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.

Robin Wookee and his magical treehouse

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.

Hidden waterfall, Byron Bay hinterland

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.

Rainbow Temple, Rosebank, Near Byron Bay

Simon Jones

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.

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