We love Byron. We hate Byron. Byron’s lost it. Byron’s too commercial. Byron’s changed. Byron’s full of tourists. Byron’s too crowded. Byron’s shit. Byron’s shallow. Byron’s a letdown. Byron’s pretentious. Byron’s… Byron.
The negative vibe on Byron is everywhere but it’s without impact. Everyone still wants to be in Byron. Not even that butt-ugly sculpture has scared anyone away.
Put anything up on social media about Byron Bay and you’ll get a heated response. No-one is neutral when it comes to Byron. You either Love it or you Hate it. Even saying ‘Byron’ will get you in trouble from people who will tell you it’s ‘The Bay’. They tell you that because that’s an indicator they’ve been here longer than you have and you should just shut up and put up with the tourism and the rolling King Tide of wealth and privilege, because THEY HAD TO PUT UP WITH YOU when you turned up.
I get it. Each wave of settlers seems to have a terra nullius mindset in regards the lifestyles and values and even the existence of the people who came before them. Every new wave of Byronites seems to feel that what they’ve created is the quintessential Byron, and what stands before just falls into the sea. And it does.
Byron Bay, The Bay, Byron, whatever you want to call it, has this peculiar magnetism for attracting people seeking utopia. But every generation’s utopia is branded differently from the next.
What underpins all of this and is the common thread in the attraction to this relatively small and insignificant piece of coastline is a reverence for nature and a deep respect for place. A sense you were drawn here because this place remakes you, whether you are rich or poor, whether you are Instagram famous or not. There is something mystical here that is difficult to articulate, except perhaps through real estate prices.
Byron is polarised. It’s polarising. It’s vax and anti-vax. It’s vegan and anti-vegan. It’s both heaven and hell. Temptation and salvation. Wealth and poverty. Belief and delusion. Inspiration and exasperation.
I’ve been engaging in conversations about Byron Bay: what is it now, what did it used to be, and what will it be in the future for two decades. It’s a continuing topic because all of us are heavily engaged in the sense that ‘our’ Byron is the right one. That we all have some sort of authorship on the absolute ‘Byron’ identity.
But that’s the point isn’t it? There never was one. From whalers to pot growers, from surfers to craft brewers, from Instagram mums to Hollywood actors. Every group is as inconsequential as the next. The sand shifts and the tide rolls in.
I am curious as to the next evolution… will they keep claiming ‘their Byron’? Who actually witnessed the best of Byron? Does the cocaine of nostalgia make retrospect seem more idyllic than it actually was?
Perhaps the most Byron Bay it ever was was before white settlement, when it didn’t have a white man’s name. When it was Cavvanbah. The place occupied by over 500 Aboriginal tribes over 22,000 years. The Arakwal Bumberlin people would have a pretty clear idea of what Byron is, where it’s going, and whom it belongs to. No-one.
If you stand in the sand with your back to all the bullshit, then all that really exists is this phenomenal coastline. This sparkling bay flanked by mountains. It’s hard not to be moved by the enduring majesty of geography. That coastline existed long before Instagram and will exist long after it. It has lakes not likes.
There’s this belief that Byron once belonged to us, but it never did. White people don’t get ‘place’. We have this righteous sense of ‘ownership’ just by being somewhere. By paying money for real estate. You might be able to buy a block of land but you can’t buy place.
Perhaps it’s time we got over this sense of ‘ownership’ and learnt a little about what it means to be a ‘custodian’. A care taker. And perhaps it’s time we stopped squabbling about our stories from the last few decades and found out the traditional and enduring stories of this place, ones that have been told for thousands of years, not 30. Do you know them? Instead of country belonging to you, try a mindset shift to that of Indigenous Australians: ‘you belong to country’.