Her thunderous engine chugged into the little coastal town of Byron Bay, our next stop along the golden coastline. The storm that had almost sunk Sydney had followed us north like a shadow we couldn’t lift, a gloom we couldn’t light. We peered out expectantly through the rain-washed windows as though a bit of wishful thinking might will the rain away or coax out the Aussie rays. We gawped at the people outside, fresh off the beach, holding their surfboards high like makeshift umbrellas as they ran clumsily through the town in flip-flops. In any other car, we would have spared some sympathy, yet we were not much better off inside. The perpetual lashing of rain had transfigured Jenny into what looked more like a sinking ship than a Land Rover, as rainwater gushed from every corner, crack and crevice. We shivered like damp dogs through the main high street of Byron Bay unsure of whether the curious looks from passersby were due to Jenny’s overpowering size and stature, the roar of her earth-shuddering engine or some likely fault in the car we hadn’t yet noticed. This became a common source of entertainment for us on subsequent journeys… It would usually begin with me highlighting how “those people back there were staring at the car. Do you think our whole roof box has fallen off and we didn’t notice?’ And Matt’s usual reply would be “no they’re staring because Jenny is just too damn sexy and likes everyone to know she’s there.” This was later the decided reason for the head turns and finger points as we blasted our way through the water-logged high street.
Byron Bay is a surfer’s paradise. Anyone who visits can tell you it’s an overcommericalised tourist hub that lures in surfers from every wave in the world. The town is synonymous with beach-parties and water sports. It’s a wonder the Aussies haven’t trained wild kangaroos to surf the waters or employed ripped lifeguards in speedos to sell ice-cold buckets of Fosters at every corner of the town (this by the way is a complete fallacy and Aussies rarely drink the stuff). The high street is a constant stream of surfing stores, gleaming with waxy surfboards and other water sport merchandise to entice both the experienced and novice surfer. It flourishes as a tourist destination and endeavours to fit the stereotypical Australian image. Matty and I were compelled to do a double-take after we laid eyes upon a vending machine selling flip-flops, or ‘thongs’ as they are called here. Gone are the days when you enter money in a machine for food; Australia has made shoe-shopping that even more convenient. At least now when you catch someone wearing the same pair of shoes as you, it can be followed by a simple exchange of knowing nods as if to say ‘vending machine? Vending machine.’ The authenticity and novelty of it all is simply to quench the thirst of a tourist’s Nikon and entice a whole string of Instagram followers; it is like bait for travellers, reeling them in from every corner.
The town is also a thriving hippie haven, attracting tree-huggers, peace-makers and ’alternative’ types from all over the world. The streets practically float with hippie ‘herbal’ merchandise, glow with psychedelic peace-promoting tie-die, and ring with the sound of beaded dreamcatchers and acoustic guitars. Hippies and day-trippers tend to visit the nearby regional town of Nimbin which is notorious for it’s tolerant attitude to soft-drug use. It attracts much attention with backpackers and older hippies who relish the liberality of Nimbin’s lifestyle or wish to relive memories of the 60’s and 70’s. Matty and I didn’t venture as far as Nimbin, because well…we are good kids.
Hotel Jennifer had accommodated us well during the last couple of weeks but my endurance for showering at campsites was wearing thin; admittedly, not all campground facilities are totally hideous, but many we used could chill me to the core merely thinking about them. The time had come for us to check out of Jenny and check into a hostel like true travellers. We booked a shared room at Backpackers Inn, and lugged our lives from the mattress of the car to the floor of a six-bunk bedroom. The hostel charged an average of $30 per person for the night; most campgrounds along the East Coast average about $30 for the car including however many people. All my concerns with money and spending however dissolved the moment I stepped into the comfort of a soothing (and scolding) hot shower; I agreed it was worth every dollar.
Later that evening, after Matty and I had spruced up and smelled less like something blown out of Jenny’s exhaust pipe, we ambled to the outdoor area to meet other travellers staying at the Inn. The picnic tables were crammed with young backpackers of all nationalities and the whole veranda was abuzz with heavily-accented chatter. As a nerdy language enthusiast, it was extraordinary and inspiring to watch English used as the dominant language. It was spoken with such effortless clarity and proficiency, it almost shames me that so many native English speakers have become so complacent with language. Yes, Australia is an English-speaking country so this would be expected, but it doesn’t stop many English speakers travelling to non-native speaking countries and offering little contribution other than a poor imitation of Google translate.
The evening passed in a haze of beer-pong rounds and far too much goon. Now, some readers will have lifted a curious brow at the mention of goon, pondering its name, perhaps assuming it’s an elegant beverage for the more sophisticated folk. The readers who are familiar with goon will be now chortling at the ignorant, perhaps even envying their ignorance as they themselves try to suppress memories of a hideous, goon-fuelled hangover or recall memories of a night that became a blur. Goon, in more or less words, is a cheap sack of wine. I use the term ‘wine’ loosely as this is a questionable label to give to a drink so vile. It is served in what looks like a bag of tin foil, and offers a screw top nozzle for easy goon-guzzling. It is without a doubt the world’s worst wine, probably mulled in the vineyard of hell. Drunk in excess induces a crippling hangover that renders you immobile and practically bedridden for a good week. So naturally we were all drinking it, because we are backpackers and we are poor.
The hostel organised a night at the local club called Cheeky Monkeys. We were all herded into the back of a large taxi and driven to a beach-style club that looked a bit like the inside of a Hollister store. The drinks were cheap(ish), the music was blaring and before too long, Matty and I were on the forefront of a stage busting outrageous dance moves in the limelight. For those of you heading to Byron Bay, grab yourself a wristband from your hostel and stumble over to Cheeky Monkeys with other backpackers. It will guarantee you some memories… and a killer hangover. Little tip: nothing soothes the aftermath of a good night than the ocean spray of Byron Bay… or an unplanned hike in gale force winds to see the Byron Bay lighthouse. Cape Byron Light is worth a visit, but for God sake, don’t attempt the walk in the midst of a storm like we did; I’m surprised we weren’t carried over the railings and plunged headfirst into the sea with the whales. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful iconic landmark that promises extraordinary views over Byron Bay and the charming possibility of spotting a whale migration if you travel between June and November. It further marks the easternmost point of the country, as proudly demonstrated by Matty and I in the picture above (we were more chuffed with having made it to the lighthouse at all in that tempestuous wind!)
Our time in Byron had reached an end. We were now longing to leave the hustle and bustle of a commercialised tourist town and absorb more of Australia’s natural beauty. With a wild wanderlust flaming in our eyes, we set our sat-nav to Minyon Falls, a 100m plunge waterfall in the heart of Nightcap National Park.