It’s road-trip time! After months of working hard teaching in the big city it’s time to say a sad goodbye to Sydney and my students and venture up the east coast all the way to Cairns with Lisa. We’ve bought a knackered old Ford Falcon for $1400 from a scruffy French guy which comes with camping gear and a bed in the back which will come in handy if we ever get completely lost on the highway in the middle of the night. So it’s farewell to Zing backpackers and the cracked pavements and crackheads of the Cross (for now). First stop on our east coast itinerary: Byron Bay, 800 km from Sydney. Byron Bay is the kind of place where you arrive planning to spend a few days and suddenly a week has flown by and you could happily stay another. Or a few months. Or maybe just rob a bank and move here because leaving Byron seems unthinkable once you’ve been drawn into the laid back, no shoes, easy like Sunday morning vibe that effortlessly suffuses this cool little beach town.
And then, when you think Byron couldn’t get any cooler, you discover the Arts Factory. Tucked away out of the main centre this is hippyville at its finest. Fat Catters would feel right at home in this place. (Check out my New Zealand post on the Fat Cat Traveller’s community.)
Unlike at Fat Cat however, here the barefooted masses enjoy a few luxurious extras including, (deep breath), an onsite travel desk and café (that serves amazing toasted banana bread), a volleyball court, a deck with hammock chairs overlooking an algae-strewn yet peaceful lake (the deck serves as the stage for the weekly talent shows, hosted by the dubious Cockatoo Paul), a swimming pool, an enormous kitchen and balcony, a huge communal teepee you can opt to sleep in if you’re sick of bunk-beds (but still fancy sleeping inches away from snoring strangers), not to mention its own brewery.
Though the Lodge is only a 15 minute walk from the centre of Byron, this place has the feel of a subtropical wilderness. It’s quite easy to get disorientated, especially after dark when the various pathways and outdoor spaces are only scarcely lit. Down one of these pathways lies ‘the jungle’, a whole other world set apart from the main hostel area. The jungle is home to the camping community, otherwise known as the stoners or ‘the unclean.’ The one time we unwittingly ventured into the jungle we encountered a rave going on in the kitchen (lots of dreadlocks flying around, whipping people in the face) and a wooden hut adorned with hundreds of eccentric bits and bobs stuck to the walls and hanging from the rafters. The hut is filled with people smoking weed and being generally bearded and unsociable. We felt like we’d wandered into a bar on the dodgy side of town, though as Lisa put it, ‘If I felt like I fit in here I’d have to ask myself some serious questions about my life.’ So we stick to the other side of the Lodge, where my favourite spot is in one of the hammock chairs by the ‘lake’ watching the lizards scurry around.
In our 6 bed dorm is Gabriel from a place called Bright, near Melbourne (having an actual Aussie backpacker in our room is a novelty), Christina from Vancouver and 2 monosyllabic English girls who look about 17. With Gabriel we visit the impressive Minyon Falls and try to trek through the bush (in flipflops) to the (what turns out to be non-existant) Boomerang Falls and get attacked by mini leeches that are hiding amongst the dead leaves and tree bark covering the soggy forest floor. With Christina we walk up to the lighthouse and watch the surfers battle the waves as the sun sets, gradually turning the water a glassy pink. At the brewery one night we watch a guy called Ryan Whitewolf (possibly not his real name..) play some crazy shit on a guitar. I’ve never heard anything like it, check him out here:( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zwjx6j00CBk&list=PLp3dkVscUzHmc02V4mLc4YWQ8oqZSRLG&index=1 )
One morning, after making woven bracelets out of leaves with Cockatoo Paul and his grumpy pet cockatoo Mr Pickles (it was that or ‘make your own hula hoop) we decide to drive to the Tea Tree Lake at the Tyagarah Nature Reserve a few kilometres out of Byron.
The trees that surround the lake release the natural tea tree oil into the water turning it a reddish colour, like a medicinal bath. The water is meant to rejuvenate your mind, body and soul apparently, which sounded pretty good. What we weren’t aware of was that the lake is a popular bathing spot for old, gay men who don’t like wearing clothes. Any clothes. And they don’t only come here to swim naked…there is a sign at the top of the path leading through the bushes that reads ‘Sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated’, apparently this is a popular dogging spot. Lovely. However having come this far we decide to test the water. It’s slimy and full of weeds and I’m sure something nasty is going to grab me if I get in. As I hesitate on the edge of the bank a naked man with a long gray ponytail swims past with his equally naked girlfriend. ‘Coming in?’ he calls over.
‘Are there eels?’ I ask, examining the murky water.
I decide against going fully naked, but do slip off my bikini top and slither in to bob about for a few minutes before getting straight back out. I can’t say I feel rejuvenated, just a bit weird. Byron is a strange place.
Even stranger though, is the little town (or community would be a better word, as it’s tiny and everyone knows each-other) of Nimbin, about 40km from Byron. Nimbin has a curious reputation, as a one street wonder where drugs are freely available and accepted.
For most backpackers, Nimbin is a quick day trip on the hippy bus, where they stock up on tie-dyed t-shirts and space cakes from shady Rainbow Lane. The Western style store fronts in the single main street have been painted in bright colours but when we arrive the sky is grey and drizzly and the paint looks faded, the store fronts shabby and run down. There is a slightly sad atmosphere here, with the residents still recovering from the recent fire that completely destroyed the museum, one of the main tourist attractions. Despite the strange atmosphere, people are still friendly and chatty, fiercely proud of their counter cultural community and title of ‘drug capital of Australia’.
I decide to politely pass on the numerous offers to buy drugs and leave Nimbin empty handed. It’s time to leave Byron behind us and continue along the coast. But I’ll be leaving knowing that there is nowhere else on earth quite like this place. And if I ever decide to quit mainstream society I know I’ll be on the first bus back, flowers in my hair, bag of weed in my pocket, free as a bird.