Eat, drink and leave

It’s the most easterly point on the Australian mainland, yet Byron Bay has a certain West-side vibe, a gangsta authority over all things karmic and crown-chakra related.


Daily ocean dips and deep Ashram-inspired devotion, spirulina smoothies and tantric touching all deliver the vibe in spades, with astral travelling, the Crystal Castle, mediums, infrared saunas and dandelion tea ensuring a good all-round blanketing of spiritual bliss.

The Bay speaks to people. It is a place etched in lore, a rite of passage and initiation chiselled into the backpacker tracks that span the coastline of Australia, paths worn shiny with overuse and the drag and splatter of banged-up vans.


For this little travelling tribe, Byron was a Mecca – a refuge for the alternative and a haven for the strange. Smoky trails of nag champa and pot streamed from the emerald hills that ring the bay, the Echo ran ads for tofu welders and yoghurt-weaving workshops while straggly dogs tied to trees howled into the night. Fire twirlers lit up the sky with shafts of light and the acrid burn of kero, pubs thronged with bushies, bikers and birds, and bare feet padded hot sand into cooled milk bars.


Radical, alternative, flecked with tie-dye and crowned with raggedy dreads stiff with salt, the Bay was a form of scruffy redemption with its off-beat counter-cultured charm, colonics and sticky chai.


Located in the slumped gut of a long-dead volcano, this lush sea-fringed hinterland is a meeting place, a one-time corroboree site and hunting ground and the magnet that attracts the filings of life. You come, you heal, you leave. Or so they say.

But today we skirt the edge of a new scene, a brander, newer world, glossy with money and power. Muscled 4WDs leaking ice-cold aircon stalk car-parking spaces on the sea front, while the clip clip of spiked heels from those cooled interiors mark a trail to generic shops brandishing tat and tap-and-go convenience.


Black Mary causes a stir with her rattly growl, hurling her bulk onto the pavement, prime position on the beach. With the evening wrapping its soft shroud around us we head to the pub for a cold beer. Thumping FM beats throb to a crowd of well-dressed dollies clutching lolly-bright Breezers, who natter of plush rooms in exclusive retreats and the health benefits of kale. We watch from the shadows as shards of laser light clatter through the sweating dark. Glittering eyes follow our movements, curious as to the luggage in the trolley. Emanating from them is patent PC displeasure at the Tin Lid’s presence outside of daylight hours, though he is unperturbed.

Silent censure seems to filter through this once culturally promiscuous town – where once ideals and dreams fucked in the open, now mere suggestion of a life outside the box is best sheathed, while alternative has become a brand.

Like the bloodied aftermath of a bad prom, torn and regurgitated, inappropriate, something to be ashamed of in the morning, Byron struggles with its image. The phalanxes of bashed-up HiAces littering two-minute noodle flavouring and financial despair are easily shunted to the edge of the dream, and increasingly the salacious soul of this one time hipster is sidling west in sympathy, replaced by a plastic fantastic futility.

Market forces have driven out the quirky character of the town, which has long been its drawcard. Salons still offer colonic irrigation as casually as a manicure, but on the main street the offbeat is nowhere to be seen… Byron Bay may have resisted McDonald’s but now you can buy a Subway sandwich, a Domino’s pizza and a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream. “Drunks’ tucker”, as the local police call it, has replaced alfalfa salad.

Sydney Morning Herald


A one-time working-man’s town, with a legacy that includes sand-mining, whaling and a stinking meatworks with a bloodline that spewed offal straight into the bay, Byron has become a playground that resounds with pitched battles, superiority complexes and the squall of entitlement:

There can be few towns in Australia with a more contradictory identity than Byron Bay. On one hand it has, historically, been associated with the alternative lifestyle movement of the 1970s and seen as a kind of interesting hippie retreat in northern NSW. On another level it has been seen as a very upmarket get-away-from-it-all retreat for wealthy southerners not wanting to mix with the hoi polloi who inhabit more vulgar coastal townships like Coolangatta and Tweed Heads. And over the past thirty years it has acquired a reputation as the residence of the rich and famous…

Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald, 2009


But the early morning beach brings some respite and ripples with life. Surfers share waves with pods of dolphins, backpackers slump, passed out on the sand, and families tag-team in the shallows. Byron is a holiday place and the wafts of Hawaiian Tropic and hot chips that sidle by on a gentle easterly temper misgivings of luxury resorts with million-dollar price tags, street brawls and a shadowy underground that reeks of the old school.


Needless to say, the Tin Lid takes to the idea of a summer holiday with toddler-streaked verve:


And we embrace a week in situ, with Mr Whippys that slip slide down hot skin, 22

fish tacos that promise peace,


and the company of a baby alpaca, who peruses the Japanese fusion menu from the comfort of her washing basket.


And in this eccentric, eclectic and, these days, exclusive place, we find a peace from the long haul of the open road. The exquisite beauty of the bay is undeniable, a torrid affair of verdant tropical green and violent turquoise, and the sense of the metaphysical is novel. The emphasis on fresh food, alternative therapy and health is a diversion from the Australiana road show, where green veg is hoarded, stashed and eked out until replenished, and salad sandwiches from the servo must suffice.

A hotbed for creativity, the wider area beams with a wholesome originality, a unique vibrancy that allows you to shut out the sense of malignant decay that feeds on itself. Beyond the bay, the cool depths of the interior hold a deep fascination, not least because of the things you overhear:

With thanks to Overheard in Byron Bay

“It’s her housewarming. I’ve already given her an eagle feather but I feel like i should get her something else, too.”


Facilitated Thematic Soirees: covering inner voice dialogue to the tantra. Only if your single and over 40, please email a photo. Namaste…                                Personal ad, The Echo

“Hey, you look familiar. Were you in court the other day?”

“I need to get some beef bones for Ganesh”

“I’m very sensitive to the socks I wear – I tend to absorb the spirit of the animal they’ve come from quite strongly.”

“Do I need to bring anything?”
“No… oh – actually, just your favourite cushion. And some cacao.”

“I’m a private person. I don’t put my smoothies on Instagram.”

“Got much work on at the moment?”
“No, I’m really just focusing on getting yarn-bombing up and running in Lismore.”

“What do you do?”
“I’m a mystic. I also work in construction. Everyone needs a disguise.”

“Do you mind if I keep these aioli containers?”
“Sure, why?”
“I’m sleeping in a cave tomorrow night with seven men and I’ll use them for candles.”

“Why aren’t you seeing India any more?”
“She’s still eating sugar.”

“Look, I’ve got a boat and a bong, what else do I need?”

“I only use organic moisturiser – it seals your aura better.”

“I’m feeling very scattered. I need to eat some root vegetables.”

“Well you could go and work in Brisbane, but you’d have to wear shoes.”

“It’s very damp in here – have you been tribal belly dancing?”

“I’m not answering to ‘Avocado’ since I started eating meat again…”
“How did you put your back out?
I fell asleep on my crystal…”

Any port in a storm

Evacuated from Fraser Island, the storm pressing down on us, bedraggled and rattled we flee south, covering barely 80 clicks before Mary hauls her dripping tailgate into Maryborough and skids to an ungainly halt.


And. So. It. Starts.

Howling Valkyries vent squalling funnels of rain at the truck. The KD (our knock-down shelter) buckles and sinks to its knees, a watery death with sodden mourners. As Mary slews to the left, rocking on her axles like a troubled child, the streets slide away, coursing, surging downstream in a flood of despair. Tangled limbs skewer deep drains that choke and overflow and the maelstrom spins into a whorl of hate, lashing all in its path with malevolent fury.

This is the prelude to the devastation wrought by ex-tropical cyclone Oswald, a storm cell of unprecedented force that slammed into the southern Queensland coast in January 2013.

The morning is a slate grey shroud, bruised-bellied clouds skud across an invisible horizon and water pelts from the sky, caught in a vortex of angry air.  Towns submerge before our eyes, all roads to the coast are closed and the highway is our final retreat.

In full flight and surfing a latent frill of fear, we let Mary off her leash…

It feels like this

It feels like this.

Russell Island is the largest of the Southern Moreton Bay Islands, a mob of curly coasted land snippets that wallow just off the coast of Brisbane. Funny place to take shelter you might think, but Russell lies in the lee of North Stradbroke Island, which promises protection from the elements. That and an open-hearted saltie, the indomitable Captain Dave, catcher of crays, who offers a port in the storm.

The car ferry rolls like a bitch; while the Tin Lid and I pitch queasily from side to side the Cowboy spends the hour at sea boning up on local info. According to the storyteller Karragarra is the gay island, a mere four kilometres of rainbow-hued hubris and a Ferrari owner who drives his pride and joy along the 300m of tarmac twice a day in a squeal of glory. Macleay is the site of a recent murder, an elderly woman robbed of not only her hidden fortune but her life. When we were there no-one was talking, a wall of silence that buffeted the police barge moored stubbornly in the ferry lane. The culprit, a ‘junk-mail deliverer’ has since been arrested. On Lamb Island there is much discussion as to how the mainlanders cope with ‘Australia’, that distant country just 20 minutes to the west.

Russell Island does not rate a mention.

As we wait out the storm at Captain Dave’s all hell breaks loose, a bellicose virago that scolds the landscape with her hysteria.


The power fails on the first day, the pier is inoperable and the ferries stymied; there are food and water shortages, produce rots in the darkened island store and the threat of structural collapse keeps people shuttered inside. Isolation takes on new meaning here, as visibility drops to a few feet and the long life milk the Tin Lid has stashed dwindles to a trickle.

For five days we are stranded. It’s all very Robinson Crusoe – with mango moonshine and board games for ten.

A quick game of mango bowls

A quick game of mango bowls

In the aftermath the IGA is the place to be. It is eerily empty, shelves bare, save for a few hollow-eyed souls stocking up on Black and Gold.

A grey lady sporting grey mullet, teeth and skin, plus a dim outlook on life, is bereft in the biscuit section:

“We’ve ‘ad no power for four fucken days, no food, no help. No bugger came to see if we was alright or nuffink. We moved from bloody Gympie to get away from the water but me, I’d rahver be flooded there – at least there people come and check on yers. Drive through flooded roads and everythink. And some fuckers had power! So I didn’t have to throw all me bloody food away after all. Fuck ’em. No-one even offered to help.”

Distraught and dejected she slides out into the rain carrying her yellow-and-black-hued treasure: cat litter, chicken soup, dunny roll and a ratty pack of Milk Arrowroots.

A disaster management plan is in place and flashing lights illuminate the damage. Finally we escape the confines of our isolation into an island that thrives on, well, isolation.



Kibbinkibbinwa Point and Ooncooncoo Bay, Turtle Swamp, Whistling Kite Wetlands and Wet Mouse, the island trails intrigue in its wake. With all the inherent issues of island life, Russell is a weathered soul, lines of frustration worn deep on a sunburnt face.

Once an Aboriginal hunting ground for shellfish, fish and turtles, the island was only settled recently. The local mob believe that the eerie searching sob of the curlews that stalk the corners are the souls of children who have died, “the call of the young ones”.

They left well alone, save for a crossing point from the northeast tip across across the passage to Stradbroke Island.


The whitefellas have no such quandaries, spreading out, kit homes in tow, like an unexplained rash. According to the Brisbane Times,

“The population is small, the views are priceless and the facilities are reasonably good  considering most things have to be shipped in. But the wide-spread land scam that dogs Russell’s reputation has likely kept many away from this spot in the past. During the early 1970s, large parcels of farmland were divided and heavily promoted by investors. Many unwary buyers found the blocks of land they had bought were not where they thought, and media reports at the time documented how some were even underwater at high tide.”

Moving house, island-style

Moving house, island-style


A house with no stairs


True blue hidehole

This place has a healthy seam of blood-red Australiana running richly through it, a sticky viscosity of retro dagginess. A sulky teen butt-scoots along on a skateboard down a dirt track. A heavily mustached, tattooed and muscle-bound bloke leers from a Commodore, his vowels exorcised into an ocker drawl. His moll is a picture of suburban necessity, unscrunching her Aussie emblazoned boxers with an expert finger, uggs schlepping on wet concrete despite the tropical heat.


Island necessity breeds innovation in the sweetest style:


And a Sandman lolls insolently on a pebbledash drive:


The whisper of a dope-dealing mafia outpost that is protected “by a pit bull with aids” meets a tangle of rusted metal that marks the final resting place for a burnt-out ute, eaten alive by the sand. A man arrives home carrying an esky and a car battery, his stubbies rumpled from the ferry.


A scrabble of discarded fridges, rusted car bodies, old shoes and plasterboard stamp a heavy urban footprint. It is testament to Russell’s status as a human hideaway, a bolthole for artists, retirees and thieves. Million-dollar properties with waterfront views are lapped by a stain of underprivilege, a greasy scum that floats on the surface of paradise.



But despite the palpable pall of inequity that scents a wary breeze, there is a rich weave of society on Russell island and social debris and the clutter of commonality aside, nature has a way of burgeoning before your eyes, rampant, verdant and wealthy.


Precious wetlands, an abundance of woodlands, mangroves and tall trees, Russell is a conservation locus. It is here, among the whispering grasses, or knee-deep in a rock pool where liquid life churns between cool-skinned bones that this inscrutable curl of isolation truly exists.

Dirt tracks straight and true peter out with a sigh as the bush reclaims its own. Vacant lots have an air of resignation, plots with no plot. While humans challenge and develop and clutter, Russell Island strikes the sound of perfect silence all on it’s own.

And Captain Dave took the Tin Lid crabbing. Which made his little life…


There’s sand in my sushi…

The Marree pub

The outback resonates, a pulse of rawness that scours through this soft urban heart, teaching it how to love anew. This heart that flirts with readily available technology, that preens itself coquettishly in front of the non-stop headlong tilt of the cosmopolitan schedule, that pounds lasciviously at the mere premise of tethering – this heart? She is learning…

Bright dirt, the colour of blood  sifts through everything, a miasma choking us with the harsh reality of life back o’Bourke. Staining us with its rusty reminder, the environment slams us with its all-consuming power. Swathed in blankets, smoked by eucalypt fires, numb toes, scorched hair, peeling lips and lost to the world of wi-fi, we exist in an alternate reality. The light is our clock, the sun and fire our heat, Black Mary our beast of burden and cold beer sweet relief.

Ice-cold, boiled alive, caked in dirt, tangled, tired and torn, I have never felt so alive.


The Bogan Shire

What’s Rangoon to you is Grafton to Me is a 45 minute psychedelic gonzo radio rant from 1978, courtesy of Russell Guy. It is gold. Solid gold. And it is my companion this strange winter’s night in the Bogan Shire:

“I was just waking up when the front tyre went; at the same time a horse appeared and the headlights went and the horizon came through the windscreen. I said goodbye to Eartha Kitt and left the road like a jumbo jet diving into a swamp. Some time later I regained a level of consciousness less ugly than the one I left. I’d seen some strange movies on the inside of my eyelids…

This is appropriate listening. Hyped up on sour coffee and tepid meat pies the white lines quiver, the tar bends and writhes like a stick of licorice melting in the sun. The roadside blurs, McDonalds wrappers flicked into the updraft perform delicately and coke cans sparkle like rubies in the long paddock, once the domain of the drovers’ mob.

The swan song of the asphalt is a grunting howl, hot tyres on worn tar, a screeching fan belt, the whump whump of the road trains as they slam past and Black Mary’s strange symphonic whir thump as her weight slews behind her.

XXXX assists map reading

Tonight, however, we have slowed to a wheezing stop. Time to taste this world.

We are parked on the edge of the Bogan River, deep in outback NSW. The Bogan Shire has little to do with its colloquial cousin – not an Ugg boot in sight here, though there has been a sighting of a feral flanno. The river glides lazily through the town, swollen and sated, gulping at the sandy banks, sucking a the roots of the gums. Even the whine of tinnies, ferrying salty men clutching coldies and bright-faced smiles, softens to a vague hum in this peaceful place.

Right up until the rednecks arrive shouldering their very particular brand of enjoyment. This bit happens to involve a small shouty child, a knackered canoe, a dog lead and some laconic hollering.

In this languid place so far removed from the scoured, bleached harshness of the desert, the perspective of this trip comes into sharp focus. After a journey depicted in love and laughter, in the Tin Lid’s rapacious appetite for life, his exponential appreciation of the raw marrow of life, and in wine slurped from tin cups beneath an ocean of stars, the sloth-like waters of Nyngan and an intermittent wi-fi signal forge a rose-tinted hindsight.

This is another country, far from the urban sprawl, where the call of the road is a V8 snarl, where stoicism is considered a blood sport and a no-frills-can-do attitude is essential. There is a raw honesty here, a beauty that exists in the sparse utility. There is a dark romance and a hard-edged lust for life.

This is the heart of Australia in all its rich fetid glory:

A lesson in bush mechanics

The Marree pub. Nirvana

Call of the road


The ultimate hero. And his cattle dog





Black Mary


The indomitable Black Betty, she of the bam-a-lam, hot chicks and a roaring V8, has been reborn as Black Mary, in memory of Captain Thunderbolt’s Aboriginal wife, who stole through the night, swam the dark waters of the harbour, scaled the heights of Cockatoo Island Gaol and slipped her lover a file… he met her not long after at Glebe Point where she was waiting with horses, and they fled to Tenterfield to live lives now immortalised in bushranger lore.

Black Mary is still chock-full of bam-a-lam, hot chicks and a roaring V8.