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.

Sunset at Byron Bay

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.

Live and love life. Nimbus and Byron Bay

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.

Garrett KatoAs 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.”

Byron Bay, Australia

A few hours later my phone alarm was chirping at me like a baby bird begging its mother for food. Snooze… 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.

Tie-dye T shirts at Byron Bay

Black Butts live here

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.

Byron Bay

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.

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