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…”

My Brother’s Keeper

Gristled surfers, ink-garlanded muscles and snap-thin-bone bodies guard the beach in Maroubra, all intent on getting their share.  The waves boom and crash in this Aboriginal place of thunder, then hiss and crinkle as they meet land, easing to welcome sand-soft toes and a toddler’s giggles.

Strung out between Coogee to the north and Malabar to the south, Maroubra curls beneath the brow of of Long Bay, home to the notorious Correctional Centre and the Anzac Rifle Range. Beneath this insidious gaze Maroubra shines as an example of beach life with white sands in a cursive swoop, legendary surf breaks, open space, chock-full milk bars and a proud working class narrative.

Here the dog days of summer never fade, wolfishly roaring deep into the night. Thongs and shorts, skimpy bikinis, nanna one-pieces, striped towels, floppy hats and flesh are the uniform of the day. Sandy hands clutch hot chips and rainbow-flavoured drinks, beads of chill dripping into the sand while gulls whirl and collide above, savagely bent on their target.

Families flock to the beach with guttural joy,

“I’ve told ya’s before ya little buggers! Youse gotta wear’em.  Yeah darlin’, that lady’s got boobies… Nah mate, nah. Leave it on yer head… JAYDEN! WILL YOU BLOODY LISTEN! COME BACK HERE NOW… Ah, sodjus”

spilling across the sands. Mums corral slippery kids into bathers and out of picnic baskets, an old couple take the air, long-limbed teens flop lazily in front of each other and a tradie stands solemnly, watching the surf. There’s a retro family feel, people piling out of battered station wagons to escape hot seats, nippers racing into the waves, corned beef sarnies wrapped in white paper and past-their-prime gumball machines:

Back from the sweep of sand the Maroubra Seals sports club stands over the front with an imposing gesture, a mechanic, a hotel and a Thai joint it’s only companions on a strip that should be bustling with business:

There is a palpable sense of space. To the south of the beach Magic Point is an unexpected swathe of bushy camouflage, the towers of Long Bay looming in the distance; to the north, apartment blocks line the front in an orderly if dated line. It sparks a rare thought: where is everything? Expansive beach? Check. Surf club, sports club, RSL club? Check. A sprinkling of diners and caffs? Check. Pub? Check. Thai? Check.

That’s it. That’s all there seems to be. Where are the shops? Where are the cars? Where is the sterile anonymity of the local supermarket with its Argentinian garlic and Brazilian mangos? Too-small-for-you and made of nylon clothes? Red Rooster?

Nope. Not here.

Tiny McKeon Street leads away from the ocean and is dotted with a hamburger joint, a posh neo-European-Australian fusion place, an organic caff and a milk bar. The secretary opts for fish, chips and hot tea [I can always rely on her when tempted to guzzle cold beer and smoke Cubans] and settling down beneath a shady gum we watch as life strolls blithely past. The secretary comments that she finds Maroubra vaguely sparse, that there is an emptiness she cannot put her finger on. I remind her all her fingers are attached to hot chips and she agrees, maybe it’s nothing.

She is right though. There is a shrouded sense of something else, and the scent of a counter culture lingers. Though it is lacking the coastal ostentation of its more northerly sisters, Maroubra is not without pretence. It’s no secret that for all the recent gentrification (of which I find little evidence beyond boarded up work sites, wet concrete and the noise of hidden machines), the suburb is tattooed. It belongs.

Raw with pride, the Bra Boys are Maroubra’s infamously territorial surf mob, known for their clashes with authority, fierce loyalty to each other and an autobiographical doco entitled Bra Boys: Blood is Thicker Than Water that lifted the lid on the darker side of the suburb.

The surfing brotherhood with the flesh-inscribed motto My Brother’s Keeper, worn as an inky lei, is a fierce reminder of the poverty and social dislocation in the area, of the rite of passage from boy to man and then on to the testosterone-fueled angst that lolls on car bonnets, struts the front and owns the sand.

Koby Abberton
Image courtesy of Newsphoto

As a term, surf culture tastes vanilla and invokes frangipani-patterened boardies and Hawaiian Tropic, bleach blonde hair and the smell of salt and sex wax. In Maroubra a darkness lurks behind the stereotype, shadowed with controversy, hard stares and the sense of solidarity ingrained within an estranged extended family.

Image courtesy of Newsphoto

At the My Brother’s Keeper concept store you can buy surfwear emblazoned with slogans and gaze at walls tiled with faded photographs that tell the story of the tribe. There is a message that reads:

My Brothers Keeper is not a Gang, it’s not a Fashion Label it is a Way of Life. It is a belief that nothing comes before your Friends & Family. It is for all Races. Whether you are Australian, Asian, American, African, Middle Eastern, European or from Fucking Mars…

Amidst the clamour of distaste for the Bra Boys, the veiled taints of racism and a pervading fear, it is clear that this is a family and it protects its own. Though the angst sweats uncomfortably in some of the creases of Maroubra, the tribe are part of what gives this place its unconventional, retro beauty.

The early years

Born to surf

[Images courtesy of Newsphoto]

In a forest of houso blocks just metres from the front, the sun shines gently through mature trees, sofas stand sentinel in front yards strewn with life, and kids hang off the gates. There is a vibrancy, of life lived despite its hardships.

Steeped in rank seawater and rust, Maroubra has been described as a ghetto. While it is a hard-edged city surf beach that has a visceral realism, a rare find in a plastic fantastic world and the natural beauty is undeniable, this is a long way from the ghetto.

The pounding waves define not only the bay but the life its people lead. The ocean slamming into the rocks is the inveterate battle of the elements, the shaping-up of the forces of nature. It conjures a sense of perpetual change, of expectation and escape and there is no denying the serpentine break born of this conflict is at the wild heart of this gritty suburb.