We had hitch hiked from the Gold Coast and jumped into the first car that pulled over. It was a black tinted van of a make we had never heard of, and in the drivers seat sat a middle aged bloke with a sizeable beer gut and reflective sunglasses. Upon opening the sliding door of the van, bags of clothes and rubbish tumbled out in a small avalanche, empty coke bottles with cigarette butts and sloppy cokey-ash juice bounced onto the bitumen. This ride was everything we’d promised ourselves to wave on and we only had two big NO’s; we’d sworn strictly no suspect looking vans and no seedy looking, middle aged men.
As we cruised into town with our surprisingly kind and lovely car host, I was immediately enamoured with the cucumber green land rolling away from the roadside, vast, dark and beneath fat rain clouds, it was lush and yielding. I am easily seduced by the tropics and tropicana, the fertile greenness of everything and Hawaiian dancing dolls on dashboards. Both, in equal parts, excite me. So I stood no chance with Byron’s sub-tropical natural jewels.
The previously seedy looking man now seemed like more of a paternal guide as he simultaneously applauded and admonished us for hitchhiking, and made us hold our breath when we went through tunnels. As the clouds began to grow plumper and darker “Dan” assured us that despite the threat of drenching rain, the temperature in Byron would always be comfortable, and that if we so desired we could dance in the rain and not run the risk of getting shivery.
Moments later, the van pulled in the eclectic car park of the Arts Factory Hostel, and a silk dye plume of fuchsia hued excitement bloomed in my chest. This place was going to be SICKK. And I was going to have a RAD TIME.
The hostel, upon our first, rose tinted inspection was quite enchanting. There were trees and a big lake and a trundly board walk that led to the tree canopied camping ground. There were water dragons and bush turkeys strutting about in that reptilian, head jabby kind of way. There were spoonbills clapping about in the water. There were barefoot Europeans strumming guitars, every which way you happened to glance. It was like a heavenly commune, of shirtless hippies, all bumbling along to a shrilly sung rendition of Bobby D’s House of the Rising Sun. It was beautiful, and after we’d set up our quick pitch tent, we both gleamed with self important happiness. It all seemed too good to be true.
And in a typically, un-thrilling, real life kind of way, it partially was….
Everything that had appeared to be quaint and endearingly bucolic was in actual fact old, run down and/or incredibly annoying. This included the water dragons and bush turkeys who’s main game was to infiltrate your cool demeanour and make you squeal like a child when they lurched themselves into your personal space without warning. With a similar lack of regard for their fellow happy-campers, most of the residents of the camping ground were long stayers, and thus felt a certain sense of jingoistic ownership over the whole, heaving, mosquito ridden estate. This ownership most commonly manifested itself in disdainful glares, mass acid drops resulting in horrifically executed Bob (Marley and Dylan) jam sessions and a shameless harem pant swagger.
So, Rach and I sobered up to our digs pretty quick, and realised we were out of our depth with all these hippies lying around the place. We made a pact that our sandy, wet tent was just for rolling into after our long drunken nights out and that we would avoid eye contact with the intimidating hippies, who were remarkably cliquey for a group of people who are internationally recognised as harmonious/peace loving/collaborative/ welcoming.
Subsequently, as the unknowing preppy-hipsters that we are, we naively assumed that the only night life in Byron was on the main drag, where establishments such as Cheeky Monkeys and CocoMangas reign supreme. So with our high-waisted shorts on and up and our clogs buckled snuggly we wandered into town, in search of some Byronian good times.
Although these afore mentioned places were pretty fun and we got remarkably drunk and my co traveller even kissed a Spaniard on the dance floor, we soon discovered that at a certain hour, these establishments attracted some pretty horrid characters, namely: sexually frustrated drunk people. So most of what was experienced after 12am was lightly veiled sexual abuse coupled with a few counts of indecent exposure.
After a few nights of being shamelessly groped, dancing on tables at eye to crotch level with plentiful douche bags (at Cheeky Monkeys that’s the only way they do it, and yeah we ate off those tables), being called “sluts” on numerous occasions and witnessing generally disheartening behaviour we became disillusioned with Byron. We were confused. This place was supposed to be a glittering jewel in Australia’s crown, it was supposed to be gorgeous and relaxing and peaceful. What we were experiencing was more like Frankston on mushrooms.
Despite our confusion at Byron’s superiorly disappointing night life, the lazy Byron days made more sense to us. We spent every day by the beach or pool, reading magazines and chatting to locals. The locals we encountered were friendly and eccentric, with one particularly weathered man offering us free surfboards and rather whimsical advice on the nature of humanity and tropical rains, respectively. It was during the day that we saw the rainbow colours and the marijuana addiction manifest itself in the way that we had expected, the relaxedness of the locals and the slow pace of Byron culture, reminded us that we just weren’t in Kansas anymore. Throughout our short week there, we savvied up to the un-couth nature of the main strip and after rescuing a Norwegian girl at whom I constantly screamed “YAI KANNICKY VASHDURDU” (it’s all I know in norske) and consistently encountering bad characters, we retreated to the relative safety of our hostel. Although we risked death by hippie impetuousness.
Slowly, slowly we started opening up a little and letting Byron permeate our brains and tongues, and we began talking to our newly acquired (non scathing hippie) tent city neighbours and saying ‘eh’ at the end of every sentence. Finally we made friends and in the humidity of the night, we could have been anywhere. We no longer needed to subject ourselves to the sleaze of the streets and it became apparent to us that sitting around a table, being bitten by mozzies and talking to really interesting people is far better than dancing to Skrillex on a table.
So, when the time came to leave Byron we understood it for what it was. A complex and slowly changing little place, where there will soon be no room for a ‘Happy Herbs’ shop. A place that is sadly becoming extinct and which has a few layers of newness and oldness to it that make it confusing, and at times uncomfortable. A place where old hippies reside next to preppy, white kaftan clad sydney siders. A place where riding a bike without a helmet is normal despite it’s badass illegality.
It’s a beautiful, funny, strange little town and I am ever so glad I went there and had one of the oddest holidays of my life.