I love Byron Bay. It’s why I came here 27 years ago. It’s why I stayed here. I never meant to. It was like falling in love with someone you never planned to fall in love with. Someone without a job or shoes. Someone who asked nothing of you but that you stay.
Of course it wasn’t a committed relationship. Byron wasn’t like that. And nothing traditional or secure was ever offered. Just the chance to see who you were away from the mainstream. It was like falling in love with someone who loved the very essence of you. Not everyone could handle it. I certainly resisted in the beginning. I was going to live a very different life. Be a very different person from the person I am today. But this is it. This is my life. These are my friends. This is my family. This is my community. This is the life I created after being seduced by Byron.
Don’t think I didn’t try to leave. I did. Several times. But I always came back. It was hard to walk into the arms of another once I’d lived here. I would ask myself: is it the beach? Sydney has a beach. Melbourne has a beach, albeit freezing cold and a bit shitty. So maybe not the beach. Is it the people? Well, there was certainly a mixed demographic, but this wasn’t the usual tribe I’d hang with. I generally preferred wanky academic types, not tree-hugging candle-making hippies. I didn’t do esoteric or new age, and I didn’t change my name. I wasn’t Sanyassin. So I guess it wasn’t really the people.
It certainly wasn’t the opportunity. Back then hardly anyone worked. Maybe in a cafe. It definitely wasn’t a place to make your career.
I could never fathom what my connection was with this place. My family thought I was nuts. Why would a girl with so much promise drop out and move to a dead-end beach town with nothing to offer? I still can’t answer that. Except by saying that when I came here I had a profound sense of home that I’ve never had anywhere else. A sense of belonging that eluded me in the place where I grew up. In the other places where I had been. For some inexplicable reason, like many others who were probably as confused as me, I felt that I was part of this place. That my story was going to happen here.
I certainly couldn’t see how. Back then there were no startups. Except The Echo – it started up not long before I got here. But they weren’t called startups back then; they were just new businesses that generally would fold by winter. Byron wasn’t an ‘obvious’ place like it is now. You’re not taking much of a risk if you come here now – it’s a solid investment – there’s an impressive array of industry and opportunity for the young and the funky and the privileged who now call this place home. My place. Their place. No-one’s place.
I stood among them the other night at the opening of Habitat – created ironically by an old friend who was similarly drawn here not long after me. I marvelled at the beautiful young hipsters. Generally I’d be scathing. I moved among them like a ghost. They couldn’t see me. For a minute I almost climbed on top of a balcony to screech at them ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ But I sipped gin from my jar and enjoyed the obscurity, thankful that I’d got undressed four times to a suitable level of ‘cas’ to move among the hipsters unseen.
Of course they don’t know who I am. I am meaningless to them. As the generation who lived here before me were meaningless to me. I never acknowledged the people who lived here before me. Neither did that generation the one before them. Byron is like a layered cake, where each new layer thinks they’re the first ones to find this place. Just like I did when I first came here. Each wave of newcomers seems to have a severe case of Terra Nullius – a belief that there was nothing before them. The preceding generation watches them, smouldering in resentment for the newcomers driving up real estate or clogging the roads and basically ignoring them.
We’re sulking. But mainly because when I miss the Byron I used to love I miss the girl I used to be. The Indigenous people must find it amusing to hear each of us talk about how the place doesn’t feel like ours anymore. As I watched the latest crop of ‘new’ Byron I had a small epiphany. Apart from the traditional owners, Byron doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s no more mine than it was the old-timers who came here or the newbies with their top-knots and startups. It’s one of the Universe’s change rooms. As corny as it sounds, magic still happens. Just don’t fuck it up.