As I write I have just cranked up the Sunnyboys on my headphones to help me wallow in this strange hazy reminiscence that is the North Coast of NSW. We have busted North from Sydney and Port Stephens towards Byron Bay. Blurring down a highway that has changed infinitely since I first drove it 30 years ago but still somehow tastes familiar.
I think secretly I was hoping for some religious experience as we swept down that onramp out of Sydney and pointed North. I was then hoping that feeling to be amplified as we hit the first sugar cane fields and the air started to feel sweeter and warmer. Banana plantations, Gangajang songs and these crazy little sections of the of old highway where you marvel at how so many cars and trucks could possibly have fitted down this main arterial road linking the whole East coast of Australia.
But you know what….nothing happened. There were short bursts of memory as we would round a corner and before us would be sprawled a golden, sunset drenched mountain range. A painted backdrop to a landscape of cane fields and wide open rivers that make the locals nervous every time it rains. Derelict petrol stations that now just sell fruit and veges with no one there to take your money – just an honesty box. Leave your money, take your veges and hurry on towards the bright gleaming BP / Maccas Service Station that now dominates the shiny new 4 lane bypass. Little towns left to whither as everyone rushes past to get where they have to get to with the least impediment possible. Don’t stop. Get there quick.
I was expecting memory and emotion because for SO long this stretch of coast has held almost mythical status in my mind. Growing up as a surfer in Sydney you used to dream of surfing the North Coast. Dream of crawling into a clapped out old Kingswood with several mates and a few sleeping bags and just GOING! In your mind every bush track led you to an undiscovered or rarely surfed beach. You would sleep under stars and eucalyptus trees, stink of campfire, drink, smoke, talk and of course surf till your arms couldn’t move. Surfing magazines fed you a diet of grainy images of endless, groomed sweeping lines of swell wrapping into empty tree lined bays. Maybe 4 or 5 guys picking off the sets and then retiring to warm up by a fire on the beach.
We first ventured North as a family where I learned to stand on a surfboard. Then there were annual pilgrimages to the hallowed places – Angourie, Byron Bay, Treachery. I remember my car day-dreaming moved from simple things like watching the cane fields to complex things like girls and friends. Mind surfing the road side embankments, imaging that they were waves. Hoping we would score great surf. Craning our necks out the windows the very first time you see the ocean up near Byron and you finally see whether the 12 hour trip has been worth it.
My older brother stepped out on his own first because he had his licence. He would fan my flames of desire by coming back with his own tales of green water and empty peaks. In my mind he and his mates were impossibly cool. Smoking rollies as they trundled North in Jake’s Austin Freeway or Bohane’s hideously unreliable Peugeot. Getting into trouble, sleeping under their cars, chasing girls.
Then I got my wings and carved my own path. Sure I mimicked my brother at first then I created my own dreams. The first time I took my own car, the first time I took a girlfriend, the time we dropped everything and drove 800km because the weather chart merely looked like it was going to deliver the swell of a lifetime.
So I thought that all of this would come crashing down upon me in this big old warm deluge of memory. But it didn’t. And then I realised, as I swept past those cane fields, that maybe I really had grown up. Maybe I wasn’t actually drawn backwards towards that heady youthful nostalgia that seemed to say “everything used to be simple and easy back then”.
So when we finally rolled into Byron Bay I was just there. I wasn’t looking back. So it didn’t bother me as much that the place was backpacker hell even in the middle of Winter when it used to be a gutterless, rainy ghost town. It didn’t bother me that there were 300 people scrapping like seagulls over knee high waves when there used to be about 10 (and you saw those same guys at the local milkbar playing the pinball machines later that same day). It didn’t bother me that everyone looks at you as if they are cooler, more alternative or more local than you (because they got there last week not this week).
I let them all have their Byron. I have had mine. And I can guarantee that all my girls will ever remember when they look back on their youth is the sheer unbridled joy of me pushing them into waves on my surfboard at the Pass, as Mt Warning blazed away in the evening light behind them.
So this morning as I wandered back to our tent under a blue bird sky framed by eucalyptus trees swaying in the early morning offshore I just kind of felt right here. I wasn’t looking back, I wasn’t looking forward. I wasn’t chasing someone else’s idea of cool or trying to recapture my past. I was writing a new story and it feels pretty good so far.