Parties and poetry readings, music jams and rock-pool swims, nights of wine and laughter and hazy sun-filled days – such is the life of many young, curious Australians found in the back of campervans strumming acoustic guitars and drinking beers at the foreshore of Byron beaches. The Byron Bay region is by its nature a young person’s domain – it’s all about self-discovery and looking good while you’re at it, declaring your philosophical leanings through your chosen mask: the forest nymph, the feral, the shaman, the unadorned vegan. We all ended up here at some time or another.
This time I drove my mother’s four-wheel drive down the fabled road to Byron with my children getting antsy in the back, my husband quietly weary of my loaded relationship with the place and my mother in the passenger seat, patiently aware of how much this meant to me. From our base at Mum’s house on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Byron was an easy one-hour drive. The June sun was shining, the temperature a gorgeous 23°C – cold to my mother but perfect to us, and still warmer than the ‘summer’ we had left.
This was always going to be a different Byron to the one I knew and loved, with Sunday sessions at the Railway Bar ending up in the back of some car on the way to a party in the hills. But that’s not a bad thing –– being a parent can be wonderful in exactly the things that it limits you from doing.
We had booked the kids into a circus skills class with Circus Arts, but though I knew seven-year-old Phoebe would love it, I wasn’t as confident that four-year old River (not very good with scooters or bikes, and sometimes anxious) would be up for it. However, as soon as the engaging instructor started the warm-up games and childen's yoga, I was thrilled to see River attentively following along, and Phoebe doing mini-jumps of joy between poses. We grown-ups sat in the café area and had a good coffee (well, it’s impossible to get a bad one in Australia), watching delightedly as the children leapt onto trampolines, walked a low tightrope, dangled from trapezes and made graceful forms on hung silk. River was a natural! Without hesitation he flung himself from the trapeze, his ribs showing in his skinny little torso as only his tiny feet held on to the bar. Phoebe was so happy I thought we’d lost her to the circus forever, and she begged to stay all day.
There was the option of a flying-trapeze class afterwards, but the beach was beckoning and we still had to find the house we were renting for the weekend, the enticingly named Barefoot at Broken Head a 15-minute drive from the Byron beaches, up a steep incline where the view below shows the famous eastern lighthouse and the azure sea beneath the greenest pastures and then on through the dark damp foliage of the sub-tropical hinterland through winding roads arched by trees and then to Possum Creek.
The house sits atop 12 acres of towering gums, with resident koalas, and cows down by the creek. We opened out the sliding doors that make up the whole back of the house and let nature in. There was a Balinese-style pagoda for enjoying the amazing view of the valley and the distant hills. Soon (after a written invitation found inside) the children were donning wellies and loading up buckets with oranges and lemons from heaving citrus trees. Mum wanted nothing more than to sit outside and read her book to the sound of bird-calls.
We spent two blissful days at Barefoot, waking to mist rising off the valley and the sound of kookaburras’ laughter, swimming (in winter!) at the beautiful Wategos Beach in Byron, and exploring the Sunday market at Bangalow – a mini festival in its own right, with South American music and fairies giving tarot readings, a dreadlocked grandfather engraving rastafarian imagery into coins, an American Indian shoe-maker selling bee-pollen on the side, and juice bars and chai tents and alpaca hats and candle-making for kids, and fun rides and organic avocados and kimonos, all under an amazing cloudless turquoise sky in the warmth of a mid-20°s sun. It was the northern New South Wales I remembered and I was so glad that despite the crazy property prices and trendy bars and lifestyle shops, this spirit of Byron Shire was still going strong.
Relaxed and transformed, we left Barefoot and stopped at Brunswick Heads before heading back up the coast to Mum’s. The mellow cousin to Byron, about 10 minutes north along the coast, Brunswick Heads has the aspirational interior shop and designer café thing but also old-school milk bars, op-shops, family caravan parks and a great local pub. It immediately felt like home to my husband, who bought a second-hand boogie board and declared he wished we could spend a week there. I hunted down my old friend Offer’s Israeli café, Yami’s – bigger and smarter than 10 years before but still offering spectacular mezze. Then we crossed the old timber bridge that links the Brunswick River (where kids were kayaking and fishing) to the surf beach and spent three hours messing about with the boogie board, having the time of our lives.
Living in Byron as an idealistic hippy in my 20s, when the region held a mythical lure as a place to experience spiritual change, I wanted to live surrounded by beauty, to dance barefoot under full moons, to find a clan of people to call community and to float around seeing what would happen next, knowing something great was about to occur. But I found out that I wasn’t quite the hippy I imagined; cynical and questioning about many New Age affectations, I left after about a year and returned to the city I had scorned on escape.
As a fully fledged adult, I discovered that the lure of the Byron Shire still holds me in its thrall. But now I dance beneath her mythical moon with my husband and children and mother in tow, knowing that her oceans can still cleanse my soul and her people are still fabulous fanatics who care deeply about preserving her spirit.
Read more about family holidays in New South Wales.