Byron. Dear old Byron. It has had as many changes of image as David Bowie, and even more waves than the great, late man’s back catalogue has songs. Before it was “discovered” by surfers and hippies, Byron Bay was dairy and beef country, dominated by farmers, horses and cattle.
Byron was also a major whaling town, and if you didn’t work for Norco, supreme overlords of milk, cream and butter, chances were you either worked at the abattoir or in the whaling industry.
The irony couldn’t be much greater: Byron went from carnivorous, whale slaughtering country hicks, to vegetarian, cetacean worshiping trippers in just a few short years.
Amongst the blow ins, the surfers found it first, the mid to late ‘60’s ushering in the realization that right here in NSW, there were world class point breaks, luxurious weather, and easy living. There was also readily available weed and seasonal magic mushrooms. This meant that when the Aquarius Festival rolled into Nimbin in 1973 – at that time, just another sleepy dairy town, and actually the place my mother grew up in – the hippies fell in love with the region as well, and stayed put. To this day, Mullumbimby, Nimbin, Main Arm and other areas west of the coast are still hippie strongholds.
The hinterland is spectacular, dominated by Mount Warning (Wollumbin), the first place in Australia to see the sunrise each morning, and as lush and inviting as anywhere your imagination could ever create. Tree ferns and waterfalls; rock pools and palms; rivers and jungles; volcanic mountains and misty ranges. The attraction for those first Australian sea changers was obvious, the region is the archetypal “from the mountains to the sea” paradise, and as word spread the exodus kicked in, and has never really stopped.
Surfing legends like Bob McTavish, Nat Young, George Greenough and many other early explorers couldn’t believe their luck. Here was cheap rent, empty point surf and hardly any people. They must have been pinching themselves, when they weren’t getting barrelled.
Mind you, it wasn’t all easy pickings. Australia was a pretty bogan and conservative place in those days, and many a long haired, undesirable surfer was frogmarched out of town by red neck coppers who turfed them out as if they were throwing a cockroach into the toilet.
“Get a haircut ya surfie bums!” was the default conversational exchange from cop to surfer, and the boys had to keep on their toes – or at least get haircuts. Of course, having the pick of uncrowded Pass or Broken Head, two of the best right hand points in the world, was worth the regular harassment. With crowds as full on as they are these days, I know I’d much prefer the odd roughing up by the Man than the intensity of a packed out 2017 Broken Head line up.
Other hazards were sharks, making a mockery of the supposed shark increases of recent years, which I think are a crock of rubbish. (There are many more surfers in Australia now than there used to be, yet attacks have only marginally increased. Proportionally, there are actually less attacks than in the days past.)
When the abattoir, as well as the whaling station, located near main beach, used to let out their slurry of blood and guts in the afternoons, the sharks would be waiting like well trained seals, and surfers stayed clear of town breaks at those times. Those institutions are long gone, replaced by eateries, cafes, boutiques, surf schools and tourists.
These days Byron is inundated with tourists of all kinds. People are drawn here like disciples to the lord. There is a certain attraction to Byron that goes beyond merely the beautiful countryside and the beaches, which while nice, are far from the most picturesque beaches on the east coast. There is something intangible about “The Shire”, as locals call Byron, a certain energy that still exerts it’s magic on people from all over.
While there are only around 10,000 residents, there are 2 million visitors per year, a huge burden on ratepayers who have to pick up the tab for maintaining roads and services for all of those people. There are also a large number of transient locals, who might stay for six months or a year, or live in campervans for a few months.
Byron also seems to be a magnet for the Bizarre and the Beautiful. This makes it second to none for people watching, and sitting in one of the numerous cafes is an entertainment in itself. You will either see freaks of nature or stunningly gorgeous creatures, but you will always see someone interesting at least, and usually someone unforgettable.
It is impossible to get laughed at in Byron. I reckon you could walk down the street nude, piggybacking a Martian hermaphrodite, and no one would bat an eyelid. There is an underlying feeling here that people just want to be happy, and are willing to live and let live to an extent I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. That feels like freedom to me.
Located just to the west of Wategos Beach, The Pass is the nucleus, the epicenter of the Byron surf scene. This right hand point can break for 400 metres when the sand is right. It is unique in being a wave that anybody can enjoy. I can’t think of another wave that can satisfy a world class pro surfer, right down to a rank beginner, on the same day. The beauty of this is that a good surfer and his girlfriend can both be stoked with surfing the same spot, which is close to heaven for surfing couples or those dreaded modern gangs, the surf families.
The downside to this of course is that lots of people want to surf here, and they do. On a good day there can be hundreds in the water and slalom skills are required to negotiate the throngs when you do nab a good wave. Still, somehow the vibe in the water stays mellow, an amazing achievement when compared to most other crowded breaks the world over.
It is mostly infected with long boards, but fish and fun boards also work well on the long walls. When you surf here, keep smiling and keep your froth in check. “Go with the flow” is the best frame of mind to be in at The Pass, if you value your sanity.
Winds: South east
Swell: East-South East
Level: Beginner to expert
Situated right under the western flank of Cape Byron, Australia’s most easterly point, this place is probably the best learner’s wave in Australia, and breaks like an Aussie version of Canoes at Waikiki, Hawaii. Offering both rights and lefts, it just sort of crumbles over and rolls, never breaking hard, and can meander down into the beautiful bay for a couple of hundred, cruisey meters.
There is a very easy vibe here, and drop ins are usually tolerated, especially on small days. They hardly even matter, since even when you’re going right, you’re probably turning back into the wave to try and find a bit more power. Wategos is all about cruisers, long boards, old guys and girls, and bikini clad hotties who are more concerned with how good they look, as how well they surf.
Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Crowd: Moderate and friendly
Located right in the heart of town, The Wreck is a very popular wave, although it is not often very good. Based around the boiler and other debris from the wreck of the huge steamer, Wollongbar in 1921, sandbars form on either side of the wreck but often closeout.
I personally think it can be a bit over rated, although there are a regular crew who love it . While it’s good at times, epic days are frustratingly infrequent. I guess it’s a cyclical thing, like with so many other spots, and right now it is in a quieter cycle. When it is good, however, spitting tubes and insane left and right wedges are the order of the day, and local rippers appear out of the woodwork to take over from the everyday close out lovers.
Winds: South west
Swell: East-North east
Level: Good to expert
Tucked into the southern corner of Cape Byron, which is the northern end of Tallow Beach, “Cosy Corner” as it’s known to locals, provides the town’s only summer north east wind protection. North easters are the curse of this area, and since there is only one option in those conditions, this spot can get pretty busy. It can get very good, perfect in fact, with left and right banks when the sand is right.
On crowded days you find yourself heading farther south down the beach, but as the crowd thins, the wind protection decreases, so the trick is to try and split the difference and cop a decrease in quality but at least get compensated by less people. Nevertheless there are still windows of opportunity, and when the wind is from the north west there are good conditions for kilometres down the beach, with a few people spread right out. In any case, “the early bird catches the worm” is the adage to go by when the wind blows from the north.
Winds: North east to north west
Swell: North east to south
Level: Intermediate to expert
The long stretch of beach between Tallow and Broken Head offers some of the best chances for uncrowded surf in the Byron Shire. Here there are many trails along the several kilometers of beach, and taking random chances along these during light westerly winds and small to medium swells of any direction can, and often does, yield empty waves. In fact, during overcast conditions, you may even wish there were more people around, as there can be a slightly sharky vibe along here.
Swell: Northeast to south
Level: Intermediate to expert
Ah, here’s a bit of a heart breaker. A lot of the time, Broken Head’s banks will be off. When they are good though, it is one of the world’s best right hand sand points. The kicker? You guessed it: it is packed, and many of the surfers out will be very good and very hungry. You can, however, still get it uncrowded, but you have to stay on it, monitor it all day when conditions are good and watch for your window. When it comes, you better get on it quickly, because it won’t last. After all, it is 2017, there are millions of surfers around now, and who doesn’t want a piece of those exquisite point breaks?
I find the best times to surf Broken are when conditions are marginal; not quite the best bank; not quite the best wind; not quite the ideal swell direction. At those times you can end up getting the odd screamer with few people out.
Wind: South west
Tide: All, depending on banks.
Level: Good to expert
Now I’ve obviously painted a fairly crowded surf picture of Byron, but that’s the reality for the best breaks. They are world class waves that have been surfed for fifty years, and 2 million people visit Byron each year! How wouldn’t they be crowded?
That said, I have had many memorable sessions at all of these waves, even recently. You just have to put yourself in the right place at the right time and throw your hat into the ring. And besides, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to find other less crowded, great waves here as well. You just have to work for them. They won’t be named, because that would just spoil the fun for those who surf them now and also for you in the future. But if you use a bit of initiative, and just go searching during appropriate conditions for the corresponding geography of a location, you can find good waves to yourself.
At the end of the day, Byron is a total experience, more than a hardcore surf trip, and perhaps it’s best to go in with an open mind. It’s about the place, the people, the hinterland, the warm water; if you can get some good sessions in as well, that’s the icing on the cake.
There are numerous options for places to stay in Byron. Motels and bed and breakfasts abound, but for surfers the caravan parks are the best option. Conveniently located near the best waves or town hot-spots, they’re the cheapest way to hang out in Byron.
Probably my pick would be Clarke’s Beach Caravan Park, situated right in front of the end section of The Pass. You can fall out of bed, stagger down to the lookout deck, and plan the day’s attack.
Hostels and Backpackers are also too numerous to mention, and are a big favorite of the younger crew. Air B&B have had an impact as well, but local opposition may change this situation in the future. There are also very high end places such as Rae’s or Victoria’s at Wategos, so if you’re loaded you’ll not want for service.
Where do I start? There are so many places to eat at in Byron it would be pointless to name them all, unless you feel like reading a telephone book full. The competition is hot, which means the diner wins every time; anywhere sub standard just doesn’t last.
As with accommodation, there are also many levels from budget to high end. The cheaper eats can be some of the best in my opinion, with places like Chihuahua’s, a little hole in the wall in the Feros Arcade right in town, offering superb Mexican street food for just a few bucks. Or the Yellow Flower vegetarian in Suffolk park, which offers lunch deals and cheap Tuesday dinner nights.
There are a million middle price range places, and nearly all of them offer great food. At the higher end, Harvest Café at Newrybar or the Fig Tree at Ewingsdale provide fine dining at the expected hefty prices.
Coffee in Byron, as you’d expect, is off the Richter. Hole in the wall places like Sparrow or The Barefoot Barista are at the top of their games, and café’s are a dime a dozen, with some of the best coffee at the Roadhouse, Bayleaf, Corner Café, 100 Mile Table and Combi.
THINGS TO DO
When there’s no surf, Byron comes into its own. There is live music every night of the week, and many of the days too. Brunswick Hotel, Billinudgel Pub, The Beach Hotel, The Northern, The Rails and dozens of other venues offer great bands nightly. Even the street buskers will blow your mind, many of them professional musos just having fun or trying out new material.
There are regular markets and farmers markets, art galleries and exhibitions galore, and unique experiences such as the Crystal Castle, home of some of the most incredible geodolites and other mineral wonders, as well as the most serene and expansive gardens studded with huge buddhas and bodhisattva statues, as well as incredible hinterland views.
If you’re reasonably fit, try climbing Wollumbin early to catch the sunrise and be the first person in Australia to see it. You’ll have to get up early and start the climb around 3 am, but the view from the summit over the hinterland and coast as the sun rises is unforgettable.
Cape Byron, Australia’s most easterly point, is worth a visit, also boasting a formidable lighthouse and views down to Broken Head, over the Bay and out to the majestic Wollumbin. For whale watching, it doesn’t get much better.
A sunset beach walk at Belongil is an unforgettable experience, dominated by the towering peak of Wollumbin to the north west as it changes from blue to purple to orange and back again while the light show flares all around it. Finish it off with a beer in front of The Wreck, while tricky freaks play the bongos and other friendly maniacs dance and sway and generally rejoice in the good vibes and good times.
Byron Bay is a place of unforgettable beauty and unforgettable times. And, if the gods are smiling on you, pumping waves.