After the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival, the sleepy town of Byron Bay and its surrounds became a magnet for those seeking spiritual and personal development and a lifestyle that embraced rather than sought to tame the environment.
Its mind-blowing coastline also made it a magnet for surfers. Byron Bay became synonymous with hippies, surfies and anyone who took LSD guru Timothy Leary’s ‘tune in, turn on and drop out’ maxim fully on board.
Fast forward 37 years and Byron has become a firm favourite on most backpackers’ itineraries.
Perhaps because of this, some of the shine on this coastal jewel has worn off.
Don’t get me wrong – Byron has some of the most glorious beaches in the country, a great music scene and fun nightlife. (Amazingly, in the early 80s the locals used to call it ‘Boring Bay’ for its lack of stuff to do once the sun had set.)
Now, if you want to surf or scuba dive, do a yoga retreat, party all week or find a hostel and hang out on the beach, just roll into town and you’ll find a tourist office that provides all this and more straight away. Yet perhaps its because the town is so well set up for the backpacker set that it’s become a victim of its own success; more a well-oiled holiday destination than a hippy Shangri-la.
If you’re after partying, lying on the beach with the beautiful people and plenty of outdoor activities, and your idea of alternative is taking a bus trip to Nimbin and eating hash cookies, then you’ll love it.
But if you are looking for the original spirit of the rainbow area, might I suggest you look a little further afield…
Why? Crystals, tarot and healing
Tell me more: Driving into Mullumbimby (Mullum to the locals), the road dips, and Mount Chincogan rises in front of you. Its sudden appearance has the air of a spiritual omen.
Once you’re in the town you’ll see that the influence of the 70s is alive and well – the town’s pace is slow, the people friendly and there’s plenty shops and apothecaries trading all things organic, herbal or originating in India.
As Mullum is inland and therefore beachless, there’s no surf scene here. However, if you want to immerse yourself in water, take a dip at Kiva spa. We spent an hour soaking in the gorgeous outdoor baths and letting the bubbles work some of the stresses of the city out of our muscles.
I gave the sauna a miss – it’s a small wooden box that looks authentic but way too confined for a claustrophobe like myself – but I did opt for a massage. It was the best $65 I’d spent for some time, and I floated out of there with panda eyes from lying face down in my own eye makeup but feeling indulgently relaxed.
With my body and mind now refreshed and recharged, we headed off to Crystal Castle, which we felt sure would offer some good vibrations. We weren’t wrong. The Crystal Castle is full of beautiful gardens and walks, lined with exquisite (and massive) chunks of crystals, Balinese inspired gardens and rainforest dotted with statues of deities (mostly of the Hindu or Buddhist persuasion).
The Crystal Castle also provides tarot readings, so being on a quest for something alternative, I had to try one. At $55 for half an hour, it was a bit of a splurge, but the reader told me everything I wanted to hear, so I figured it was money well spent. Now I’m just waiting for it to come true…
Where? Brunswick Heads
Why? Life’s a beach
Tell me more: A local told me that Brunswick Heads used to be the place to be if you’d just got out of jail, were just about to do time or were on the run from the law.
I’ve no idea how to verify this claim, but I have to say that apart from the odd beefy bloke sporting jail tats at the Brunswick Heads Hotel, the rest of the place looks decidedly yuppified. Or yippified? Whatever – enough with the labeling.
About 40 minutes from the Queensland border, the place is definitely family oriented and fills up in the hotter months, but it contains some of the sleepiness that Byron Bay of old had.
The river is at the centre of the town and is the place to be to keep cool (you can swim in it) or hire a boat. I spent most of my time swimming in the gentle flat waters of Torakina, a protected beach near the river, but if you’re up for a surf, go to North Head Beach.
I also whiled away a fair bit of time in the coffee shops, reading the paper and watching the world go by. On Sunday, the place to be is the beer garden at the Brunswick Hotel, listening to a local band and tucking into a bit of Aussie pub food.
Okay, not an incredibly alternative thing to do, but there were veggie burgers on the menu…
Why? Scenery to die for
Tell me more: We accidentally discovered Uki on the way to Murwullimbah. We never got to the latter place, so caught up in the delights of the Sunday Uki markets.
We didn’t know at the time but every third Sunday of the month the Uki markets are held.
Located close to Wollumbi (Mount Warning), Uki should definitely be on your list if you want to get a view of the real rainbow culture and indulge in the sort of subtropical scenery that’ll have you sighing in delight.
Uki also has a thriving arts scene, including some fabulous pottery on display at the market. Uki’s charm is its sense of community and the market really has a village feel.
Many of the stalls contain stuff made or grown by the locals that you won’t see anywhere else, at great prices. I bought some beautiful hand made beads and matching necklace and an exquisite Indian silk beaded dress with a matching shawl – all for $30.
Uki is also a great town to drop into on the way to one of the numerous national parks in the area, including Nightcap, Wollumbin, Springbrook and Mt Warning National Park.
We chose to visit Mount Warning, and I wasn’t disappointed. Its cool climes were a welcome relief (it was bloody hot that day in the hinterland). The 8km round trip to the summit and back is quite steep and strenuous and we didn’t do the last 2km (surfing injury, I swear).
But it was so worth being immersed in the magic of sub-tropical lushness and the remnants of an incredibly ancient rainforest.