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The Byron Bay lighthouse

Byron Bay
Hugely popular destination on the North Coast which has attracted by alternative lifestylers and wealthy refugees from city living.
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 twenty years it has acquired a reputation as the residence of the rich and famous with Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski moving into a mansion in the hinterland (which they have subsequently left), John Cornell and Delvene Delaney doing the same and owning a local hotel, and the likes of Olivia Newton-John finding the place an ideal retreat from their LA lifestyle. She, too, has moved on.

Recently the writer Craig McGregor argued that it was really like the Californian coastal towns of Carmel and Monterey in its evolution moving from surfers to artists, tourists and celebrities.

The truth, if it can ever be gleaned from these rather exaggerated images, is that for the most part, Byron Bay is a quiet, pleasant little seaside town in northern New South Wales. Certainly this is not a town like Nimbin. Nor is it an overtly upmarket retreat like Noosa Heads. It is just another ordinary country town which has experienced a population boom because it boasts excellent surfing and plenty of good land. Without the publicity few people would drive off the Pacific Highway and only holiday makers would decide to stay.

The overwhelming impression is that it is a town hiding behind Cape Byron and nestled in between the rocky headland and the hills which rise to the west. In the past five years it has grown dramatically and now spreads in every direction - both up and down the coast and well into the hinterland.

One of the things that makes it special, as Craig McGregor observed, is that 'Public pressure has halted both Club Med and McDonald's from moving in; the green-dominated Byron Shire Council has banned drive-in takeaway food outlets from the town centre; buildings have been restricted to three storeys in height; and a moratorium has been placed on high-density development until the sewerage facilities catch up.' In those actions lie the heart of contemporary Byron Bay. It is different.

Byron Bay is located 790 km north of Sydney and 173 km south of Brisbane. It has the distinction of being one of the many places along the east coast of Australia which was named by Captain James Cook as he sailed up the coast in 1770.

Writing in his ship's log on 15 May 1770 Cook recorded "I named Cape Byron ... a tolerable high point of land, bore north west, distant three miles. It may be known by a remarkable high peaked mountain lying inland north-west by west from it. Inland it is pretty high and hilly, but near the shore it is low; to the southward of the point the land is low, and tolerable level...'

Cook named the 'high point' Cape Byron after Vice-Admiral John Byron who was the grandfather of the famous 19th century poet, Lord Byron.

It is possible that Cook's vessel was observed by the traditional owners, the Banjalang Aboriginal people, who knew the area as 'cavaba' (in an early map this was spelt 'cavvanba' and, for a brief time, it was known as 'Cavanbah') which some claim means 'meeting place'.

European development of the area was typical of all the New South Wales north coast. In 1828 Captain H.J. Rous took soundings and named the bay to the north of the cape, Byron Bay. By the 1840s cedar cutters, eager to cut down the timber, had moved into the area. They continued to be active in the hinterland until the 1850s. The area around the Bay remained uninhabited by Europeans until 1869. It was around this time that settlers started to move into the area. Little development occurred until 1869 when the whole district was subdivided. Again development was slow. The earliest settler in the district were Thomas Skelton who purchased land in the district in 1881. By 1886 Eli Hayter, another settler who arrived in 1881, had opened a butcher's shop. It was at this time that work started on the town's first jetty.

Through the 1880s the district was developed by the early settlers who cleared the land and, to their delight, found that the rich soils were capable of growing virtually anything. By 1890 crops of bananas, pineapples, corn, potatoes, all manner of vegetables and herds of horses and cattle were common throughout the valley.

By 1886 the town of Byron Bay had become a reality. Town lots were sold and general stores, hotels, blacksmith's shops and a receiving office for mail were all built. Two years later the jetty was completed and in that same year a Post Office was established.

In 1890 the town got its first policeman and four years later the name was officially changed from Cavanbah to Byron Bay. This was also the year the railway arrived. In 1895 the town's continuing existence was assured when Norco (an abbreviation of North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Cooperative Ltd), a company producing a range of dairy and meat products, opened a major factory. By 1925 it was the largest butter producer in Australia.

The town's evolution was slow. As recently as 1938 there were still only 1750 people living in Byron Bay and, over the course of this century, it seems the major events have been things like the establishment of the Cape Byron lighthouse (1901), the building of the new Court House and Police Station (1921), the arrival of electricity (1926), the removal of the jetty (1947), the cessation of whaling off the coast (1962) and the closing of the Norco Butter factory (1975).


Paul Hogan's mansion (built after the success of Crocodile Dundee) in the hills behind Byron Bay

By the late 1980s the region had gone crazy largely as a result of people like Paul Hogan, John Cornell, Elle Macpherson, Peter Russell-Clarke, Olivia Newton-John and Johnny Young all moving in. There were strange moments of excess. Hogan spent nearly $4 million building his quasi-Spanish mansion. John Cornell bought up 43 one acre lots just so his rural outlook could be preserved and there was talk of Cornell and Hogan spending $20 million to develop the area. A local avocado farmer renamed himself Fast Buck$ and tried to stop development and, strangely enough, this seemed to work.

Today Byron Bay is sustained by tourism and its associated industries. There are surfboard manufacturers in town, good quality restaurants (Fins at the Byron Hotel is one of the best restaurants in the country), a wide range of diverse accommodation options (from tree houses to exclusive bed and breakfasts) and the aim of any holiday is to relax which is why there are really very few places to see and the things to do tend to be more whale watching, surfing and sunbathing.

The Byron Bay markets are held on the 1st Sunday of each month and feature lots of produce from the surrounding area.

Things to see:   


A couple sitting on the cliffs below the Byron Bay Lighthouse

Cape Byron Headland Reserve
Managed by the Cape Byron Trust as part of the National Parks and Wildlife Service Estate, Cape Byron Headland Reserve includes the lighthouse (see below) as well as a number of excellent walking tracks.

The delightful Cape Byron Headland Reserve and Walking Track which heads both north and south from the lighthouse. The northerly walking track winds around the cliffs to the most easterly point before dropping down to Little Wategos and Wategos Beach and the southerly track heads down the ridge towards Captain Cook's Lookout. Both offer exceptional views of the Pacific Ocean and therefore, in May and from August through to October, they are ideal for spotting the humpback whales which migrate up and down the coast.


Byron Bay Lighthouse
Byron's greatest attraction is the outstanding Byron Bay lighthouse. It is located only 300 metres south of Australia's easternmost point, Cape Byron. The lighthouse, which was completed in 1901 and stands 22 metres high (113 metres above sea level) is an ideal starting point for the delightful Cape Byron Headland Reserve and Walking Track. The lighthouse, one of the most powerful on the NSW coast had a range of 42 km out to sea at a time when lighthouses were vital for navigation. It was built of concrete blocks which meant there was no need to quarry for sandstone in the local area.

It is now possible to stay in the lightkeepers quarters. Contact the Cape Byron Trust (02) 6685 8565.



Ewingsdale - a particularly attractive B&B destination just outside of Byron Bay

Byron's Beaches
Byron Bay has a range of great beaches which are designed to cater for all needs. In the shire there is a total of 37 km of sandy beaches. The patrolled beaches, best for those with families or people who want the certainty of help if they get in trouble, are Wategos, Main Beach, Broken Head and The Pass.

For nudists there is a nude beach which has been designated by Byron Council. It is located 500 metres west of Belongil Creek and can be accessed by driving down Grays Lane at Tyagarah.


Broken Head Nature Reserve
This 98-ha reserve offers a walk through lush rainforest to secluded King's Beach, a popular fishing spot. It is located 4km south of Byron Bay and the walking trails offer excellent views of the coastline against a backdrop of rainforest. It is a sad comment on the area that there was a time, before the arrival of Europeans, when the area between Byron Bay and Lismore was all sub-tropical rainforest. Today less than 0.4% of that area is left. Broken Head is one of those remnants and contains such beauties as white booyong, rosewood, red bean, yellow and red carabeen, bangalow palms, maidens blush and brush box.


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Phone: 1300 136 559

















Byron Bay