Byron Bay: Discovered and rediscovered
TRAVEL IS SLOWER on this winding byway through patches of dark forest and out into open farmland.
Across a narrow bridge, a sharp turn and up a small hill. Cresting it I catch a distant glimpse of the ocean. Then it’s into a long, sweeping curve that brings me to the road along the edge of the escarpment that forms the backdrop to the narrow coastal plain.
Here, a farmer has retained a big patch of subtropical rainforest of the type that once covered this rolling country. I slow to take a closer look. “Tall trees, dark forest”, comes the thought as my eyes traverse the big trees and their shady interstices. “Looks mysterious, primeval even” comes a thought unbidden.
The dense, green wall blocks the view over the coast but in a few minutes I clear this remnant and approach the sharp turn that precedes the plunge downhill. Brake, change down, into the turn… and stop. A little way down the hill I pull over, pull on the handbrake, turn off the motor, get out and look on country new to me.
I remember… thinking back to the closing years of the 1960s… I’m on the first of my solo road trips along the great highway that goes north from Sydney all the way to Queensland. It’s a long line of grey asphalt that takes travellers to destinations planned and unplanned, to those imagined and to others discovered only by chance. To set out on the highway without any firm idea of destination is to accept serendipity. I know that it is a type of aimlessness but doing it makes me happy.
There’s some impetus that keeps me going as long as the direction is north and I find something satisfactory, something like happiness in traversing this ribbon of grey that links town and city, farm and coast. Road signs bearing the names of towns encourage turning off the highway and this I cannot resist. I know it makes the journey long but I’m in no hurry. Obediently I turn to follow minor roads to minor towns that cling to beaches and headland.
These are small settlements that, come Christmas, might fill with families camped in caravans or large tents. Between those holiday influxes they are quiet places where people seem content to go fishing and live their lives doing who knows what else. I like driving into them and stopping awhile. They’s so different to city life and to the way I live there.
When I started making these road trips north, I remember driving into the approaches to Murwillumbah and, in my then-city centric way, wondering how it was that people could live here in those old wooden houses… places where everything seemed so quiet. I sped on north, towards Brisbane… towards the city. How ideas would change over coming years.
This is the joy of movement over long distances… it is refreshing, it is exhilarating… it is freedom.
I close the door and look out over the little patchwork of roofs down there, where the coast turns abruptly to climb as a headland atop which stands a tall white lighthouse. Stretching north, a long way north from that cape all the way to a horizon concealed by sea mist is a beach that seemingly goes on and on.
“Something special about this place”, I think, looking out over it for the first time. I stay awhile, propped on the bonnet of my small grey car. Then I drive into town.
It is more than a decade later that I pick up a book of short stories by the Australian author, Craig McGregor. I start to read and I encounter the familiar. McGregor, too, stopped at that same place on that downhill run into Byron Bay and looked over that same view of coast and cape.
More years pass and I come to live in that town that I first saw from the escarpment as a patchwork of roofs. Many times I drive down that hill but only occasionally do I stop to look. And then I remember being there that first time and in doing that past connects to present and to place and leaves me with an inner satisfaction. Connection, I realise, is important as it gives continuity to a life lived in different places. And place, too, is somehow important… just some places… but why I can’t fully account for as it is something to do with emotion, not rationality.
Recently, I did an online search for McGregor, trying to remember the name of that book I read where he describes stopping at this same place on the hill. I didn’t discover the book, but on the Penguin Books website I discovered something else… something about where he came to live. And here was that? Byron Bay.
From here, on that hill that descends to the narrow coastal plain, it is the same view but it is always a new experience, a landscape seemingly unchanged but a mindscape that sees the familiar as if for the first time.
Byron Bay. Discovered and rediscovered.