Byron Bay

Living In The Byron Bubble

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It is possible to fall as passionately in love with a place as with a person.

Both types of love affairs follow the same psychological lines of unfoldment. You set eyes on the intended. Sparks fly. Before you can say "Jack (or Jill) Robinson" or "Belongil Beach", you're smitten by the love object, who appears, initially to fulfill all your wildest dreams.

You flirt, you put your toe, so to speak, in the water, you grow superficially acquainted; then, more often than not, you plunge rapidly into what our culture mistakenly identifies as intimacy. That is to say, you are in bed together - literally or metaphorically, or, if you're lucky, both. You don't want to be anywhere else. He/she/this place is your heartland. It all becomes very intense. It begins to feel like - let me surface for a deep breath here - This is It! You hang out together, superglued at the hip by the seductive power of pure potential. You make plans, you fantasise about how perfect the future is going to be. A classic case of pure projection, as the shrinks would say.

They also say that with person-to-person love affairs it takes about two months for the initial limerance, that delectable word and state, to wear off. With locations, special place with which you have fallen truly, madly, deeply in love, it can take years for the romance to wear thin, for the honeymoon to be over. And then it's time to make a decision. Do you want to bail out, seek a new love interest and start the courtship phase all over again - and that may well be an appropriate course of action - or do you want to recommit yourself to your loved one and move on to a deeper, restructured phase of relating?

For several months after I moved from Bondi Beach to Byron Bay, Australia's most easterly, surf's up ecotopia, I had to keep pinching myself to make sure this radical relocation was for real. In the lee of the Cape one diamond day, I sat down and wrote a long euphoric, gratitude list, the core components of which, on reviewing, still hold true:

  • Byron is a viridescent, sub-tropical jewel in the continent's bellybutton.
  • Byron is not just a ravishing physical environment, it is a state of mind. It occupies an affectionate place in the national psyche, in the Australian Dream, and rightly so, for it is a place which affords you the time and (microsocietal) permission to find out who you are, apart from what you do.
  • Byron is one of the last bastions of the invididual, or as one local wit once put it: "the truth is out there - and so are we."

Exquisite jewels, when held in a certain light, however, may exhibit the odd dark facet. What the visiting apostles of trendiness can't perceive when they rock in, in the four-wheel drives, with their rose-colored glasses, their fingers drumming impatient tattoos on café tables all over town ("the service is so slow," they gripe) is that living here is an outward-bound course for the spirit, a post-graduate degree in personal boundary setting. As they say in New Age-speak, whatever or whoever your issues, you'll get plenty of chances to confront them in a small place like this. Ain't no metropolitan anonymity 'round here, folks. Your "stuff," as they used to call it in 80s self-awareness seminars, will be in your face often - at the post office and the weekends markets, in the library and the yoga classes, on the beaches…

You can pick the new residents because they rave about how wonderful it is to walk down Jonson Street and say hello to so many people they know; because they're more interested in finding out how you make your money than who you sleep with and because they've just rented a post office box for two months and announced smugly: "Yeah, I'm a local."

The longer they live here, the more they are likely to develop a different worldview. For example, I have stumbled on a new definition of forgiveness. If you spot someone you know, but now wish you didn't, in the soap powder aisle at Woolworths, that inevitable epicentre of desirable and undesirable social collisions, and you feel the urgent need to turn your trolley around, slip on your dark glasses and zoom off in the opposite direction, you clearly haven't forgiven them. If there is a theme song for the Days of Our Byron Lives, two strong flipside contenders would have to be How Sweet It Is and Nowhere To Run (Nowhere to Hide).

Despite this goldfishbowl existence, for almost seven years I barely stepped foot outside the Shire. For certain goods and services unobtainable in the Bay, I would occasionally cruise over to Ballina or to Lismore, where the streets are filled with folk who look like extras from a Fellini film. Going to the Gold Coast gave me a headache, literally. On the intermittent occasions I went to Sydney, I got sick. As for Queensland, I'd done my time there while growing up and now only crossed the border into the Deep North to attend funerals.

My Sydney friends envied my idyllic incarceration, turning up once or twice a year for R & R from their life-leaching corporate schedules.

You can grow quite cocooned and self-satisfied living in the Byron Bubble. Which I discovered one year when I drove to Hervey Bay to join some friends on a week-long whale-watching expedition. Travelling up with a Byron acquaintance and her small son, we stopped for a tea break at a roadhouse outside Bundaberg. After the tea, we walked back to my old Corona, parked in the vast bitumed car park. As we drew alongside my car, we saw a big, bearded man who looked as if he customarily ate four cows for breakfast, standing with his hands on his substantial hips, inspecting the stickers on the rear window. One of these said: "The goddess is alive. Magic is afoot."

"Which wunna-yous'd be the goddess?" he challenged in a surly voice, a real ton-of-fun kind of guy. Before we had a chance to reply, he turned his back, folded his massive frame into his Queensland-registered, mud-spattered ute and roared off.

Aside from anything else, I've grown accustomed to and fond of the local semiotics. In Sydney, for example, the shops feature large signs warning in capital letters, that shoplifters will be prosecuted. In Byron, smaller signs in calligraphy chide the customers that "Stealing is Bad Karma." In Byron "Magic Happens" is the ubiquitous bumper sticker which signifies a belief in the benevolence of the local atmosphere. In Sydney, it's the name of a singles club for thirtysomethings.

The nature of personal reality shifts as constantly and subtly as the sands on Tallow Beach. Examining the shape of my current dunes of desire, I'm still glad I swapped a sizeable salary and the crowded isolation of Cement City, for a reordered set of life priorities, for soul-salving scenery and treasured friendships, for a strong sense of community, albeit one with a measure of small-mindedness.

According to one local real estate agent, writers are now featuring strongly among his property buyers. Byron has become what David Brooks calls a "latte town" and now I wonder if we're turning into an Antipodean version of L.A. as an industry town, but instead of every second waiter or taxi driver or tarot card reader being an aspiring actor, ours are writers. Well, there could be worse demographics, I reckon.

Cappuccinos, internet cafes, international change bureaus and writers notwithstanding, Byron is still a very small town.

Nevertheless, I've discovered it is possible to deepen in one's affections for the beloved - warts (Christmas tourist plagues, overdevelopment, galloping gossip) and all.

Life in Byron has given me the time, that luxury commodity which trades at a premium in the city, and the mindset to deconstruct and reinvent myself, to feather my own seaside nest. And it was only a few years ago, the seventh year of the proverbial itch, when I realised that, having made my own cosy green bed, I wasn't obliged to lie in it all the time.

I found myself ogling travel brochures and considering short-term contract jobs abroad. I found myself spending a few seasons on Sydney's northern beaches. One vitreous autumn afternoon, while walking on Palm Beach, I ran into a film producer I'd worked with during the 80s. This man, a veteran surfer, had lived at Cooper's Shoot in the 70s and he knew the Shire well.

After we exchanged pleasantries, he challenged me with: "I thought you went to live in Byron Bay?"

"I did," I replied, "but that was 1991 and I'm a big girl now. I'm allowed to come out sometimes and play in your back yard."

Moments later he told me about a recent trip he'd made to London. He spoke of how much he had enjoyed the change of scene, the experience of mixing with, as he called it, "a different strata of society."

"Exactly!" I concurred, hoping to reiterate my point about pluralism.

But his eyes grew glassy. My point had not punctuated his bubble of belief in Byron as the ultimate, one-way destination, as a kind of Hotel California of the Far North Coast - you know: you can check out, but you can never leave.

After the film producer and I said farewell, I walked north towards the Palm Beach lighthouse. Like Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings I found myself thinking warm-fuzzy, hobbit-like thought of home. As Frodo said before he set out on his 1000-page adventure: "There have been times when I thought the [Shire] inhabitants too stupid or dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them. But I don't feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable. I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again."

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