BUT JUST DON’T TRY TO DRIVE THROUGH TOWN IN A HURRY REPORTS JOHN McNAMEE
The late winter sun was peeping around the spectacular white tower of the Cape Byron Lighthouse, famously, the most easterly point along the Australian coastline.
The early board riders were already starting to paddle out to catch the long break sweeping around the rocks into the Pass, at the end of Clarkes Beach.
In the misty, spray-strewn atmosphere, they looked wraithlike in their long black wetsuits. Just beyond them, a pod of silvery dolphins jack-knifed through the rising northerly swell adding to the ethereal aura.
A line of ski paddlers emerged from the local surf club laughing and chatting and began snaking their way across the sand before heading out to sea on their daily ritual towards an outlying island.
I was towelling down after an invigorating pre-dawn dip in the surf of Main Beach, savouring the bracing chill of the emerging daylight.
“You are a beautiful man, yes, a beautiful man, you are a god sir, yes you are,” came a deep voice from along the nearby pathway.
I spun around to see this apparition suddenly standing there in front of me, arms outstretched as if expecting me to fall into his leathery embrace.
With his long straggly beard, matted grey plaited hair hanging to his shoulders, frayed scarlet uniform jacket with tarnished brass equalettes, he looked like a cross between the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Sergeant Pepper.
“You are a beautiful man sir,” he cried again and I laughed and muttered something like: “Well, thanks mate, I do try to keep in shape the best I can, but really, beautiful?? No, no thanks all the same.”
He moved on, still waving his arms, his long dangling earrings and tawdry gilt bracelets catching the early sunlight.
As I continued drying off, smiling to myself at this weird encounter, I heard his voice again as he approached a middle-aged couple out walking their dog.: “You Sir are a beautiful man, and you madam, are a beautiful woman. That Sir is a beautiful dog, yes, you are all beautiful.”
Only in Byron I thought, could this sort of thing happen.
The fabled north coast resort, with its string of luxury beachfront resorts and multi-storey mansions, might have long ago shaken off its hippie image, but mercifully, vestiges of the fifties and sixties Ban the Bomb, Make Love Not War, pot-smoking and Kombi van cultures still remain.
It had been about 20 years since we last stayed at Byron and I seem to remember having a few beers with some mates in the front bar of the Railway Hotel with Strop and Hoges ensconced down the other end of the bar crowded with workers in dirty dark blue singlets.
Most of the coastal fringe houses were pretty basic beach shacks nestling among the tea-trees and bullrush-covered sand dunes.
The longboard culture had already taken off back then and every morning at Wattego’s beach streams of lean-looking dudes, standing almost erect on their nine and ten foot malibus, rode the majestic long breaks across the reef into the beach.
They’re still doing it these days. The last time I surfed a long, even break like Wattego’s was at Currumbin Alley on the Gold Coast where you pick up the slowly-evolving barrel just off the Point and ride it right into the shallow estuary.
Wattego’s though, has a mystique all of its own. Now it’s all built up with luxury homes, but boasting free barbecues, parking and toilets (not alot’s free around Byron these days) and a terrific family atmosphere suitable for surfers of all levels.
Judging by the smooth-looking blokes getting out of the expensive 4WDs in the nearby carparks, there’s plenty of self-made millionaires living the good life.
The rest of Byron still retains this same post-hippie mystique, and some of the shops along the main streets look to be still straight out of the backpack era but catering for the modern, cashed up tourists.
The main town centre is dotted with roundabouts and the traffic, even during the weekdays, can be horrendous.
It took me more than 15 minutes to get from my main street holiday apartment block to the esplanade road along Main Beach as every roundabout was choked in every direction by streams of cars, not wanting to give way.
Parking anywhere near the beaches can be a nightmare as well and most close-by areas are all metered spaces.
I also gave up waiting for a coffee at the once-isolated little kiosk at Clarke’s Beach, now swamped by tourist coaches and backpackers queuing up for snacks and drinks.
Years ago you could drive right up to the lighthouse and walk around the dramatically imposing structure and quaint colonial keeper’s cottage.
Now you have to leave your vehicle in a special parking area below the lighthouse where they charge $7 an hour for cars and $3 for motorbikes.
You can walk up the steeply winding roadway to the Cape of course and look out over the awesome stretches of Tallow Beach and across to the Arakwal National Park.
If you don’t want to take your car and face the parking fees, you can try the walking track from Lawson St in the town centre into Lighthouse Road. It’s quite a trek but there’s spectacular lookouts along the way and winding bush tracks full of scuttling wildlife and shrieking lorikeets.
During May to July, Cape Byron is a wonderful vantage point for whale-watching as the humpbacks head north to have their calves in the warm, tropical waters of the Coral Sea.
Apart from the coastal delights, Byron has many other attractions.. its cedar timber heritage dating from the late 19th century is still evident in such colourful place names as Possum Shoot, Coopers Shoot and Skinners Shoot, deriving their names from when the timer-cutters would “shoot” the logs down the hills to be dragged to waiting ships.
Perhaps Byron’s most colourful attractions, apart from its antiquated beatnik communes, are the community markets held in the Butler St Reserve on the first Sunday of the month.
Stalls full of hand-crafted items from bags to blankets cram the area alongside the fresh produce, home-made jewellery, pottery and second hand clothes tents.
Returning after so many years while we attended the Writers’ Festival there during last winter, it was interesting to note that Byron still retains its unique atmosphere…you tend to walk around with a smile on your face, everything’s so laidback (except the bloody traffic!)
There’s heaps of accommodation options from the top end luxury resorts among the sand dunes, to quite comfortable self-contained unit blocks within a few minutes walk from the beach for around $200 a night.
Cheaper camping areas abound all around that north coast area and are reasonably priced from the old Kombi van power-pole hook-up to the upmarket Winnebago setups and bunk filled cabins.
As I wandered around town, plenty of restaurants from Italian to Thai were popular as was the famous old Great Northern Hotel which was jumping.
But I went on a sentimental journey looking for the Railway Hotel and Strop and Hoges, and maybe if I was real lucky, the delectable Delvene Delaney, Strop’s devoted long-time wife.
But history had passed me by…the Railway is now an upmarket tavern bar/nightclub…it didn’t look like my scene at all.
Picture Byron Bay street scene featuring shops, cafes.