The Best Place in the Universe: Byron Bay

There is possibly nowhere in the world quite like Byron Bay. From ponies protesting about oil mining, to stoned couples giggling on the beach, it’s entirely removed from normality. The small town has an abundance of surf shops, tie-dye havens and bars, and is so chilled out, I’m surprised anything gets done. From the moment I stepped off the bus, every last shred of worry, self-doubt and general insecurities evaporated; this is a place that doesn’t have time for negativity.

I’m in Byron over its annual Blues & Roots festival, which would have been great to go to, but at $180 for a day ticket, would also have blown my budget out for this week. Due to this, the entire town is non-stop, crowds of people meandering their way around the high-street and beach.

The people are what make this town so brilliant: from a Canadian explaining her normal nights out (“do a line, do a line, have sex with the guy whose house it is, do a line, do a line, have a dance, do a line, lose your friends, do a line, have sex in the kitchen, do a line, do a line”), to convincing an Australian who fancied himself as a bit of a Heath Ledger type (sadly just in his own head), to strut across a picnic bench, recreating everyone’s favourite scene from ’10 Things I Hate About You’. After a night involving a box of goon, sitting on the beach in the dark, watching Spurs play at ridiculous o’clock, and managing to get lost in Australia’s smallest town, my first night in Byron was the best introduction to a new place.

The next day, my roommate, Becky, and I headed out to Nimbin. Nimbin is about an hour and a half from Byron, but hasn’t progressed out of the 60s and 70s. Its a hippy commune, and tie-dye, organic food, hemp and anti-Government mantras rule the town. It has a very blatant stance on weed, and seeing as it was 4/20 when we visited, we caught it at its best. The town has a small police station, but I can’t believe it gets used much: you get offered weed or cookies every few metres.

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When horse-riding on the beach is in every top-ten-things-to-do-in-Byron list, it makes perfect sense to book in for one, and have one last ride before coming home. A local company called Seahorses was topping all of the reviews and Google searches, so after a quick phone call, and being roped in to get the horses ready, I was set. A 7.30 wake up call was a slight shock to the system, but I’d been missing early mornings with the horses, and seeing as the sun was out and the temperature rising, late mornings in bed seem like a waste these days.

So, I turn up at the Seahorses ranch, catch four ponies, get all the gear together, load them onto the box, and head for Brunswick Heads, a beach further down the coast than Byron’s main beach. We were due to meet two other girls at the beach, so we got ourselves and the horses ready, and waited. And then waited some more. And a bit more after that, until Jo, who runs Seahorses, phoned the girl up. Turns out she’d forgotten, and therefore wasn’t coming. We then had the predicament of two riders and four horses – and no one to drive the lorry and the two spare horses back. Instead, it turned into a ride and lead session; not quite the gallop-along-a-beach experience I’d hoped for – made all the more sour by miles of deserted, white sand.

Either way, my pony, Curly, was a sweetheart, and after convincing him it was ok to canter away from the group, we did a lot of playing around. By the end of the ride he was leg yielding across the sand (made easier by trying to get away from the incoming tide), and working nicely on the bit – so much so that Jo said I was more than welcome to school and compete him, if only I lived here (which she then attempted to sort out by offering me a job as a ride leader in her soon to be developed campsite, in the Byron Hinterlands).

On returning to the ranch, Jo asked if I wanted to help round the remaining horses up and move them to a different paddock, and seeing as I had nothing better to do than lying on the beach all day, it was a pretty sweet option. So, I get handed a new pony, and take off at break-neck speeds with the ranch’s resident cowboy (who was in fact the owner of the anti-fracking pony I met on my first day here). Once the horses were sent on their way, we had a gallop through the cross-country course, and despite losing my stirrups several times (not a great idea riding in pumps), and having to make quick diversions away from A-grade jumps, it made me that much more excited about going home, and getting to do this every day.

I have rarely, if ever, been on a yard where the words ‘electric fencing’ have gone unmentioned for more than a few hours, so it was no surprise that that was the next job I was sent off to do. Suddenly, fencing at home is appealing: there are no 50-acre paddocks, or areas of grass that are “a bit snakey”. The day finished with a bareback ride on Curly, and promises to keep in touch, whenever I’m back in the country.

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On being the palest person in Australia

Thanks in part to my attempt at decoding what several phrases mean over here*, when I was told that I’d have to get up at six – in the dark – to get on a ferry, I laughed it off. Dark couldn’t possibly mean dark, in the way that cold doesn’t ever mean cold. However, six am rolled around in the unpleasant and unbelievably quick way that it does, and to my surprise, it was in fact dark. Dark and cold, to be precise, and not the way I’d envisioned my mornings while travelling to be.

Lining up behind two other cars and a horse float, we boarded the ferry to Queenscliffe; the other side of the bay. After a dolphin-less and shark-less journey, we arrived at the harbour, and started our way along the Great Ocean Road.

First stop was Torquay. The only similarity between this Torquay and the one located in England was the presence of seagulls (much smaller here), and sand. Even then, this sand is a golden yellow, not washed out and faded like its British namesake. The water shimmered in its varying shades of blue, the small turquoise waves lapping at the shore. An all girls’ school was having a body-boarding lesson when we arrived, and the screams and shrieks were overly reminiscent of secondary school, and the noise that arose whenever an unsuspecting boy/dog/ice cream van found its way onto the grounds.

Torquay is home to Bells Beach, the location of one surfing’s biggest international competitions. With formidable rocks, 3m waves on a still day, and its jagged coastline, it’s no wonder that the Easter-time event is the largest in the country.

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Next on our tightly-scheduled, whistle-stop tour of the Great Ocean Road was Lorne. We piled back into the car, and arrived officially onto the road itself, marked by an unobtrusive sign, and a statue dedicated to the men who built it. When thousands of men arrived in Australia after the First World War, there were no jobs and no money, so the government issued the road to be built – and with no heavy machinery to do the work, slogging their way across the mountainous land in the summer heat must’ve been too much at times.

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The landscape surrounding the road is stunning: when I come back (and I’m over 25 and exempt from the ridiculous deposits required by hire car rentals), I’ll certainly be spending the majority of my time making my way along it. Australians don’t mince their words, and naming this stretch of road is certainly an example of that.

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Lorne is supposedly the Australian equivalent of Newquay: school-leavers flock to the beautiful beach for underage drinking, illegal substances and a flock of music and art events across the summer. However, while Newquay has a lovable yet seedy and run-down feel, with the atmosphere of a fight just about to break out, Lorne is lively yet safe, a tranquility spilling over into the event preparations and groups of young people.

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Next up was exploring part of the bush on horse-back. There are several things in life that I’ve always thought to be true, but since being in Australia, have become solid, hard facts. These are: 1. my slightly wild curls turn into massively wild, hairbrush-proof dreadlocks within 500m of sea air; 2. doggy-paddle is not a sufficient swimming stroke; 3. I only tan when I’m riding a horse.

I’m now sporting some rather wonderful tan lines on my back and shoulders (which, as a painfully pale person, I treasure as evidence of my skin changing colour), and as usual am sporting a very fetch farmer tan (i.e. brown arms/face/neck, and white legs). While planning to come to Australia, I was more excited about the thought of not having to endure a farmer tan for another summer, but it seems my skin and tanning abilities had other thoughts on the matter.

This is now my seventh week away from home, and near the top of my things-that-I-miss-most-and-make-me-homesick-at-the-drop-of-a-hat list is horses. Obviously. I miss their smell and the safety they bring, their solid necks and their long ears, as well as a billion other things I could never attempt to put into words, because it’s too grand and it’s too intrinsic to be able to describe consciously.

Luckily though I managed to find a short-term fix. Ever since I could read, I’ve had a knack for finding horses wherever I am (something my parents have rarely appreciated), and true to form, I found a trekking centre ten minutes from my grandparents’ house. Perfect. I signed up for the advanced, three-hour ride (a mistake when you haven’t ridden for almost two months) through the bush, with promises of a few canters.

These ‘few canters’ turned out to be the best understatement of the year: as soon as we were up on grass verges running parallel to dusty roads, we remained in nothing slower than a canter. As we flew across sandy tracks lined by silver Eucalyptus trees, giant butterflies erupted from the bushes around us, and green, blue and red parrots soared in the leafy passages above our heads.

Crouched over my horse’s neck, grit lining my eyes, mouth and covering my skin (hello instant tan), I was in heaven. This was the best way to see the bush, to get into the parts that cars can’t access, that people wouldn’t want to walk across. You feel every connection with the ground, but at the same time you’re weightless; you feel safer than ever, while knowing that the slightest loss of balance will send you crashing to the floor; you feel hidden away from everything: it’s just you, your horse and the chattering birds above you.

The three hours passed quickly, and when we returned I may have made the tiny mistake of asking what jobs here were like. Turns out you only need to be able to stay on a horse, you can live onsite, and they have Welsh ponies (won’t make the passport joke again, don’t worry mum). Despite being unable to sit down properly, and walking like John Wayne, it was the best way of seeing Australia so far, and I’m hoping that those three-hours will be enough to get me through until I come home.

* No, don’t worry, I haven’t accidentally landed in Austria and spent the two weeks or so wondering why people aren’t speaking English, and why there aren’t any kangaroos hopping around. We may all technically speak the same language, but there’s lots over here that means something very different than at home.

“It’s really muddy”: there’s a puddle on the ground and the floor’s a bit wet. Considering that “it’s a bit wet” at home means we’re knee deep in water, and the horses are swimming in mud, I’d much prefer to be using this definition.

“That beach is terrible”: there’s a bit of seaweed draped over white sand, deposited there by crystal clear, sapphire blue water.

“It’s bloody freezing!”: the temperature’s dropped below 20-degrees, and/or there’s a slight breeze. I’m still trying to explain that 23-degrees at home is a good summer’s day, not something that warrants jeans and jumpers.

“I’ll get you some thongs” is a perfectly acceptable offer to be made by your grandparents.

“It’s pouring down!”: around 5mm of water fell in about ten minutes, quickly replaced by blue skies and sunshine.