Along with thousands of other residents and holiday makers, I went to the beach in Byron Bay on a heaven on a stick summer’s day in early January. As we’ve done for the past 8 years most summer Sundays, we take our daughters to ‘Nippers’, run by Byron Bay Surf Life Saving Club. For the uninitiated, it’s beach and water safety education for kids. It’s an inspired way to begin Sunday: wake up with a swim, watch your kids build confidence and have fun in the ocean. If you’re civic minded, you can help out with the sausage sizzle, in the canteen or sport an orange rashie on water safety duty. (This is my personal fave, as you can commandeer a rescue ski and watch proceedings from waterside with assumed authority).
I don’t like Byron Bay’s traffic though. The town has diabolic traffic issues. Byron Shire Council introduced paid parking in Byron Bay’s CBD streets in January 2015 It’s an expense that we’re grudgingly getting used to. Despite contributing through work, volunteerism and play to Byron Shire’s economy several days a week, as residents of a neighbouring council we don’t qualify for a resident’s parking permit. I understand the rationale for its introduction; The town is the epicentre of the region’s tourism economy, but has a small rate payer base (about 32,000across the entire shire) compared to about 1 million annual visitors. Council needs ways to raise revenue and discourage people from driving their cars to Byron Bay and hogging the free parking. No doubt it’s been a very effective and immediate way to raise revenue, but clearly its done nothing to curb traffic.
I don’t really mind the obligation to pay for parking. But if there’s a policy of replacing cars with alternative, accessibleand regular means to mobility like shuttles buses and bike hire, its not in evidence. The combined fear of copping a fine for overstaying, the black comedy of gridlock in a country town, and the palpable sense of self-interest among road-users jostling for a prime spot to park their car and maximise the beach time they’re entitled to by virtue of payment leaves a sour taste.
Byron Bay’s honeypot gets stickier and stickier each year. Blessed with stunning natural beauty (botanic, marine and human) and a gravitas that draws families, honeymooners, international travellers, surfers, artists, musicians, gurus and real estate agents in droves, its evergreen reputation seems to know no bounds.
Lonely Planet describes it as “one great barefooted, alternative-lifestyle mash-up.” Local radio station Bay FM’s announcers Boombastic breakfast presenters Larry and Max call it “the bubble.” Others simply call it ‘Byron’. Born and bred locals call it ‘the Bay.’ It’s somewhat unique, like several hundred other uniquely blessed and popular destinations in the world. The most easterly town in Australia, Byron Bay’s social, environmental and political pulse keeps it interesting, intriguing and relevant, for better or worse.
Take a walk through town and along the beach. You’ll see hipsters with magnificently groomed warrior beards and thousand yard stares, lobster-orange backpackers, golden brown buttocks barely in micro-bikinis, rivers of single origin coffee, double-overlock -stitched boardshorts, $16 burgers, $80 T-shirts, craft beer, custom surfboards, roadster bicycles, Boho sundresses, retro motorbikes and skateboards. These are the icons, our lucky charms, our cultural manifestations.
Everyone is secretly a bit envious of everyone else’s amazingness and prone to bouts of FOMO. A breed of business owners have emerged as an entrepreneurial service class who landscape, babysit, walk dogs, property manage, massage and groom the rich and famous who inhabit Byron’s most coveted real estate. There’s a party, wedding, rave, dinner party, dusk paddle out, jam session, spiritual awakening or tribal rite to go to each night of the week. Conversations congeal a little too quickly around property values, architectural landscaping and the hardships of hobby farming and putting up with kooks. Lots of people get their Ying too far up their own Yang. (happily there’s a therapist of your choice to help sort that out). Its like the Christmas feast; when we all go a little nuts consuming every beast that swims and lots that snort and gobble, washed down with booze, cranberries, pudding, booze and mince pies. Then feel a little over-indulged, sweaty and in need of a lie down.
I love the place. It has been good to me. I have made a comfortable living working within its orbit for the past eight years. Through work in travel and tourism I have travelled the world regularly for the past five years paid to tell travel distributors and media how wonderful Byron Bay and the North Coast is, and why they should get their clients to visit. I surf its waves, go to its festivals, and eat and drink in its eateries. I am probably part of the problem.
That afternoon we went to Watego’s Beach. Nestled in the lee of Cape Byron, mainland Australia’s most easterly point, it has a subjective claim on being the most beautiful place on earth. It feels like Hawaii without the skyscrapers. But with the same traffic problems. We could not find a park, so my wife dropped me off for a surf and went for a walk somewhere less hectic. The waves were great, the vision splendid, the weather idyllic. I felt wonderful. Until I got into the traffic again.
We ventured south to Ballina. Less than 30 kilometres, but a thousand organic kale leaf miles away from Byron Bay. Demographically older, poorer and more conservative, Ballina nonetheless has beautiful beaches, rivers and parklands. But the town centre was empty, so we went to the Shaws Bay Hotel, aka the Shawsy, and had a couple of non-craft beers in a river front beer garden listening to a hard rock covers band with families, pissed bogans and the odd intrepid backpacker. And it felt good. Nowhere near as cool for school as Byron Bay, it was a great way to spend a sunny summer Sunday.
Perhaps this is a gripe, a bit of an indulgent whinge, a bite. But its a love bite. It’s healthy to bitch and moan a bit about your loved ones. Who else can you bitch and moan about and then co-habit with again the next day? I love Byron Bay. Many people who live and work here would be several times more scathing about how much it has totally lost the plot. In some respects they might be right. But I wouldn’t go that far. Byron Bay is a dusky, enigmatic jewel that needs no polishing up to catch the light. It just needs a cold shower sometimes. Here comes the rain again.