and friendly and welcoming to strangers.
Just as one of many of examples of the little acts of kindness we’ve experienced since we’ve been here, let me tell you about the evening I spent trying to photograph the full moon rising over Cape Byron lighthouse. I arrived early to set up my tripod, and as I waited for the moon to appear above the hills, passers-by stopped to ask me what I was photographing. Delighted at the thought of watching the spectacle unfold, they began to gather around, all filled with quiet expectation. It had been a perfect day, and it was still beautifully warm, but just as the sun began to set, the wind whipped up and clouds blotted out the horizon. “Don’t worry, it’s going to clear again,” a lady next to me said. “Yes,” another agreed, “This is happening. That moon is coming up…soon…ish!” She went and bought some beers and everyone began chatting, introducing themselves, and having a drink together. I had almost given up on the photograph, when a guy called Jason shouted. “Hey Tanya, look!! Here it comes!” A huge pale moon had peeped out between clouds, shining a silvery passage of light across the sea. I jumped up to my camera, and quickly tried to focus. “Did you get it?” several people asked. But it was so windy that even my heavy tripod was shaking, and I just couldn’t get the shot. I explained the problem, and the next thing I knew, several people were holding down my tripod to stop it shaking. So thanks to the team effort of a group of people who had only just met each other, I managed to get one of the nicest photos of our trip so far. That’s Byron Bay, through and through.
We’re here for one last week before we head further south to Woolgoolga and then Port Macquarie, and then inland to the Blue Mountains. It’s been a relaxing experience in the middle of an otherwise fast-paced trip, but we’ll be ready to move on when the time comes. More adventures await us, but we’ll always remember Byron Bay as the place where people still take the time to cherish the best things in life and just be themselves. To quote the little ditty that’s sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, among others:
Dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ve never been hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.