Although I arrived into Ballina-Byron airport to late January sunshine, I spent the next three days a prisoner indoors, rain refusing to run out. My early impressions of Byron were therefore not great.
‘We live in a rainforest area’, said my good friend Sariya, ‘it rains a lot here’. And over the next weeks, her words rang true. Hot, humid days with a piercing sun and big, blue skies were interspersed with grey days of torrential downpour. It took a while to acclimatise to the heat, the spores or whatever in the air made me feel congested much of the time and I found sleeping difficult, tossing and turning, uncomfortable.
So when was I going to fall for this place? It wasn’t love at first sight (mostly because I couldn’t see a damn thing through the heavy blanket of rain). But things got better. I discovered many of the things that draw in the crowds to this small surf town.
Among other things, Byron Bay in New South Wales, Australia is:
Beachy. Byron life revolves around the beaches and the surf, although surprisingly, a lot of locals don’t actually surf. There are some strong rips and some seriously dangerous areas along this stretch of coastline where swimming is not recommended, but places like The Pass are ever popular spots for people learning to surf (the first day that I went out it wasn’t so great and I smashed up my friend’s board. Not a good moment). Groups gather on the beach in matching tops, practise their pop-ups on the sand before taking to the water. Families hang out in the shade of the trees that fringe the beach and hot, young things wander by giving each other the eye. Out by Main Beach, evenings offer up regular dusk drumming sessions and the opportunity to mix, mingle and party as the hillside fills with small groups of travellers, language students, locals and musicians in the making.
Randomly eventful. Whilst I was in Byron, the place was winding down from the busy summer holiday season but there was still plenty going on including Buddhist teaching workshops, the Sex & Consciousness Conference with its Masked Lovers Ball, Tribal Fusion Belly Dancing performances, and the yoga-focused Spirit Festival. March and April promised even more with popular events such as Bluesfest and Byron Bay International Film Festival.
Aesthetic and beautiful. I sat down for a few minutes at the Sunday Byron Market with a friend whilst her kids played on a bouncy castle slide, and I did some serious people watching. I was a bit intimidated. ‘Those people’, said a local guy when I aired my insecurities, ‘are probably holiday makers and they’re in happy, confident holiday mode, far away from their usual worries’. People were slender, toned, and beautifully and stylishly clothed. They walked tall, perfect posture. Market asides, there just seemed to be so much cool and confidence in Byron, and in my experience that’s the locals and tourists alike. Maybe more so the locals, actually.
Postive-energied. I couldn’t help but feel some of that magical energy that is regularly commented on. Warm people, some pretty out-there experiences, lots of stuff about intuition and energy and vibes. And lots of genuine smiles and hellos from strangers (or friends you have yet to meet, if you subscribe to that philosophy!). People come here for all that, for the way-out opportunities, for the laid-back lifestyle and of course, for the surf (just don’t come thinking you’ll easily score a job). And some people come to find themselves and their Zen and to feed off the energy of this place.
Independently minded. This is evident by the many individual clothing, gift, craft and jewellery shops that line the main streets, the quirky coffee bars and book shops and restaurants. Whilst a few big brands have tried to muscle in, Byron has managed to maintain a feeling of individuality.
Healing and spiritual. In Byron, there are many ways to retune one’s mind, body and soul, from the expected hypnotherapy, massage, tarot, zumba, and of course every type of yoga imaginable (Byron is yoga central) right through to the more curious soul wound healing, kinesiology, iridology, happiness coaching and kahuna bodywork. There is even support for men who want ‘Wild Man’ to help guide them to live ‘a masculine life of integrity, authenticity and freedom’. I almost wish that I was a guy, just so I could try it out.
Healthy and active. The climate and the setting make for some great time spent outdoors doing active stuff. I swam and surfed in a warm sea and shared smiles with other joggers out on dusk runs. I often cycled into town from where I was staying in Suffolk Park along sun speckled bike tracks and through the Arakwal National Park. On my way I would pass by hoards of kids skateboarding to school and join a stream of cycling commuters as I got closer to Byron itself. There does seem to be a complete contrast between the full on healthy, non-drinking, non-smoking puritans and the party pleasure-seekers with their alcohol, drug fuelled fun. Because I don’t totally subscribe to either scene, I did at times feel a bit a bit out of the loop and looked down on. Don’t give me a label. I’ll have a bit of it all, thank you. Let me and others enjoy the healthy lifestyle options available in Byron without being judged on the odd indulgence.
Hedonistic. Alongside the healthy are the hedonists: predominantly the backpacker scene of party people. Byron may be a place of clear complexions and body awareness but it is also the place for some messy, messy nights. Whilst there are places in town to cater for all sorts of tastes, ages and people, the party crowd in the main spots is on the whole pretty young, think late teens early twenties. And they want to indulge: in alcohol, in each other, in the heady atmosphere. But there is more to Byron nightlife too, including a whole range of musicians who busk their hearts out and street performers who keep the post-pub crowds entertained (although you won’t see fire poi or juggling as flames were supposedly banned from Byron’s streets a good few years back).
Coffee loving. I hung out in comfy, cosy coffee shops making use of free WiFi. When I was looking for work, one of the main questions was ‘Can you make coffee?’ Of course I can make coffee, I thought, but until I said it with some conviction, I didn’t even get a look-in. As it turns out, Byronians love their coffee (well, Australians in general love their coffee, I think it’s fair to say) . I met a good few self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs. Bad coffee could ruin a business. I got it. And I did have some great coffees in friendly, smiley places such as Why Not?, one of many coffee bars scattered around the town.
Social and familiar. Compared to other places that I’ve been based, making friends in Byron was a fairly easy process, providing you made some effort. And I met people who were keen to get out and do stuff, and up for chats and beers and music and dancing. Nearly everyone that I met, local or otherwise, were welcoming, happy to share their space. And with Byron being quite small, it wasn’t long before I was bumping into people I knew, hellos on the street, that sort of thing. Felt good. Note: Don’t park your van outside someone’s house and leave rubbish and beer bottles kicking around. You’ll make friends with no-one but the police who are doing a clampdown on ‘vanpackers’.
In short, Byron has a lot going on. ‘It’s its own little bubble’, said a local, ‘It’s not really representative of the rest of Australia’. Some things are truly bizarre, other stuff more conventional. The beauty is that there is something for every taste. And more than enough energy kicking around to soothe any lost souls.
Residents may bemoan the changes and increasing commercialisation that has taken place in the past ten years, but Byron Bay does still hold considerable charm. It’s still a bit of a hippy town, even if Subway and Sportsgirl have made an appearance. It’s small enough to be cosy, but there’s enough going on to keep it vibrant. I’ll be back before too long.