When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused. – Rainer Maria Rilke
For me the most challenging places to write about are usually those that are particularly special to me. I fear I will not do them justice. It’s time I stopped procrastinating though and shared my album of Cape Byron in New South Wales, 165 km south of Brisbane. Some of my childhood was lived in small coastal towns and I spent many hours of precious solitude and freedom on their shores. I visited Byron Bay for the first time in October, 2013 and it brought back a flood of wonderful memories for me. I could have lingered all day at the lighthouse, taking in the intense blue panoramas. If it is possible to fall in love with a place, I did that day.
I recently returned during tourist season. While the busy streets were a complete contrast to my first visit, the lighthouse views were no less dazzling and my original impressions of Cape Byron and Byron Bay – or Walgun and Cavanbah as the traditional Arukwal owners call them – have not been tarnished.
The Arakwal people of the Bundjalung nation are the traditional custodians of the Byron Bay area. They lived there for thousands of years before European settlers arrived and survive today despite having faced many challenges. They have an informative website for those interested in their culture and wanting a greater understanding of the early history of the region. Sadly, many important sites of the Arakwal people, such as burial grounds, were destroyed by European activities.
Byron Bay may be a popular tourist and backpacking destination now but its European history includes a flourishing dairy and meatworks industry, sand mining and whaling. Cape Byron was named by Captain Cook in May, 1770 after Lord Admiral Byron and is actually the most easterly point of Australia
The Cape Byron Walking Track is a 3.7 km loop and involves steps and a steep gradient. Two hours is the suggested walking time and the paths take you through stands of rainforest and along cliff edges giving ocean vistas of the Byron Bay region. It’s a popular exercise route for locals who look disgustingly fit as they run up the steep inclines, bronzed and lean and some of them rather ancient! Mind you, I saw one athletic woman “lose her breakfast” at the top which did nothing to encourage me to follow her fitness regime. People seemed friendly going down but no-one seemed particularly communicative on the steep ascent!
You can begin the walk at various points along the loop. I started at the lighthouse so I’d be able to enjoy the best part first before being soaked in perspiration and on the verge of collapsing. Others may prefer starting at the bottom and having the lighthouse as their reward. There is no point in me describing the scenes from the lookout when pictures are far superior to any waffle that comes out of my head.
On the path further down I happened upon a furry friend, which I think is a swamp wallaby. They vary in colour so it is difficult to tell sometimes and I am definitely not an expert. A man with a foot-long telescopic lens was camped in the best spot trying to encourage the creature to turn around. He looked at me grumpily so I kept my distance. All he could see was the animal’s rather hefty, furry rump. He tried to induce it to look up at him with “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo” noises from the old Australian television series. I must admit that I was once a fan of this show. What kid wouldn’t be when Skippy did all sorts of amazing things such as in this clip! Kangaroos and wallabies do not actually make Skippy mouth clicking sounds though.
Eventually, the photographer walked off in disgust without his desired shot. I walked over, coughed, and was rewarded by the wallaby turning around to face me. Thankfully, there are some benefits to having a lingering chest cold! Macropods sometimes use coughing type sounds to communicate.
The native shrubs and a few flowering vines along the path kept the raucous figbirds active. Perhaps when I eventually take the plunge and buy the new camera I’ve been dreaming of I may have some decent shots of birds to share with you instead of blurry ones. It may well be just my lack of skill though and the new purchase won’t make an ounce of difference.
I appreciate the many moods of the ocean, whether angry and wild or calm and glassy. I find the vastness of it quite comforting and liberating. Rather than making me feel small and inconsequential, it just makes me feel more alive.
I imagine that being lost at sea during a ferocious storm would be an entirely different experience though. The long journeys of some of my ancestors from Europe would likely have been something to endure, especially for my heavily pregnant German great-grandmother who gave birth shortly after arrival in Australia in 1910.
I know that some of you do not like the habit of padlocks being left on fences in tourist places but this lone example caught my eye. Obviously some planning went into this engraved one. Aaron and Jess, I hope you will be very happy!
During the off season the township of Byron Bay has a very slow, relaxed atmosphere. It does have a reputation for alternative lifestyles but the “hippy” culture is not as apparent as in Nimbin, further inland. What I enjoyed on my first visit was the open-minded attitude of the locals. No-one stared at what I was wearing or doing, but people were very friendly when you spoke to them.
I was very impressed by how many people rode bicycles and it seemed like the main areas of town were pedestrian friendly.
I have food intolerances but it was easy for me to purchase appropriate and delicious meals. The cafes seem to cater for people with different needs unlike many places in Brisbane city which just have a token few items on the menu that are usually overpriced or where the staff look blankly at you when you say you have coeliac disease and need gluten-free food.
On my second visit during summer, the town had a totally different vibe and the roads were extremely busy. I do hope Byron Bay can retain its relaxed atmosphere despite the activities of developers.
If you do happen to visit Byron Bay perhaps you may like to avoid the Space Age toilet or “rest room” on the beach-front designed to discourage unsavoury activities, be more hygienic and reduce water usage (or so I assume). Apologies to those for whom this is an unpleasant topic but in case you need to use the amenities, you may want to be prepared for the conditions.
The building looks like a row of clinical steel elevator rooms with thick metal sliding doors. They reminded me of some sort of decontamination chamber. When I arrived, a lady emerged with a strange expression on her face – she looked a little dazed and raised her eyebrows at me. I was soon to find out why.
I entered and pressed the button which “sealed” me in with a rather ominous whooshing and clunking sound. An automated voice informed me that in ten minutes the door would automatically open. Now this might be okay for short trips and for those who have healthy bowels, do not have a baby, or who haven’t eaten an authentic Thai curry the night before, but some people need more time. Being told the door will automatically open is guaranteed to induce performance anxiety.
Just as you recover from the automated warning and begin to relax, it informs you, “The sensors do not detect movement. Please move around if this unit is still occupied.” This means interrupting proceedings in order to wave frantically. This command happens not once but several times.
In the meantime, you look around and see no toilet tissue roll. Where is it? With relief you finally discover a tiny button that you need to press. Two or three sheets slowly emerge at a drunken snail’s pace. Will the doors slide open before you finish? Thankfully, I was not embarrassed but I still had to navigate the “fine trickle” wash water and “one droplet” liquid soap dispensing machines before escaping. Give me the old fashioned long drop pit toilets in Queensland National Parks any day rather than this modern monster.
After this incident I needed to escape the tourist crowds and so I headed back north again with the intention of exploring the small township of Pottsville. Since I have the world’s cheapest GPS and no internal sense of direction, I missed Pottsville beaches completely and accidentally ended up at the seaside hamlet of Hastings Point, referred to as “The Jewel of the Tweed.”
And what a welcome surprise it was! Here were the pandanus trees, rock pools, shells and sand dune plants of my youth! It was also deserted so I spent a magical hour on my own before heading home again. Hastings Point Marine Science Reserve has quite a population of sea birds. Unfortunately I am terrible at identifying them. I think there are some crested terns, common terns, an oyster catcher and silver gulls in these pictures.
I noticed this crazy population of ants’ nests which I hope are not an invasive exotic species. Fire ants are a problem in parts of Brisbane and strong efforts are being made to contain the spread. I didn’t want to disturb the nests too much but glimpsed a couple of copper-coloured ants about 5-8mm long. I am in the process of informing people of their presence just in case.
The dunes were covered in erosion-preventing flowering vegetation.
My walk turned a little poignant as I came across memorials of those drowned at sea.
Hastings Point seems like a quiet alternative to Byron Bay during tourist season so I am thankful that my lack of directional sense took me there. I’m hoping to head back again one day to explore the rock pools at low tide as apparently they are home to a wide variety of marine creatures.
While I do love Cape Byron, I will try to avoid holiday season in the future. Byron features many popular festivals during the year, including the Byron Bay International Film festival, the Byron Spirit Festival, BluesFest, Splendour in the Grass (Australia’s biggest winter music festival) and the Byron Bay Authors’ Festival, so check out this calendar of events first before you plan a trip. Perhaps you may not fall in love with Cape Byron as I did, however I doubt you will leave without feeling at least a little of its magic.
I could never stay long enough on the shore; the tang of the untainted, fresh, and free sea air was like a cool, quieting thought. – Helen Keller