Ever since I first stepped foot in Byron Bay, it’s felt like home. Not that I’ve ever been able to live here in a physical, geographical postcode sense. Rather, I’m perpetually “just visiting”, and my sense of belonging is more metaphorical. More about finding my tribe here, rather than owning real estate. After all, I am beyond the flow and it’s perfectly normal to think outside the square here. To extend your horizons so far beyond the norm, that all your inhibitions melt and flow away. There’s no ridicule. No one’s laughing at you. It’s creativity personified and you can be whoever you are with that same liberating freedom, as diving off a bottomless cliff and finally learning to fly.
At least, that’s how it used to be.
Every time I come up here now, I see less and less of old Byron as the surviving remnants of her golden hippy era, are increasingly consumed by “progress”. Indeed, these days Byron is starting to look more and more like Sydney’s Double Bay and dare I use the word “posh”. I don’t mind posh and posh has its place. However, for those of us who actually remember old Byron (and even I came along fairly late in the piece), posh can go someplace else. Instead, I say bring back the Kombis all lined up along the beachfront with their surfboards perched on top…trophies celebrating freedom, sun, surf, sand and eternal Summers. The gateway to the inland hippy heaven of Nimbin, Byron was full of hippies, rainbows and a Mecca to the thriving counter-culture.
That’s the Byron I first visited in around 1994. At the time, I’d sold out on my creative side and had gone fully corporate myself working as a marketing executive in the Sydney CBD and living nearby in a trendy, converted warehouse apartment in Sydney’s Broadway, a stone’s throw from Glebe. I’d graduated from Sydney University. Hung out in cafes writing and performing poetry while searching for the meaning of life. That’s before I headed off backpacking through Europe on what was meant to be the last hurrah before finally growing up and settling down to a real job, a career, a husband, mortgage, kids and a dog in the burbs. Implicit in all of this, was that I would personify the values of my parents, my school and the almighty North Shore. Of course, that had absolutely nothing to do with running away to Byron Bay and doing the happy dance barefoot on the beach.
That’s probably why I experienced such a jolt when I first came to Byron Bay. That despite having all the trappings of the corporate life, it wasn’t me. Or, at least, it wasn’t fully me. I was staying at Jay’s Hostel in Byron Bay and a group of us hung out together in the way that travellers do, almost bonding immediately in a way that’s impossible back home. I bought myself a hippy dress, hung out at the beach and in cafes philosophizing about life the universe and everything. No doubt, I also scribbled away in my journal, and wrote poetry. I felt so alive.
I don’t know what happened. However, it was like I’d been struck by lightning while I was in Byron Bay. When I arrived back in Sydney, my life there both at work and at home felt strangely unfamiliar. It was like I’d stepped into someone else’s life. It no longer made sense.
In hindsight, it’s no surprise. I was working long hours stuck in an office without any windows doing number crunching and database analysis of all things. How does a poet end up doing that? That is probably my greatest folly. The job description had changed, but I persevered trying to get some stability on my CV. They might as well have handed me a shovel, because I was rapidly digging my own grave. Coincidentally, it was while I was in this job, that the unchartered harbour in my head (known medically as hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain) was starting to make its presence felt. I was becoming seriously ill, although I wrote it off as stress at the time and moved to Western Australia.
I didn’t make it back to Byron Bay again until I came up here with my now husband, Geoff, in 1999. Geoff’s mother was living at nearby Nureybar with his sisters’ family and I was on my best behavior. It was very different going back to Byron Bay with him. He works in IT, and it’s not that he isn’t creative, but he didn’t connect with it in quite the same way I did.
Over the years since then, we’ve generally come up to stay with his sister at least once a year as a family and we’ve explored Byron Bay and the lighthouse with the kids. This has also been a very different experience…ice creams up at the lighthouse, stopping down at the Railway Park in town for the kids to enjoy our climbing tree…a fig tree which was damaged in a storm and fell over onto its side. By some miracle, it survived and grows along the ground, enabling even young kids to climb up into its branches and explore. The tree also has a special place in the local community. We’ve seen ribbons and scarves tied around its branches. A milk crate suspended upside down by a rope. A few times, a local woman known as “Mamma Dee” has done community art projects in the park. She had a heartfelt concern for young people and wanted to fill the park with love and connection and for young people to believe in themselves. Too many young people she knew had taken their own young lives, and she doing what she could to make a difference. Well, at least, she touched me. We’ve also met Christian groups giving away free food in the park and across the road, the Adventist Church runs a soup kitchen. All these things are acknowledgements of the darker remnants of old Byron…the many lost, broken and searching people who flee to Byron Bay in search of answers to life’s imponderable questions or to simply simply escape.
During these years when the kids were young, my sister-in-law would often mind them to give me a break and I’d disappear over the hill and into Byron. Once again, I’d found my wings and had that same sense of creative liberation, I’d experienced on my very first visit. Byron Bay was very much “my place”.
Fast-forwarding to 2020, we’re back at Nureybar again for a family holiday. It’s been three years since we’ve all be up here for an extended family holiday together. Geoff and the kids came up without me two years ago when I was sick and Geoff and I were child-free last year, when the kids were away at the Australian Scouting Jamboree in South Australia. So this means, the kids are three years older since we were here last, and the family dynamics have changed quite a lot. Indeed, the kids are no longer kids, and have evolved into teens. Indeed, our son is about to embark on his second last year of school.
So, instead of finding myself shooting off to Byron Bay solo, it’s been me and my girl…Miss 13. This has launched me into yet experiencing yet another perspective of Byron and I am a 13 year old girl buying bikinis and reporting everything back to my friends back home. Well, maybe not. I did turn 50 last year and I clearly can’t squeeze my feet back into a 13 year old’s shoes or even her bare feet. I would’ve loved to take her back to my Byron Bay, which was much more philosophical and reflective than commercial. She remembers some of it, such as the ladybird shop which used to pump clouds of bubbles down the main street. However, even the graffiti on toilet walls was good up here and it’s all but gone.
Yesterday’s trip to Byron Bay culminated in the Twilight Markets which are held in Railway Park around our climbing tree. We were wandering around and I bought a cards with prints by local artists. My daughter wanted to buy this candle thing where you poured scoops of wax beads into a glass container to make your own candle. I bought our son a kangaroo skin bracelet. We spotted Nutella donuts and they were an immediate must have just in case they sold out. Yum!!! They were divine. However, while we were soaking up the ambience and running back and forwards to the ATM across the road, the clouds were playing nasty tricks in the sky and it seems that all these national prayers for rain to extinguish the bush fires and ease the drought, were suddenly answered while the prayers of the market stall holders hoping to make a living, went unanswered. The heavens opened. Just a little at first and the stall holders valiantly persevered. The band moved back undercover and played on. The food vans stayed put. However, the rain had other plans and I just managed to buy some CDs from the band before they packed up and called it a day. The food vans were made of tougher stuff and we bought a plate of gado gado and by this stage, there was no hope of eating it under our tree. Rather, we hot-footed it back to the car as fast as we could with a plate of foot threatening to escape. While sitting in an almost generic white Subaru Forrester might seem rather ordinary, it was strangely atmospheric. We put on the new CD and as the rain fell all around up, we were making memories. It was so much fun and I felt 21 again.
Despite the rain, we headed back down there again today. Needed to stretch our wings.
More fun lay ahead, which started out trying on sunglasses and outfits at a vintage shop. How do you like our red sunnies? We didn’t buy them. I could hardly get multi-focals for the pair I tried on, but they were a lot of fun. We explored shop after shop and worked our way up to the beach. Still wet and overcast, we didn’t even consider swimming, but we did enjoy listening to the band at the Byron Bay Hotel who was playing Eagle Rock. We crossed the road and walked down onto the beach where we spotted something like 200 surfers hit the surf and formed a circle. Initially, I’d thought it was a surf school, but then I wondered if it was a funeral or memorial. There’s always something at Byron Bay you can’t quite explain and I just remembered that included a guy we spotted on the street corner known as “Cool” who was about 70 and swirling a hoola hoop while singing along and shaking maracas with a difference…one was a pineapple and the other was a banana.
Our holidays aren’t over yet. So, I’m interested to see what else Byron Bay and this incredible region have in store.
I’ll come back and add more photos once we’re back home. Our Internet connection is not the best here and is frustrating to say the least.