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Life at Serendipity

Life at Serendipity

It’s a morning ritual. Pick up the surfboard not long after sunrise has paled the eastern sky and descend through the rainforest to the small beach below. It’s a good day if the Pacific’s swells are pumping and it’s a good day when the swell is only small. For many who live in this fortunate part of the country, every day is a good day, or should be.

The way south from Byron Bay passes through the spreading southern suburbs of the holiday town and enters the adjoining dormitory settlement of Suffolk Park where the road to Bangalow takes off. Don’t stop in Suffolk unless your brain requires caffeinating to start the day—you can get a reasonable cup at the
cafe in town or, at other times of the day, a cold beer at the pub—for we are southward bound… not far southward, it turns out.

Ascend the gentle uphill that takes you out of Suffolk, pass Bateson’s quarry that has so troubled local greens at times and do as the sign suggests—turn off the Byron-Ballina road and head down to Broken Head.

If you follow the narrow asphalt it’s full length, all of a few kilometers, you stop where the road stops—at the car park behind the beach. Look behind and you see the green grass of the caravan park, largely bereft of happy campers a good part of the year but packed full come the holidays. This and similar places hidden along the east coast are the surviving remnants of Australia’s traditional family holiday, end points of so many long road trips over the generations that are etched into the memory of today’s adults.

The caravan park occupies the lower slope of the headland and, standing there, you see the yellow sand of a long, long beach backed by low, coastal scrubland that stretches all the way to Cozy Corner at the foot of Cape Byron. Somewhere along there, hidden by the spray from the sea, is the beachfront of Suffolk Park. In the opposite direction a walking track takes you along the rugged, rocky coast of the Broken Head Reserve, a rough remnant of coastal-rainforest-clad slope falling steeply from ridge to sea to culminate in cliffs, rocky headlands and small, sandy beaches. The only noise here is the surge of the surf punctuated now and then by the raucous call of some large bird.

It’s that ridge above the coast that we are bound for today.

Finding Serendipity

Those who know where they are going leave the asphalt that connects the Byron-Ballina road to the beach and take an inconspicuous turnoff. This soon becomes a gravel road barely wide enough for small cars to pass. It’s is a low-gear drive that winds and twists its rocky way upwards through the coastal rainforest, a green wall of tall trees, dark understorey and dangling vine from which the occasional scrub turkey dashes suicidally to cross the road.

A few kilometers go by… then the road crests at the ranger station and house. Go further and you begin the descent to Seven Mile Beach, one of the area’s lesser-frequented coastal locales, and you pass the pyramidal form of the house built decades ago by surfing movie producer, George Greenough.

Today, though, we leave the road opposite the rangers station where a small sign carries the name ‘Serendipity’.

That proposal crashed, as did the Brigade, on the hard rocks of corruption…

Told by the man who bought the property and the hand built house that sits on the crest of the ridge, it was acquired so that he and his fellow shareholders and residents could protect the rainforest reserve from developers.

Protection of this sort has a fine history here on NSW’s far north coast. Every few years, it seems, locals have a new development proposal to stop. Back in the 1980s it was the White Shoe Brigade form Jo Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. That proposal crashed, as did the Brigade, on the hard rocks of corruption.

In the 90s Club Med became one of the casualties, the proposal stillborn well before the first hole could be dug. The latest points of conflict have been the tourism development of department story millionaire, Harvey Norman, and the redevelopment of an existing holiday park on the north side of town. Both of those went ahead, but not without scrutiny by local environmental interests. The incident led to Harvey offering verbal criticism of locals, which, like an incident around the same time with television fishing series host, Rex Hunt, did not go down well with locals.

Serendipity dates from the 1970s when Ian Cohen, who founded the establishment, came to town. Ian, long the popular, sometimes vociferous Greens MP for the region, retired from parliament with the state election of 2011. That transition from local environmental campaigner (that included several unsuccessful runs in local government elections) to politician brought a personality change in Ian, something of a mellowing. It’s unlikely that this can be put down simply to growing into middle age, rather it’s an example of how environments shape and change people. Gone is the loud, confrontational  campaigner, now given way to the quieter but no less determined, and far more politically savvy, politician.

To see Serendipity as merely another manifestation of the intentional community movement of the 70s is to misunderstand the place, it’s origin and it’s history.

When Ian and his shareholders acquired what would become the de-facto intentional community of Serendipity, they found themselves the owners of a large wooden house surrounded by a broad verandah supported by thick treelike posts, and a large forested expanse of land that falls from the ridge crest inland and downslope towards the Byron-Ballina road. Here they set up home, conveniently close to the track that leads downhill to the surfing beach.
To see Serendipity as merely another manifestation of the intentional community movement of the 70s is to misunderstand the place, it’s origin and it’s history.

Ian is a tall, strongly built, suntanned man whose spiritual interests have more to do with Buddhism than his family’s Judaism. Veteran of numerous environmental campaigns stemming right back to those against sand mining, Ian rose to prominence through his dedication to making the natural environment one that would be worthwhile passing on to future generations. He also had a reputation as a fiery character, his loud voice somehow amplified by his tall stature. Eventually, his environmental campaigning would lead from the close dampness of the rainforest around Serendipity to the quiet corridors of state parliament.

An unusual sort of domesticity

A succession of visitors made their way to Serendipity. The place had a reputation as something of a refuge, a shelter you could go to chill out after some particularly gruelling environmental campaign. Perhaps more than any other intentional community, and largely thanks to Ian’s presence, Serendipity was closely connected to the campaigns of the natural environment that so strongly marked the latter decades of the Twentieth Century. By the 1990s, however, residents were attempting to steer Serendipity away from this role. Yes, Serendipity had been a community settlement but it was always something more than this.

At Serendipity, Ian occupied one of the outbuildings adjacent to the house. They were single room dwellings somehow appropriate to the materially simple life enjoyed by the residents. Others lived in similar structures and at one time there was someone living in a dilapidated van tucked below the rainforest trees, their power supply consisting of a vary long extension cable strung from house to tree to van.

Inside, the house consisted of a spacious living/dining area, a large bathroom, a bedroom and a set of stairs that took you to an upstairs room housing a large Buddha statue and used for yoga and meditation. During the 1990s, a couple with a small child bought a share in Serendipity and moved into the bedroom.

On clear days you could stand on the verandah and looking north and you might just be able to discern the peak of Mt Warning

The bathroom at Serendipity came with a conventional flush toilet but this was seldom used. A more rustic and, according to Ian, environmentally sound double pit toilet was built on a ledge flattened into the slope between house and road. Concealed by the bush, it was not visible from the road or from the house above, but passing vehicles could be momentarily glimpsed through the vegetation as they passed.

Like so many rural homes, Serendipity harvested the rain that fell on it’s roof and stored it in a large, galvanized iron tank on the eastern side of the house. The place would today be described as a ‘sustainable house’, however it was no different in this respect to it’s contemporaries on intentional communities and to rural dwellings where self-provisioning in water, energy and food was merely business as usual.

On clear days you could stand on the verandah and looking north and you might just be able to discern the peak of Mt Warning on the horizon. Look closer, where the land forms the top of a gentle slope and you would see a vegetable garden that descended to the scrub below as low terraces. This was the province of the more enthusiastic residents but it was not an intensively managed garden and could have been far more productive that it was. This reflected the reality that most of the residents worked and had only limited time to devote to the garden. Most of the food that people ate at Serendipity came from organic retailers in Byron. In this sense the place did not live up to the stereotype of the ‘self-sufficient’ community, but it never set out to do so and, anyway, that had more to do with myth than reality. In this way it might not have been all that different to other intentional communities.

Food was a communal affair at least once a week. On Friday evenings residents would make the effort to be home to share an evening meal. Salad, as always, played a big part in the Serendipity diet and meat never made an appearance —Serendipity was a vegetarian household. It was also an alcohol-free household, those feeling the need for a cold beer on hot summer evenings being forced down the road to Byron’s bars.

Ambience subdued and quiet

Life at Serendipity changed over the years, as you would expect. Generally, during my association with the place, the shared meals were convivial but the day to day ambiance of the place was subdued and quiet. This was all to the good in as much as the place served as a refuge from the chaos of life beyond. Sometimes there would be a flurry of activity as when banners needed painting for some campaign or other, but these times were the exception.

For Peter, starting the day by driving his Kombi into Byron was his Monday to Friday reality…he worked in the childcare centre in town. For Fiona, the day started in her Yellow Mitsubishi van but at the Byron-Ballina road intersection she turned in the opposite direction to David, southwards for the run into Lennox Head where she worked at the local town planners studio. She would joke that she would leave work to come home to people painting banners to campaign against the projects her employer was engaged in the planning of.

Some days there was a complication when one of the local pythons would be found twined around the meusli container

So it was that some who lived at Serendipity had day jobs and would disappear in the morning to drive the winding gravel road to the hardtop. Like so many intentional communities, Serendipity residents were car dependent, public transport being non-existent beyond the bus service plying the Byron-Ballina road. Sometimes, the hardier would ride a bicycle to town. Like surfboards, there were several community bicycles. In an age when people await the arrival of peak oil and rising fuel prices, the isolation so sought out in the hills by some of those early communards is turning into a liability as distance equals increasing costs. Serendipity is better placed in this regard, being isolated from Byron but not beyond a bicycle commute.

If people were around in the evening other than the Friday shared meal, they would share in preparing food that would be eaten together from the low table, the eaters seated on cushions. Breakfasts were more or less personal affairs unless others were eating at the same time, and meusli from the communal muesli container was a standard for those start-of-day meals. Some days there was a complication when one of the local pythons would be found twined around the meusli container.

Living in a rainforest, wildlife becomes a daily presence. One or two green tree frogs would populate the kitchen sink. Pythons were a presence around the house and residents in the outbuildings would at night hear a slithering sound coming from the space between roof and ceiling. Another reptilian presence was the long, slim brown tree snake. Unlike the python, these were venomous though reputedly not aggressive. People were more cautious around them and the family in the bedroom inside the house were a little concerned to discover the creatures in the wall cavity. Once, a child staying at Serendipity, a Tasmanian named Ailsa, came inside to report a snake in the ferns by the front door.

There was a more persistent form of wildlife than slithering, legless reptiles, however. These were flying insects— mosquitoes—and their presence required sleeping under a mosquito net. No one should have been surprised at their presence in the rainforest, though, as it is their habitat.

People – variety, temperaments and quite a mix

During my association with Serendipity there were two shareholding residents living there—Ian and Penny—before the family moved in.

Penny was an ex of Ian’s, a slim, olive skinned young woman with dark curly hair that fell to shoulder length, and large brown eyes. Of lithe build, Penny could be described as of Mediterranean appearance and, in fact, was of Greek heritage. Her manner was calm but you could see an alert sharpness behind those sparkling eyes and a potential to be critical were that ever required.

Like Ian, Penny had a history of involvement in environmental campaigning and with the help of Gummy, a quietly spoken but practical man living at Tuntable Falls community in the hills behind Nimbin—an hour and a half drive into the hinterland west of Broken Head—she built a small, two level cottage on the south-facing slope just below the parking area at Serendipity. Needless to say, neither of them saw any value in consulting the council’s building inspector about the construction. Eventually, she fell in with Gummy and moved to Tuntable.

All of those I met at Serendipity could be described as calm personalities though Ian, and I suspect Penny, could be fiery when riled. I saw this once when I told Ian that, in his absence, someone he knew had pitched a tipi in a clearing further into the property. Ian’s reaction immediately made it clear that he was not happy with this or with the person and I believe he soon asked him to move on. Clearly, there was some history there. Better not to ask, I figured.

Peter was not given to emotional surges. He rented at Serendipity and, as already revealed, worked at a child care centre in Byron, his calm personality no doubt an asset in the job. Somewhere in his early thirties at the time, David was not tall but was slim of build and relaxed of speech, his wavy brown hair worn pushed back from his tanned face. He seemed content with his life in the little community and in his work in town, however David lived with a challenge.

As already told, Serendipity had gained a reputation as something of a rest and recreation centre. One day, a woman with a young child in tow turned up. She must have been in her thirties and was quite attractive… not what you would call either tall or short. She wore her dark hair to below ear but above shoulder length. Her olive complexion and softness of speech made her one of those women who some men feel an instant rapport with and who are easy to like.  And so it was that this was the way Peter reacted, so much that, after her few days staying at Serendipity, he asked her to stay on… with him. She politely declined and for Peter it was opportunity lost as she returned to Sydney.

One day, a police officer turned up at Serendipity. He was looking for Peter who that afternoon had driven his Kombi off the winding gravel road and down into the rainforest, where it came to an abrupt stop. He was unhurt but the incident revealed that challenge that Peter was living with—his struggle with alcohol. The good news is that, years after we had all left Serendipity, Peter was achieving success in this struggle.

Overall, Serendipity was a quiet place to live, something of a world set in the rainforest and apart from the tourism of the town and coastal strip

Sometimes, you associate a particular food with a particular person. And, so, sprouted ryegrain bread came to be associated with Warren. Why? Because he baked the stuff. You would walk out onto the verandah and there, resting quietly in the sun, would be several loaves of the moist, heavy stuff curing, or whatever it is that sprouted bread does in the sun.

Short of stature but not of imagination, Warren was one of those people on whom it is difficult to pin an age. My guess is that he was in his late twenties or early thirties. Appearance wise, Warren would have looked at home during the heyday of the intentional community movement. Long, dark hair was parted in the middle so that it flopped almost to his shoulders, though, unlike so many of that time alluded to, he remained clean shaven. Personality wise, he was pleasant company and quiet, the impression being of someone reflective and capable of deep thought.

A house, a community

So this was Serendipity, a house on the edge of the forest atop the high ridge of the rainforest reserve. Of course it was more than a house on a block of land—it was a small community made up of those who lived there. It wasn’t a tight community and it was relaxed in its doings. It was a changing community as people came and went but it retained a stability that was cohesive.

Overall, Serendipity was a quiet place to live, something of a world set in the rainforest and apart from the tourism of the town and coastal strip. In that way it could have been seen as a refuge, however those that lived there were firmly engaged in the world beyond. A monastery Serendipity was not.

Precious times

Once, Fiona was offered a share in the place but turned down the offer, and in the years since she has wondered at the wisdom of that decision. So do I.

They were precious times for me, those short years I was associated with Serendipity and the people that life and its currents of uncertainty threw together there. I recall them all, some clearer than others, and they are fond memories. I also remember the place… the big timber house, the outbuildings where people lived… the loo in the bush on the slope… the python in the kitchen… Warren’s sprouted rye bread… the garden… the forest… and that long, winding gravel road all the way down to Broken Head and beyond.

Serendipity is still there on the edge of the rainforest on the crest of that ridge. And so is that little sign that points from the road.

Now that he has retired from parliament, Ian might have more time to rise with the first light of dawn, pick up one of the shared surfboards and set off downhill through the rainforest to the surging sea. Next time, let’s hope that he avoids stepping over that log across the track and onto a python, or having to quickly exit the water again after a menacing dark shape with dorsal fin passes below his surfboard.

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