General and Travel
Friday, August 26th, 2011, (6:58 pm)
I don’t know who it was, but someone told me that I would love Byron Bay because it was “full of hippies and tie-dye T-shirts.” I’m pretty sure that was a sideways jab at Byron Bay and myself, but it was enough to tweak my curiosity about the place. Not having done the slightest bit of research or even read even the merest of descriptions about the place, all I really knew about it was that it was a backpacker hot-spot with an alternative vibe, located in the far-northeastern corner of the state of New South Wales.
I saw two VW Kombi vans for sale as I rolled into town. Both were road weary battle beaten wrecks that had been decorated by their former owners, and both were typically over-priced. I slowed down to look at them then tapped the steering wheel of my old Toyota. “I only have eyes for you Vicky,” I said to van which the previous owners had named on account of the fact it’s registered in the State of Victoria. I laughed to myself. I’m talking to a van for heavens sake!
A cute girl in a small denim skirt walked along the street wearing a bikini top and a towel around her neck. She waved at me, or at least she appeared to. I waved back. She had probably mistaken me for someone else she knows who own a beat up old Toyota van. Though, I prefer to think this is just how Byron Bay welcomes it’s late winter visitors, with a wave from a pretty girl wearing bright smile and not a whole lot else.
As the low sun flickered through trees flashing across my dusty windscreen my stereo played ‘Let’s Get Together‘ by The Youngbloods. I smiled and shook my head at my iPods random selection of this track which I have no recollection of ever downloading.
Leaning forward across the wheel I looked up at the sky and the clouds. This was another one of those times that I call a ‘soundtrack moment,’ where the music playing seems to to fit the scene so well that you’re not so much living your life as you are watching it.
I found my way to the beach. But not the main beach where all the Wicked and Jucy camper vans were parked in front of skateboarders whooping at one anothers stunts and tumbles. That’s not really where I was in my head, I was looking for something a little more mellow, a bit more chilled out, something that would suit the pace of the slowly sinking sun as it made its way to the mountains across the bay.
I found Clarkes beach, just a couple of minutes away and closer to a rock perch called ‘The Pass’ that looks down upon the most popular surf break on the northeast coast.
Walking out onto the beach my feet sank into the sand as I strolled towards the low rocks around The Pass. They were too jagged to find a good place to sit, so I stood there looking out across the water at the surfers, and listening to the sound of the waves that mixed in the air with the strains of distant music and the muffled shrieks of children playing in shallow water not far away. “Nice to meet you Byron Bay,” I said out loud as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
There might have been things I should have seen at Byron Bay, some tourist essential that I missed. But as touristy as the place is, it doesn’t really feel that touristy. Or at least it didn’t then, at the end of winter, when the evenings were still chilly enough to require a coat or at least something more than just a tie-dye T-shirt.
I cruised around the small town, perusing the shops at speeds that would have frustrated a pensioner, and sampling the various cafe’s where strangers chatted with one another with the familiarity of old friends.
As my first full day there came to a close I had diner in a cafe listening to live music performed by Garrett Kato, a Canadian with a swirling husky voice. By day he’s a clerk in the store next door and by night he’s a singer songwriter in this town that feels like maybe everybody is a nighttime singer songwriter, if only in their heads.
While Garrett sang I struck up a conversation with some young people who were also visiting Byron Bay. One of them, Vanessa, was keen to do a dawn walk up the lighthouse in the morning. Her friends seemed less psyched about the plan, but they were going along with it. Being a fellow ‘couch surfer‘ and embracing the spirit of Byron Bay openness, Vanessa invited me along.
I don’t much like mornings, and the only time I ever see dawn is when the conclusion of the night before is running late. That or when I have a perilously early flight. But Vanessa’s youthful enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect of watching the sun climb over the horizon was enough to convince me to join them. “Great!” She said with a big smile “We’ll see you at the YMCA in the morning then.”
A few hours later my phone alarm was chirping at me like a baby bird begging its mother for food. Snooze‚Ä¶ My other alarm started to beep. I sat up in the back of my van, tweaked the curtain and cursed the darkness. Doing this was a good idea in the beer hours, but it was now hangover o’clock, maybe not for me, but you get the point.
It was early, in fact it was even too early for last nights drunks to be hiding their heads in an effort to evade the inevitable hangover that’s contracted by reality to make them pay for their excesses.
I rub my eyes and step out of the van, my bare feet dancing on the cold ground as I look for my shoes. I get myself a quick bowl of cereal and sit in the van boiling water for warmth and a cup of tea to give me the pick up thats essential for these still dark hours.
Everywhere is motionless, as if time itself is on pause. But the quiet is interrupted as my phone beeps again. A text message. I didn’t even need to look, I knew what it would say. Youthful enthusiasm is the better looking sibling of incorrigible unreliability.
“We’re still in bed,” Read the text message. “Of course you are,” I said to myself shaking my head. I’d gone to the effort of battling early morning gravity so I decided to go anyway, only I would drive. The walking part would be easier on four wheels I concluded.
After the sunrise Vanessa called me. She told me about how they had found another bar after meeting me. The others were still tired and maybe a little fragile, but she was keen to do the walk, so we walked along Wattage beach and the coastal path. We chatted as we strolled, stopping to take pictures and point out dolphins and whales to one another.
Eventually she left to meet up with her friends and go for a canoe tour or something. I went off in search of sushi and a good place to sit and drink something refreshing while I watched the world pass by.
Byron Bay is a friendly town, even by Australian standards it’s unusually friendly. I only spent the first night there sleeping in my van. The next evening, back at that cafe, a local shop keeper called Jason was chatting with me and the cafe owner as the staff began stacking the chairs and closing the place for the night.
“So where are you staying?” Jason asked me. I pointed at my van parked out front and explained that I would probably drive to Wattage beach and sleep there. “No dude, forget that. I’ve got a spare room at home and you’re welcome to crash that if you like.” And so I did. I mean why not? I’m a couch surfer, and I’ve come to learn that strangers are never as strange as you might think.
Another evening I met a woman called Zen. That wasn’t her actual name, it was her “Byron Bay name” she told me. “The young people like to call me Zen. Maybe because it’s short. We’ll have to give you a Byron Bay name darling.”
So I met ‘Zen,’ a lady unaware of how outlandish her behaviour was when she corralled the entire cafe to clap along to the live music as the cafe’s owner looked on with a nervous smile upon his face. “I love her. She spends loads of money,” he told me. “But you never know what she’s going to do next, you know. And not everyone is into that.”
We both looked over to her as she hugged a complete stranger she’d spent the last few minutes chatting to. “You’re divine,” she told them while clapping little opera claps. And it seemed to me that the stranger, her best friend at that moment, lapped it up. They even posed for her while she took a picture of them. “I’ll find you on facebook,” she said as they walked away.
Zen called everything and everyone “divine” and after chatting with me she told me I “had to” stay at her place that night. “Darling, you can couch surf with me,” she said after I had explained the concept of couch surfing to her. Again I accepted the kindness of a stranger.
“I should tell you, I’m not a vegan, but darling I don’t do dairy,” she said with a serious tone in her voice, as if that fact would somehow change my mind. I looked over the cafe owner who smiled and raised his eyebrows. “I can go dairy free for a night I’m sure,” I assured her, and that news was apparently worthy of more little opera claps.
The live music, the friendly locals and colourful characters made Byron Bay unforgettable. Its ‘cruisy’ laid back vibe born out of a hippie history gives this place a truly unique flavour. I’m told that in the summer it’s a far crazier place, and I suspect that I wouldn’t have been so taken if I had visited the place then. But for me Byron Bay was a true road trip landmark, and a landmark in time too.
My takeaway moment came one evening when I was sat at Clarkes beach again. As I watched surfers bobbing up and down in the water waiting for the perfect wave, the clouds above them began to change color as the sun made its way toward the someone else’s dawn. First pinks, then yellows, then fire oranges and reds. Pretty soon the entire sky was engulfed in a magnificent blanket of fire so awesome it seemed that, for a few moments at least, everyone just stood there silent and awestruck at this majestic and spectacular moment of wonder.
So I don’t know who it was that told me that I would love Byron Bay because it was “full of hippies and tie-dye T-shirts.” But whoever it was, they were at least right about one thing. I did indeed love Byron Bay.
Wednesday, August 10th, 2011, (3:29 pm)
BRITAIN. YOU’RE INVITED
It’s quite strange sitting here in Australia reading the BBC news website and seeing the disturbing images of riots that have swept across the UK, alongside an ad (yes ads appear on BBC outside the UK) encouraging me to visit the country. The ad reads ‘Britain. You’re invited.’ As my eyes look back at a picture of some looter walking out of an electrical store with his arms full, I think to myself, No you’re okay Britain, I think I’ll stay here.
This kind of violence could happen anywhere, of course. However, seeing video footage and images of masked ‘hoodies’ kicking in storefronts, setting vehicles and building ablaze, and looting shops, makes me wonder how such a situation has occurred.
Is Britain broken? I think in some respects it is. That was my opinion long before I got on a one-way flight to Australia. I had become increasingly alarmed by the nanny state, the breakdown of community, the widespread erosion of privacy rights, and the steadily growing reputation Britain seemed to earning across the world of being a nation of unruly drunks.
These riots will only add to that unpleasant and largely inaccurate generalisation, but do they tell a story beyond the headlines? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the UK, and if so can it be fixed?
On the BBC news website I listened to two girls talking about the riots, calling them fun. “It’s the government’s fault,” said one. “Yeah, conservatives, whatever, who it is, I don’t know,” agreed the other as she drank from a stolen bottle of wine at 9:30am.
On Australian TV news a reporter in the UK talked about how every shop in one shopping centre had been looted, apart from one, a bookshop.
Oddly enough, as I continued to look through the BBC news website, the Visit Britain ad dissapeared. Maybe it came to the end of its run, or perhaps someone in charge of the campaign realised that the timing was unfortunate, after all, it’s hard to sell the world on England’s green and pleasant land when its cities are on fire.
General and Travel
Sunday, August 7th, 2011, (3:14 pm)
DISCOVERING THE SECRET FOREST
I was a passenger in a stranger’s four-wheel drive making its way through a dense forest at night. Outside the headlights illuminated the rough and challenging road that climbed, dropped, and twisted before us. I was somewhere near Byron Bay in the far north east of New South Wales, but really I had no idea where I was with any degree of accuracy. In fact, right there in the darkness as I looked across at the stranger driving, it occurred to me that nobody else knew where I was either.
I’m a couch surfer, and as such I’m familiar with meeting strangers in far flung places, then staying in their homes as a guest for a night or two. To some the notion of sleeping under the same roof as someone you only just met online is nothing short of complete madness, similar perhaps to buying strange substances from sketchy characters in dark allyways.
In fact, there are those who might argue that if anything, the purchase of strange substances from sketchy people in dark allyways is safer than staying in the home of a complete stranger. However, those people wouldn’t be couch surfers; drug users maybe, but certainly not couch surfers.
The driver of the four-wheel drive I was in was Robin, an friendly Australian ‘chap’ with British roots and a decidedly English accent. He was my couchsurfing host and by no stretch of the imagination could he have been considered a sketchy character.
As he expertly navigated his way along the narrow and winding road in near total darkness, he pointed out trees briefly lit by the headlights, talked about deforestation, and pondered aboriginal history. “There is a shorter way,” He tells me. “I just thought you would appreciate the scenic route.”
One more sharp left hand corner and we were arrived at his house, the ‘treehouse’ as he called it. Nestled into the hillside, standing in the company of tall trees and palms, Robin’s hide-away forest home looked like something from a Tolkin novel as the lights from inside shone out into the night.
I gathered my things and some of the groceries he had bought, then followed him up a few stone steps. “Let’s get everything inside then we’ll start a fire,” he said as we walked through the door from the veranda into the main room of the house.
Built out of wood and adorned with artefacts that revealed something of who Robin was, the house had something of a magical, almost mystical feel to it. Maybe that was exaggerated under the cover of night and the seemingly difficult journey to get there, but still, the first impression left me in no doubt that this place was wonderfully unique.
A large open fire at one end of the main room was surrounded by musical instruments and and impressive sound system. A huge set of animal horns rested on the mantle above the fire next to a carved wooden tribal face and candles. Couches looked out onto the veranda, while at the other end of the room was a small wood stove, a dining room table and chairs, and the kitchen.
Robin gave me a tour, up stairs, through doorways, down stairs, and more doorways. As he pointed out various things telling me plans for the future or quick story of the past, I got a sense that this was a place in a permanent state of evolution, built as much out of love and devotion as it was wood and stone.
He then showed me another small ‘treehouse’ style cabin which would be mine for the duration of my stay. As we climbed the steep ladder into what would be my bedroom I couldn’t help but smile broadly to myself. I’ve couchsurfed in some amazing locations around the world, but this already topped that list.
Back at the main house, we lit a fire in the wood stove, then relaxed with warm drinks in our hands as we chatted. Just a few hours before we were strangers, but the evening’s banter brought familiarity and ease as our conversation weaved a path through the hours like the road to the house had weaved its way through the forest.
The next morning the light poured into my ‘treehouse’ room from daybreak. Through closed eyes I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face, stirring me from a good nights sleep. I sat up in bed, and for the first time saw the view across treetops out to the South Pacific ocean that set the horizon straight.
Walking out onto the small veranda I just stood there for a few moments feeling the cool morning breeze dance around me and listening to the call of birds that still sounded unfamiliar to me with their tropical song. I asked myself how I would describe this scene, indeed this whole feeling. “Amazing, amazing, amazing.” I said out loud. A poor description perhaps, but as I went back into the room to get my camera I knew this wasn’t a scene that would easily translate itself to the picture or the page.
I wandered up to the main house in search of coffee, toast, and the shower which Robin had pointed out to me the night before. It was an outside shower, stood on a slate floor and underneath the house amid the large wooden trunks that support the veranda above. In front of the sprawling vista and a small statue of Buddha I showered in rainwater collected in massive tanks then heated by gas from large bottles.
Robin’s house is essentially ‘off the grid’, with electricity supplied from a mass of batteries charged by a generator. Open air showering might feel odd anywhere else, but here in the forest it felt entirely normal, like this would be the only place you would put a shower in such a house.
The location, while not really that far from the small village of Billinudgel, felt more like it was days away from civilisation. Cocooned in the forest and hidden on the hillside, the ‘treehouse’ is gloriously removed from the everyday world and the things that busy our days. The abundance of seemingly never-ending lush green vegetation and sapphire blue skies made every breath feel calmer and more relaxed than the last. It’s fair to say that I didn’t so much relax as much as I simply dissolved into the surroundings, becoming wonderfully entangled by its mellow and laid back charm.
Later on, as we needed to venture out in search of firewood, Robin decided to combine the excursion with a tour of his land by four-wheel drive. Driving along tracks that it seemed only he could see, Robin ploughed through vegetation that was often times far taller than the little Suzuki we were bouncing around in.
Deep within what he called ‘the secret forest’, Robin showed me a further two cabins. Time and nature was getting the better of them, but with a little attention they could easily be home to someone, and Robin, as ever, had big plans for them.
As the tour continued we stopped at various points to clear the path, or take in a view. I photographed two rusting old vehicles that had been long since abandoned. They were slowly disintegrating into the forest, disappearing bit by bit, hour by hour, soon to be nothing more than part of the beautifully chaotic forest floor.
At one point went in search of a little hidden waterfall on the edge of a seemingly forgotten National Park. Long neglected by visitors and concealed among the trees and trailing vines, the waterfall was a place of pure tranquility. I picked up some large wooden seeds and put them in my pocket. Gifts from the forest, I told myself.
Byron Bay itself a travellers’ hot spot, but Robin was keen for me to experience the hinterland area which is often overlooked as the masses make a beeline for the beaches. Driving along small back roads that he said reminded him of rural Britain, Robin enthused about the landscape and the local culture.
Stopping at one of the many makeshift stalls outside a house, we took home grown mandarins, oranges, and bananas then left money in a little ‘honesty box.’ I suppose it was probably my romantic imagination, but those mandarins seemed juicier and more tasty than those I’ve had from supermarkets.
It must be great to be able to grow your own fruit, I thought to myself, allowing my thoughts to wander to a world where somewhere like this was my home, where I too might have a little table upon which I leave my fruit for passers-by to purchase.
Along the way we came to the Rainbow Temple, an impressive four storey hexagon-shaped pagoda that is a kind of off the beaten track hostel/retreat. With a large community kitchen, a vast open living/sleeping area, large stage, and lush gardens, the place had a real sense of calm and sanctuary about it. My inner hippie wanted to stay there, to meet and spend time with the people who find their way there. Perhaps in the future I’ll have the opportunity to do just that.
I had planned to spend just two or three nights at ‘the treehouse.’ But such was Robin’s hospitality, and the allure of his wonderful hillside haven, I ended up staying for a week. I found myself caught up in the wonder of it all, seduced by the forest and warmth of the fires we sat around at night.
It was hard to leave, but as I looked out across the treetops to the South Pacific Ocean for the final time, I felt the rest of the journey calling me.
Found on the web
Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011, (11:30 am)
There was a time, way back in the old days, when mobile phones were just phones that could sometimes make phone calls if you were standing in the right place at the right time and in the right position. These days though, the humble mobile phone is now the master of many things, as is proved by this amazing and quite beautiful short film that was shot entirely on a smartphone.
The film is called ‘Splitscreen : A love story.’ It was made by British director JW Griffiths and director of photography Christopher Moon, in response to a competition by Nokia to make a short film using their N8 smartphone.
The film tells the story of two people, one in New York, the other in Paris. It cleverly splits the screen to show similarities in their days then their journey to London where they meet. That’s an awful description of the film, but if you can spare just over two minutes to watch the film you’ll get the idea.
You can watch the making of Splitscreen on Vimeo where you can also see other entrants for the competition.