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Byron backroads

GUSTING, a strong southerly bends the trees on the edge of the property. It is cold up here.

The strap leaves of a crop of Russian garlic grow above the farmhouse on the hilltop high above the coast
The strap leaves of a crop of Russian garlic grow above the farmhouse on the hilltop high above the coast

The stiff, strap leaves of Russian garlic surround the visitors on the exposed slope. They stand, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched against the unexpected change of weather as the farmer explains how he grows and harvests the crop. He seems impervious to the cold wind. Occasionally, one or another of the visitors look out to the rolling countryside, a patchwork of bush and field that undulates towards a ridge to the west. They look up to the grey sky, probably wishing they could return to the shelter of the verandah. In fine weather it must be beautiful up here.

Russian garlic is a low-growing plant, grey-green in colour and in sufficient demand to make it worthwhile as a cash crop. Like the more familiar varieties of garlic, it is the underground part — the bulb or corm — that is eaten. Unlike the common garlic, Russian garlic has a much larger corm.

The plant covers the slope between the top of the knoll and the house and is one of a number of crops that Maria and Peter grow. In other seasons they plant chilli and stevia, an exceedingly sweet herb used as a sugar substitute.

“The market for Stevia is small but it is growing”, Peter tells his visitors. “It is being used in more and more products. We sell all we grow . The chilli goes to the herbal products market”.

It was not a comfortable environment to discuss the growing and marketing of herbal products, but perserverance prevails until a light rain starts to fall. The wind picks it up, slinging it against skin protected only by summer clothing. The group wastes no time in returning to the shelter of the verandah.

Like Maria and Peter’s speech, the compact, orange coloured house betrays a Germanic influence and seems to emerge from the red soil. Winter sunlight streams through second storey windows to warm the interior and, downstairs, the living area and kitchen take advantage of the northerly aspect for light and warmth. A wide, roofed patio provides shade and shelter from summer heat. The house is homely, comfortable, with a pleasant, lived-in ambience. The couple built it when they moved onto their land some years ago after deciding that the rolling country of the Byron Bay hinterland would be their home.

The small property straddles the top and sides of a hill that protrudes above the escarpment. This is open, exposed country in bad weather but in summer it can be just as hot and humid as anywhere on the North Coast.

“This is where we store and do initial processing on our crops”, Peter explains, ushering the group into a long, utilitarian building that occupies a cutting in the slope below the house and above the road.

“Some crops are processed elsewhere in the area before going to herbal processors for use in their products. There are other growers in the region but not too many producing stevia. It is a new product”.

Maria and Peter are a quiet couple who appear content with their life here on the hill in their little house, specialist herb farming business and with each other. Theirs is the simplicity of choice, not poverty.

Rural re-settlement brings changes

Bangalow, like other settlements in the area, was once a farming town. A waypoint between the landlocked city of Lismore and the delights of the Byron Bay coast, it is the sort of place where, in the 1960s, holidaying families might have stopped for a hamburger and then moved on. The main street of the town climbs a steep hill towards its Lismore extremity and is lined with old timber and brick buildings. Those holiday makers of the 1960s might have noticed that the buildings were in need of a coat of paint and a bit of repair.

Now, the buildings are renovated, the paint fresh. The town has become a destination in its own right, transformed by newcomers that have moved in over the past three decades. Today, those same buildings are craft shops, cafes and restaurants. The town has regular monthly craft and farmer’s markets, a sure sign of success in this region. Bangalow’s story is similar to other towns of that hilly, coastward salient east of Lismore.

The changes the newcomers brought should not be underestimated. In search of more relaxed ways of living free of the hyper lifestyles of the metropolitan cities, they infused moribund farming communities with new ideas, new attitudes, new lifestyles and, eventually, new businesses.

And still they come, though those arriving today are more likely to be middle-aged and in search of life change, or retired folk in search of somewhere friendly and warm to settle. Some, perhaps, lived here temporarily at the start of the rural re-settlement of the 1970s and are now returning permanently. Others are those who wished they had come but did not. Now they have, their presence adding to the change that has reshaped the region and pushed up the price of real estate.

At first, the simple lifestyle sought by the re-settlers was a simplicity forced by poverty, not choice, even though many came from middle class families in the cities. They eschewed the trappings of materialism… they were a restless cohort in search of something vague even to themselves. Many moved on, their restlessness unsatisfied, but others stayed.

Over that thirty years they grew a little older. Some found jobs, even those who were at first happy to live off unemployment benefits. They acquired partners and families and settled in the folds of this undulating landscape, buying the old farmhouses or moving into the towns.

From the Nimbin valley in the west to the tourist town of Byron Bay in the east and south to Alstoneville, thirty years of re-settlement have brought social and economic transformation.

Home in the hills – Peta’s garden

Peta and her husband moved from the city to the Bangalow area
Peta and her husband moved from the city to the Bangalow area

Two bright-coloured sea kayaks hang from the rafters below the renovated house, a weatherboard building sporting a fresh, rusty red paint job and typical of rural structures in the region. Timber stumps lift the building well clear of the earth to facilitate cooling and space for car parking and sitting out hot summer days.

This is the home of Peta and her husband, a couple who followed the path from city to country and found a new life in an old farmhouse in the hills not far from Bangalow.

Peta is a quietly spoken woman, in her early forties perhaps, short blonde hair, oval, wire rimmed glasses and a ready smile. A community-minded woman, she was once a volunteer with the Seed Savers Network down on the coast.

Unlike other new locals, Peta has not simply let the bush grow back on what was cleared land once used to graze beef or dairy cattle. She has transformed it to produce a variety of fruit trees and bush foods. On the eastern side of the house is a large vegetable garden that supplies the couple with much of their food. It is a geometric arrangement of raised garden beds made of concrete blocks.

Like Peter and Maria, Peta and husband have made a home for themselves amid the farms and forests of the hinterland.

Option no more?

Although the number of young people who want to live this way may have declined, the type of life pioneered by the re-settlers of the Byron hinterland in the 1970s continues to attract newcomers. This is in part due to the ‘downshifting’ identified by social researcher, Clive Hamilton, of the Australia Institute.

Downshifting is the practice of exchanging higher-paying and higher-status city jobs and lifestyles for a less-stressful existence in the country or on the coast. The trend was popularised by ABC television’s comedy-drama, Seachange, a series that may have accelerated the trend. As this is largely a phenomenon of the over-35 year age group, what of young people, those of the age group that pioneered the coastal lifestyle some 30 years ago?

Times are different. Young people today start their life with a substantial debt accrued in getting a university education. This might not stop them leaving the cities, but it may be a barrier. Then there are the social and economic pressures pushing them into a career. Earning power and status in the workforce are values that were far less prominent 30 years ago. Except for an all-too-brief year spent traveling after completing high school or university, the opportunity for living an open-ended life today, even for a short period, often fails to eventuate.

On the high ridges

Tania on her ridgetop property
Tania on her ridgetop property

The suggestion is straightforward: “Just step over it”. The hesitation comes when we see what we have been instructed to step over — a black snake so long it straddles the path. The black snake, familiar to Australians who venture into the bush, is a venomous species but it is not aggressive unless provoked. A shiny black animal, it can reach two metres in length.

“It’s a resident in the garden. I’ve got used to seeing it about”, Tania says, as if that would make it any easier for the hesitant visitors who are relieved to watch the serpent slither into the undergrowth.

Finding Tania’s place had been a bit of a challenge. Only very general directions had been provided, the following of which had led to the unintended discovery of some of the hinterland’s winding back roads.

Once found, the view from her property was extensive. Ridges cut across the landscape to the north, their sides a grey-green smudge of Eucalypt and rainforest… corrugated hill country formed by the forces of geology and time and nature’s persistence in covering everything with a layer of living vegetation. Their home, a large, renovated weatherboard farm house situated where the ridge spills to the valley below, occupies a superb position from where the land around lay revealed.

Tania and her partner have been here only a couple years. Her husband is fortunate enough to have the skills to work from home and her intention is to teach permaculture design courses here. Before they moved from the Gosford region an hour north of Sydney, Tania taught at their rural smallholding. That ended when their house burned down, an event that triggered their move.

In the steep ridge country between Byron and Lismore, two WWOOFERS learn abut organic growing by doing
In the steep ridge country between Byron and Lismore, two WWOOFERS learn about organic growing by doing

Tania’s is an extroverted personality with a light, easy-going character that overlays a quiet energy. Sharp and at the same time welcoming and down-to-earth, Tania’s lack of affectation is somehow reinforced by her stature and her long, straight, dark hair that falls loosely over her back and a slim, almost thin body gives the impression of robust, outdoor health. Tania is dark of complexion and moves easily through her garden as if she belongs on this remote hilltop, almost as if she was a manifestation of the landscape itself.

Having negotiated the black snake, we emergs into an extensive vegetable and herb garden, a free-form arrangement of curved edges and unusual shapes that extends along the ridge. Just below, the ridge topples into the steep, forested valley.

Two WOOFERS — the acronym stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms — an agency that places people on organic farms where they work in return for accommodation and food — are in the garden. The blonde-haired and bearded young man is in his mid-twenties and of English origin; his German co-worker, blue-eyed and blonde, hair twisted into a long tail, is around the same age. They are spending time on Tania’s property, they explain, and do not know where they will go for their next WOOFing assignment. They, at least, have found the means to an open-ended life.

Farmlet on the urban edge

It is a different world on the coastal strip. Gone are the ridges and narrow backroads of the hinterland and the encroaching forest, all replaced by the throb and pulse of Byron Bay, premier holiday city of the North Coast.

Yet even within the town there are pockets of quietness. One lies off Old Bangalow Road where it winds its way up the escarpment. Adjacent to the entrance the land rises steeply and has been planted to a variety of trees.

On the edge of Byron Bay, swales have been cut into a steep slope to infltrate water into the soil for the fruit trees growing along them
On the edge of Byron Bay, swales have been cut into a steep slope to infltrate water into the soil for the fruit trees growing along them

It is what has been done under the trees that is of interest. A close inspection reveals a slope cut across by long ditches. When it rains and runoff moves down the slope to be detained in these ditches from where it feeds the trees that have been planted along their edges. Upon realising that many are fruit trees, it becomes apparent that this is a cultivated system. Known as contour ditches because they have been excavated along the contour of the land so that water does not drain away, the owners of the property refer to them as swales.

In the swaled area the clay soil is moist and muddy and we watch our step, but not closely enough as someone takes a long, slow slide. Above the slope and past a row of banana trees is an enclosure holding a dozen or so chickens, mainly the large, black Australorp variety. Spices are grown in a terraced garden above.

“We grow chilli and other spices for restaurants in town”, explains the owner, a woman of middle age who moved from the city with her husband some years ago. “There are a variety of herbs and vegetables, and pawpaw trees and bananas for fruit.

A vegetable garden above the chook pen on the edge of Byron Bay
A vegetable garden above the chook pen on the edge of Byron Bay

“This is not the main vegetable garden”, she says, gesturing towards a large, two-level white house with a roof reminescent of a Chinese pagoda. “The main garden is over there, down by the trees at the bottom of the slope.”

As we stand at the terraced garden of spices, herbs and vegetables that they have built on the slope above the banana trees, I realise that these are people who have negotiated the compromise between farm and suburb to live a country life on the edge of town.

A future in change

The North Coast, the region between Nimbin in the west and Byron Bay in the east, has been changed by the influx of new people since the 1970s. That influx continues and, in the towns, it is bringing unanticipated challenges as the newcomers put more and more pressure on infrastructure.

Most of the urban development, with the exception of patches around Bangalow and Alstoneville, has been below the escarpment atop which Maria and Peter’s small house stands. It follows the coast, leaving the hinterland to farm and bushland. The steep ridges visible from Tania’s house remain free.

Comments (1)

  • admin
    August 27, 2009 at 3:47 am

    Lives change… and people move on.

    Not all that long after we visited Tania, she and her husband left their ridgetop home to move elsewhere in the region.

    The garden was abandoned to the black snake.

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