Travelling by bus down the east coast of Australia I found a little hippie-chic town that many tourists—from backpackers to the wealthy—frequent to laze in sun and enjoy the beautiful coastal scenery.
Take Haight-Ashbury to a pristine Australian surf beach, add a few millionaires and such high-class celebrities as Elle Macpherson and Nicole Kidman and you have arrived at Byron Bay.
No shoes, no shirt, no problem!
Barefoot dread-heads sit side by side with posh millionaires at vegan cafés. Mega mansions line the nearby coast while drum circles and street guitarists resembling young Bob Dylan line the main street. Somehow everyone gets along.
Byron Bay, with a population of less than 5,600, was appropriately named for the poet Lord Byron and many streets are named after other English writers and philosophers. Surfers discovered the beach in the ’60s, the counterculture moved in and established (against the establishment) this hippy, happy beach town.
I checked in to my hostel and met my roommates: Julie was a backpacker from Finland with an adventurous eight-month itinerary throughout the South Pacific; David was from Calgary and had worked for a year in the oil industry, saved all his money and was blowing it all on a year-long vacation doodling around Australia. Sven from Sweden was also on an extended vacation. The two boys had met several weeks earlier in Surfer’s Paradise (yes, there is a town called Surfer’s Paradise) and travelled together down to Byron Bay. They had planned to stay for two or three days, but it had been more than a month and Beavis and Butthead were still lazing in the Bay. I was not surprised.
It was rather humid, which frizzed my hair like never before. Friendly giant lizards roamed between the buildings and in the gardens.
Julie and I explored the town, enjoyed a nice vegetarian dinner and then took a leisurely walk down the sandy beach and up to Cape Byron—a headland at the most eastern point of mainland Australia.
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The next day I headed back to Cape Byron to hike up to the lighthouse, built in 1901. It is a popular little trail for tourists. Fully aware of the strong Australian sun, I responsibly smothered my freckly face and body with SPF 85 and was on my way. The path was stunning. I stopped along a rocky beach and took a dip.
It was hot and muggy—no help to my hairdo. The sun was bearing down on me. A little snake crossed my path and gave me quite a fright. When I reached the top, I sat at a little café next to the lighthouse and chuckled to myself when I saw so many tourists red as lobsters. I seemed to be the only smart person around, who didn’t forget to apply sunscreen. I smugly reapplied my SPF 85 and walked down the hill.
I had another little fright that evening when I looked in the mirror and saw a red face. I guess I hadn’t been as smart as I thought. I later discovered that freckle faces like me must frequently reapply or just stay out of the sun altogether. The Australian sun is no joke.
The next day, with frizzy hair and a crimson face, I took a bus to nearby Nimbin, 70 kilometres west of Byron Bay. The barefoot, shirtless bus driver warned me about the cookies sold around town.
Colorful Nimbin has a population of less than 350, with about 10,000 people living in the surrounding area. It is known for its escapist subculture and cannabis counterculture. Hippies moved there in the ’70s and formed communes in search of an alternative lifestyle.
I moseyed down the main drag filled with psychedelic stores, colourful fashion, candles, incense, counterculture signs and spiritually motivated artwork. A woman who looked like she had been trippin’ since the ’60s approached me wanting to sell me “special” cookies. She was the first of many. Marijuana is celebrated here.
The Nimbin museum was the highlight. In an “effort to communicate the history of Nimbin through the eyes of a hippie,” an old shop was converted slowly over the years by a handful of local artists who took old junk and made it into a beautiful collage of designs, signs and artwork. It espouses the old hippie values and philosophy, and of course aims to “end prohibition.”
When I returned to my hostel in Byron Bay I told David about my day. He said he too had visited Nimbin and had such a great time that he stayed there for two weeks! I suppose he met a lady named Mary Jane and she charmed him into staying for a while.
The next day I took an overnight bus down to Sydney. It is a surprise my hair was not in dreadlocks by then.