Updated: Dec 11, 2018
12 years after moving to Australia I finally made it to Byron Bay, on Australia’s east coast. I’d heard lots of good things about the town, including the hippy culture, the laid back vibe, the world class surfing conditions and the vibrant bars and restaurants. My wife, Fran, had visited the town 20 years earlier and was keen to see if it was still as magical. However, she’d also read numerous blog posts that the hippies have all but gone and that spiraling property prices have changed the demographics and the culture. Would it still be the same as she knew it from 20 year earlier?
As for our two teenage boys, this was their first ever trip to the east coast.
After hiring a campervan, we drove to Byron Bay from Sydney, staying along the way in caravan parks. We arrived on the outskirts of the Byron Bay in the late afternoon and while my family played in the pool, I headed into town for provisions.
This excerpt captures how I felt at that moment and my first impressions of Byron Bay.
If most hippies had moved inland in search of cheaper property, I must have been in luck, as I passed one on the way to the supermarket. Of course, I have no idea if she was a hippy or not and am conscious that it’s a stereotypical tag, given without too much thought. But if you believe that anyone with waist-length braided hair, wearing faded dungarees, gum boots, and sporting an array of body art is a hippy, then we’re on the same wavelength. She was riding along the path and her bike even had a wicker basket positioned at the front.
She was further ahead, just to my left, and was preparing to cross the road. The lights turned red and she rode across my path, glancing over as I smiled. She was tanned and had probably been that way for decades, with fine lines etched into her middle-aged skin. She lifted a hand in a gesture of acknowledgement, and then mounted the pavement on the other side, before darting through an alleyway. The car behind me beeped and after a quick check that the lights were green I made my way towards Byron Bay.
I found a supermarket on the outskirts and searched for a parking spot, noting the amount of other campervans nearby. Some were hired vehicles, displaying branded logos, including one that was emblazoned with graffiti-style images, complete with bold quotes and sexual innuendos.
Inside the shop I discovered a healthy mix of demographics, ranging from an elderly couple, happy to browse through the daily specials, to a bunch of teenage boys, bare chested, bronzed and talkative, calling out to each other as they breezed along the aisles. Some shoppers were barefoot, including toddlers, young mums and the middle aged. Others were dressed to impress, their groomed hair and designer clothes in stark contrast to the loose jumpers, baggy pants and sandals that some in the checkout queue were wearing.
After a successful search for provisions I headed back to the van and started the engine. The right turn would take me back to Fran and the boys, but the left looked far more appealing. It headed directly towards the town centre and it was dangerously close. As if on autopilot, I made the left turn, navigated a small roundabout and found myself in Byron Bay.
There were people everywhere. Some still wore beachwear, others were dressed for an evening on the town, sitting on bar stools, sipping beers and gazing over the street through open windows. I passed intimate bars, large pubs, restaurants to suit every taste and budget, shops selling surf wear and others advertising surf lessons.
The road led me directly to the bay, where I parked up before strolling towards the beach. To my right I could clearly see the outline of a lighthouse, perched on top of a wooded headland. I knew from our guidebook that just out of sight a rocky outcrop marked the eastern tip of mainland Australia. Despite the lateness of the day, the beach was still busy, with people lounging on towels and others walking hand in hand along the shoreline.
In the last of the light I caught sight of a surfer, paddling fast to catch the final wave of the day. With apparent ease, they rode towards shore, constantly twisting and turning as the wave surged and then ebbed, before fading away as it hit the beach.
As I studied the lone surfer, a sudden thought struck me. After fourteen years in Australia I had yet to try out the sport. Yet here I was, in Byron Bay, at one of the most iconic surf spots in Australia. During the short drive back to our campsite, I decided it was now or never to give the sport a go. I just needed to find out how to organise a lesson.