Byron Bay is a far north-eastern NSW coastal town with a population at the last census of 5521 persons. It is a popular holiday destination.
Byron Bay is 21 kilometres down the road from my father’s hometown, Mullumbimby. As youths, he and his brothers would sometimes deign to surf at Tallow Beach near Byron Bay. But, as the Roman Catholic sons of a respectable plumber, they did not deign to associate with the young men of this whaling town, whom they considered rough and unskilled pagans.
My father still calls the place “The Bay” and emits it from his mouth like an insult. He refuses to call it “Byron” and winces when it is referred to as “indulgent resort location”, “high-end home of alternative therapies” or any travel program description he considers nonsense. In his view, it remains a place with a poorly soundproofed piggery that stinks of blood and whale fat. He believes that no volume of sandalwood scent or property loan can erase its past of poverty and violence.
Having heard this view for more than 40 years, I have lost all objectivity and consider Mullumbimby to be the superior town and one that realises the idyll so often falsely claimed for Byron Bay.
WHY IT MATTERS
Byron Bay is frequently referred to as “iconic”. This is true. The function of the township is largely as a representation, far less as a reality. The most easterly point on Australia’s mainland remains a dazzling natural beauty, but it is also dazzlingly misunderstood.
My father’s particular view of “The Bay” as a place deeply alienated from its purpose and its past is not specific to him and his time. Peoples of the Bundjalung Nation were slain and dispossessed of this fertile land and although Arakwal custodians fight to retain a presence in the region, the loss of life and country are frequently woven into a tourist-friendly spiritual backdrop.
The fact of Arakwal territory is forgotten, as is the labour of those who stewed humpback whales, and the hopes and work of those surfers and other noble freaks who sought throughout the 1960s and 1970s to prefigure a better future on this land. Byron Bay, whose chief sector is now hospitality, is renovated in the Australian imagination as often as its luxury apartments.
This town has become a site for Schoolies revellers, a meeting point for libidinous backpackers and a place for property investment and/or second homes for that type of Sydney one-percenter likely to use the term “wellness” in a conversation with an architect. The town never became a model for “alternative” living, unless we understand “alternative” to mean obscenely wealthy.
In order to make Byron Bay distinct from, say, Noosa, its Tarot Card, recycling and ley lines credentials are frequently overstated by those who have come to depend on a self-consciously discerning tourist dollar. We cannot blame local merchants and investors for upholding the delusion of “Byron” as a place of magical purity and/or green ambition, however — everyone has to make a buck.
For this, we can blame the rubbish of modern life in general.
- It is known as Cavanbah by its custodians and traditional owners
- The place has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, with roughly 25–30% of children under five years of age unvaccinated in 2016–17 (Excel file), a slight improvement from one-third in 2014. (Maybe. The more recent figures are an estimate based on figures from the 2481 postcode, which includes eight other towns.)
- The prawns are quite a bit cheaper in Ballina.
THE LAST WORD
Even to those with a father from Mullumbimby, an aversion to heady natural oils and/or a wish that all the non-vaccinating families be quarantined somewhere outside Lismore in an unplumbed yurt, Byron Bay may still be a pleasure. Take a trip to Scarrabelotti’s Lookout, inhale the view of Chincogan and Mount Warning from the hinterland and wonder why no one asked you to pay.
So long as you keep the recently tizzied-up Beaches Hotel out of your vision, even a walk on Main Beach can restore a sense of what was seized from the Bundjalung Nation: land that somehow manages to overpower you with its indecent beauty and make you feel quite welcome at once.
It just doesn’t make sense to enclose this glory as private property or to ossify it as a dream that never was. Byron Bay is our common property. Its big beaches, and its little sheltered beaches like Wategos, are better than the fiction written about them.
Turnbull, S (2017). Curious North Coast: How did Byron Bay Become so Popular? ABC, 21 September.
Duke, P (2015). Byron Bay: The History, Beauty and Spirit, 2nd Edition. PDF.
Hansen, J (2017). Infection Fears Grow in Byron Shire, the ‘Home of the Anti-Vaxxers’. The West Australian, 10 March.