Under a Fatal Sun, Pt. 4: Byron Bay
“From having been established and distributed by man in 1936 to all the sugar areas along the Queensland coast, the cane toad, at last count in 1981, had spread by its own volition to occupy an area that covers 785,000 kilometers (470,000 miles), almost half of Queensland, and is also established in the area surrounding Byron Bay in the north of New South Wales….” —From “Cane Toads—An Unnatural History”
Harley and I have this game we play. At least I think it’s a game. I’m not very savvy around kids. I’m usually the first one up in the morning, so I go out to Jim’s veranda to collect my notes, brew a cup, and sweep out the mental cobwebs. Harley, being three, hears me and gets up next. He comes padding out in his underwear and socks and I say “Hi, Harley”. He says “Hi, Poo Head”. I remind him politely that my name’s not Poo Head. It’s Barlo. He disagrees and reiterates, “You’re a Poo Head!” I then try a little child psychology. I tell him he is whatever he calls me. Harley is undeterred. “Hello, POO HEAD!” he shouts gleefully. And so the morning goes.
A cheeky northeasterly wing blusters across Jim’s veranda setting off the birds and windchimes and sends me scuttling for a warm spot. There’s been a change today—Jim’s kids are a bit more mellowed out and accustomed to me now.
Bonk and chookle of Balinese bamboo chimes: remnants of Jim’s lengthy love affair with Indonesia, this exotic woody sound embedded in his memory along with the beautifully alien vista of endless G-land walls peeling beyond comprehension. It’s been two-and-a-half years since his last Indo trip and no one seems willing to foot the travel bill in these lean times for a former Bronzed Aussie turned 40-year-old-mysto-legend.
Jim’s daughter, Leilani, swishes by wearing a sundress and her hot-pink satin bedroom slippers. She has chosen to wear them to school today because they set off her shiny yellow plastic backpack. At five, she has an amazing gift for coordinating color and texture.
In Jim’s house there’s a healthy ecosystem. He doesn’t believe in pesticides and the lush disorderly savanna fronting his veranda is in strict observance of the one-straw-revolution school of Fukuoka Zen gardening. You could film a fascinating documentary on insect lifecycles and predator/prey relationships simply by setting up a camera on his kitchen counter.
There are no sharp edges to Jim’s house. Banksie has kids, you see: two teenagers, three preschoolers, one in the oven with his lovely wife Manuela. In biblical terms, he has spread his seed profusely. For his children’s sake, to keep blood and vital organs intact, he has sanded down anything around his Suffolk Park homestead that might puncture or poke naked bodies. All corners have been rounded off, all sharp edges blunted and tucked under. Not unlike the organic, distinctly feminine surfboards Jim shapes.
There are no sharp edges to Jim either. He wears soft flannels and brushed cottons, all earth tones. He speaks in a measured drawl that lulls the listener into a world that has infinite cosmic meaning. He is a self-taught Renaissance man, able with his scarred red hands to transform a dense knot of camphor laurel into a graceful headboard or write code for a web page with little more than a how-to book and a few phone calls. Jim built this cozy, wood-shingled bungalow from the footings up.
He transitions easily from fin systems to global banking conspiracies with the same sense of curiosity and bemusement. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility. He believes as readily in the runes of spiritual astrology or a car that can run on a glass of water as the infallibility of a well-constructed ceiling joist. He sees Byron as the easternmost bow pulpit of the ship of Australia, pointing the way to the future.
“The east is the future—where the sun rises. This place is a portal and I enjoy hanging around the doorway and having a peek now and then.”
Today Jim’s friend Mark is coming over with video footage that irrefutably proves that UFOs have been hovering around Byron Bay for sometime now. At sunset he’s going up with Mark to the Byron water tower to see if the aliens will decide to reappear, and who knows, actually make contact. I reckon Jim would be a good spokesman. Probably invite them in for a cup of herbal tea and smoke.
We drove over to Broken Head for a surf check. Still small but there’s a possibility of swell in the next couple days. We checked out the point and Jim notes how the beach has been undercut from a recent big swell. “All that sand is offshore now,” he says with a knowing smile.
I rolled into Byron Bay proper yesterday. Traffic slowed to a third-world pace as I approached the village center. Hippies, yuppies, tourists, backpackers, street buskers and pot dealers shuffled along Jonson Street a funky slow parade. The place reeked of unbleached flour and patchouli. On the road in from Lismore I passed a sign: ” Welcome to the Shire of Byron. Nimbin, Bangalow, Mullumbimby”—these are names straight out of a Tolkien novel. The pastoral landscape of the hinterlands has the same quaint hobbity feel with its possibility of dragons. I passed the Nirvana Lodge. The metaphysical steam started to rise.
A sign: “Aged Pedestrians”. Such blunt considerations do not exist in America. In the States we eat the aged.
In Byron Bay, I’ve noticed, there are a remarkable number of young, lithe single moms walking around with their newborns and toddlers. They are serene as garden Buddhas, enclosed in a wooly bulletproof bubble of omnipotent maternity. They look barely out of high school, these beatific child madonnas. They stroll the streets of Byron pushing prams or porting their infants on their backs koala style. None of them work and the fathers seemed neatly excised from the picture.
During the day the dole madonnas can be found camped out in small pods on the beach, pairing up while they take turns swimming in the fizzy green waters of Suffolk Park. Byron is obviously some sort of traditional calving ground for unwed mothers. In Aboriginal times, expectant mothers would give birth to their babies in the healing red shallows of the tea-tree ponds near Broken Head.
My last day in Byron I connected with Danny Wills briefly. Danny is Byron’s favored son, along with the irrepressible Brendan Margieson. He was in a rush to get his Thundercat inflatable raceboat in the water at Brunswick River for a Sunday race off Cape Byron, so we caught up quickly over a cup of tea. I’d last seen him in Hawaii eight months ago for the WCT wrap-up, and had shared a leisurely box of Cape Town table wine with him and Mick Campbell at a J-Bay backpackers a few months earlier. Wills, 25, is comfortable enough in his own skin to accept the surf media as part of his job, and he’s refreshingly free of the sullen insecurity that infects many of his WCT cohorts.
Danny’s home is a spacious new mock-plantation house that overlooks Broken Head and Tallows beach. He shares it with his wife Kirsty, his three-year-old son Jayden and a newborn daughter Symone. At 25, Danny is a glowing testimonial to the elusive but quite real rewards of pro surfing. He has home, family and a lot of toys. In the garage he pulled the tarp back on what he calls his third baby: a fully restored 1979 Holden SV station wagon. Forest green with hand-tooled leather seats, the car sports a brand-new 308 power plant.
“It’s only got 12,000 kilometers on it”, he said with smug arched eyebrows. Wills is a notorious leadfoot on tour and says he has to curb himself while at home. “When I start it up, it rocks the whole house.”
The Holden ute has a strong significance in the shared Australian psyche. Part truck, part sedan, part American, part Australian, the Holden ute is the automotive equivalent of the platypus. The Kingswood, especially, is an Australian classic that was built all through the 60s and 70s. Nearly every family had one and there are still heaps of them around. Many hand-me-down family utes saw their second-life as surf cruisers until neglect and salt rust eventually sent them to the car knackers. Still, the loyalty to the Holden brand is unwavering, unmistakably Aussie. As the saying goes: “I’d rather push a Holden than drive a Ford”.
As I left Danny’s house I noticed a squashed cane toad in the gutter. I’ve been told you can boil a cane toad down in a tin billy for 10 minutes, slurp up the goop and trip like a wildebeest for hours. The Japanese use the cane-toad poison, bufotenine, as an aphrodisiac on one hand and a hair-restorer on the other.
I was sorely tempted. But like I said, I’m on vacation.
Some interesting stats (circa 2001):
Australia: 7,682,300 sq. km, 25,760 km of coastline.
Population: 19 million people.
United States of America: 9,629,091 sq. km, 19,924 km of coastline. Population: 270 million people.
Population of California: 33,000,000
Number of California surfers: approx. 1 million.
You do the math.