Many would argue that in the sphere of foreign policy and global politics Australia has often disappointed, not least with a series of prime ministers who have looked clumsy on the international stage. Although current incumbent Malcolm Turnbull is, so far, doing rather well at persuading us that there is more depth to the nation than the abrasive and divisive Tony Abbott ever suggested. And then there’s the simple fact of a failure of continuity: this is a country that’s had five prime ministers in five years.
But – and this is the important bit – this has done nothing to alter what people around the world think of Australia. The nation’s soft power is undented. People want to come here and they want to be part of what looks like the Australian Dream – and it’s surely one that is more robust these days than, say, the Californian version. The latter has become obsessed with fame, breast augmentation (men included), poor urban planning and a buckling infrastructure. For people from Beirut to Berlin, Australia appears to be about a life of egalitarianism, opportunity and beaches. And there is an outpost that has become a byword for all of the above: Byron Bay. This is a town where the Aussie Dream can be seen in all its eco-fresh, start-up culture, surfing glory.
For decades this subtropical, beachside idyll has lured in those looking for a change. Located on Australia’s most eastern point, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean are just as picturesque as the inland natural preserve. From the jagged forms of pandanus palms to the ground-dwelling white ibis and bush turkeys foraging along the shoreline, the town has remained remarkably unspoiled despite decades of popularity.
The arrival of the surfers in the 1960s heralded the first wave of change. A decade later a nearby conservation movement saw a settlement of hippies wander into town, followed by a groundswell of roaming travellers and the occasional maverick millionaire looking to escape the big-city bustle. Now a convoy of city-borne creatives is rolling into town, bringing a new tide of transformation along with them and opening charming cafés and inspired independent shops. This is Byron Bay though, a town with an aversion to fast-food chains and high-rise abominations that runs long and deep. It is a town with an identity that is as much tied to the lush landscape as it is the laidback atmosphere.
Traversing this delicate balance is one of the main challenges for the Byron Shire’s mayor Simon Richardson, whose jurisdiction includes Byron Bay and several smaller towns in the surrounding region. Last year the area’s 9,000 residents played host to more than 1.7 million visitors and an increasing number of these guests are becoming so enamoured with the place that they’re returning for a more permanent stopover.
“We have the highest concentration of professional creatives outside Melbourne and Sydney,” says Richardson, who, as a member of the Greens, is visibly enthused when discussing growth in sustainable agriculture, fashion and even IT. According to him this is evidence of the changing yet manageable face of the area. “It’s the community’s stewardship that has ensured the town’s essence is preserved,” he says, citing the recent overhaul of a new commercial retail development as a result of community pressure. “The revised project better reflects Byron’s values.” On the town’s outskirts the owners of a new au$80m (€52m) eco-resort are planning to connect visitors to the town by reviving the long-abandoned railway. The mayor has welcomed the move but is pushing for the train to be solar-powered.
Melburnians Dan Readman and wife Nikki arrived several years ago; they took over a longstanding establishment called the Bayleaf and transformed it into a café of their own. “We were incredibly conscious of doing right by the town,” says Dan as he hands a cold-drip coffee to a waiting customer. The effort seems to have paid off as the café has been embraced by hard-to-please locals who are typically wary of city-borne concepts that get transplanted directly into the heart of their community. By sourcing produce from nearby farms and creating a purposefully unpretentious vibe, the café draws townsfolk and holidaymakers alike. The couple have even expanded into the space next door in order to cater for a growing takeaway crowd.
Down at The Point – one of several popular surfing spots – Italian environmental scientist Marcello Sanò has waded back to shore after his regular morning meeting with the waves. He’s on his way to teach a class at Southern Cross university but he stops to talk to MONOCLE while restrapping his board to the car. “This is a country town but not really,” he says with a smile, going on to explain that he moved here from the Gold Coast five years ago after being attracted by the strong creative community – and, of course, the good surf. He’s now busy developing an intercity car-sharing app called Miler with two friends. “This is a good testing ground because there are three major festivals and a very transient population,” he says, adding that the town’s 15-year-old winter festival Splendour in the Grass now attracts 30,000 revellers.
A short ride out of town is Mark LaBrooy and Darren Robertson’s popular restaurant Three Blue Ducks. This is the duo’s second restaurant – the first is in Sydney’s Bronte – and it opened just last year on The Farm. Ecologically sound and community-minded, this working biological farm is a thriving example of a Byron-friendly venture done well. “There’s a bigger connection to the land here and that pushes people to change the way they live,” says LaBrooy as the busy brunch service in the restaurant switches to lunch. Robertson, a British émigré, agrees. “If you’re looking to drop your quick, flashy restaurant into town, maybe Byron isn’t the right fit.”
Back in town a stroll through the streets paints a colourful picture but also introduces a plethora of paradoxes. Luxury vehicles share the main street with the Nimbin Happy Coach, whose driver “Princess Fiona” is bussing another load of backpackers to the notorious hippie town inland. Weekly craft and farmers’ markets are juxtaposed with small-scale fashion shops worthy of any big city. After dark a bustling laneway behind the iconic Beach Hotel pub boasts some of the Shire’s best multicultural cuisine.
The words “Cheer up, slow down, chill out” are prescribed to visitors via the highway welcome sign – courtesy of some colourful graffiti – but despite the universal adoption of this unofficial mantra, this is no sleepy country town.
And therein lies an opportunity for greater regional if not global influence. As Australia’s neighbours (New Zealand, you’re excused) struggle with runaway property development, unchecked mass tourism and generally poor environmental records, Byron and similar communities around Australia are a beacon for a different approach to running businesses, managing municipalities and striking the right work-life balance.
From lush rainforests to squeaky-sand beaches, Byron Bay’s landscape has remained remarkably untouched by an escalating human footprint. As wealth has poured in – and trickled out into the hinterland – the town has proven equally resilient, guiding an evolution that has successfully met the demands of popularity without ever deviating from its core values.
Big money and a bohemian history may make strange bedfellows but in Byron Bay the relationship between the two is not just mutually beneficial: it’s part of the intangible allure.