Has Byron Bay lost its soul?
The locals are calling it "Aspen by the sea". It's a bemusing contrast that the bohemian beach town of Byron Bay, with its barefoot hippy lifestyle, would share anything in common with the luxury Colorado ski town.
But the times (thanks to an influx of wealthy tourists and seachangers), they are a-changin'.
"The billionaires are pushing out the millionaires," Byron Bay surf instructor Rusty Miller says. "We have guys coming in here in their helicopters."
It's 7.30am Saturday on Wategos Beach. A handful of surfers and dolphins share the plump, glistening waves, as a humpback whale swims past Julian Rocks in the distance.
Whether you've seen it only through the filter of Instagram or you've had the pleasure of witnessing it in real life, the natural beauty of Byron Bay's coastline is undeniably breathtaking.
Every morning a group of septuagenarians takes to the waves with their mals, regardless of old age stiffening their joints. One of them has had a hip replacement, another's kidneys are playing up. They are the weathered faces of pre-Instagram Byron Bay.
"We share something special, we look after each other," retired schoolteacher and surfer Jim Rogers, 71, says.
It's this sense of deeply knotted community that stops Rogers and his wife Lee, 69, from selling up and moving further south down the coast where the waves are empty and the property affordable. He arrived in Byron in 1965 as a grommet fresh out of university when the Wategos hillside was only banana plantations and they slept in tin sheds.
"It's certainly become a world brand now, but saying that, it's still a good place to live," Rogers grins.
Byron's brand has surged thanks to Instagram. It has become a global hothouse for the social media platform, with almost 2.5 million #byronbay posts and a litany of local influencers, and many more wannabes immigrating from interstate in the hope of finding digital stardom, or at least a bit of cash from sharing the aspirational Byron life.
But with this amplification has come a noticeable change. Is it natural modernisation or perhaps saturation? It's hard to say, but it's clear Byron's reality and mythology have irrevocably altered. Just like the Cape Byron Lighthouse goats, the abattoir, Mexican Mick's, Maddog surf factory and the bloke selling fruit and vegetables from his horse and cart, those old tin shacks are long gone.
Today, Wategos is an enclave of multimillion-dollar beach houses, including one Caribbean colonial-inspired behemoth that in April was snapped up by F45 gym boss Adam Gilchrist for $18.85 million. Syrian billionaire Ghassan Aboud also created headlines earlier this month when he purchased retail billionaire Gerry Harvey's Byron on Byron resort for $41.7 million.
"I always knew there was going to be a lot of growth," 1965 US surf champion Miller says.
The 75-year-old surfer and coeditor of Rusty's Byron Guide immigrated to Byron Bay from California via Hawaii in 1970, attracted, like so many others, by the waves.
"It was a tough town then and a hardworking town, a working-class town, a lot of blood on the boots," he says of Byron's abattoir, mining and whaling history. "It wasn't easy to live here. You had to find work. As the town grew we realised the value of the waves - the waves became very powerful as a resource."
It not just waves attracting people to the area now, but celebrities.
Miller tells of teaching a Japanese movie star to surf the previous week, who was accompanied to the beach by an entourage of 25 people including his own personal doctor.
THE HEMSWORTH EFFECT
Hollywood superhero Chris Hemsworth is building a controversial mega-mansion in neighbouring Broken Head, which nearby residents have labelled obscene, greedy, flashy and vulgar and which is estimated to be worth $20 million once complete.
Hemsworth - along with his actor brother Liam and celebrity pal Matt Damon - is a regular Byron Bay paparazzi target and has helped concentrate the spotlight on the northern NSW town. Not that celebrities are a new concept to Byron. Paul Hogan, John Cornell and Delevene Delaney came in the late '80s. Olivia Newton-John owns a farm in the hills and a spa retreat. Nicole Kidman is a fan. Elle Macpherson, Margot Robbie and Isabel Lucas are regulars. Other celebrities to buy into the area in recent years include footballer Tim Cahill, TV host Carrie Bickmore, model Gemma Ward and former tennis champ Pat Rafter.
But something has shifted in Byron Bay.
Some call it the "Hemsworth effect", but that is an unfair and narrow pretext. It is much bigger than that.
Where once people were drawn by magnetic attraction to the area's physical beauty and open-minded community, where you could shed your Brisbane or Sydney office skin and let the rainbow region's aura cleanse away your sins and stress, it now seems that some are forcing the town to change to suit them.
And they are coming in droves. The town's population sits at just over 9000, according to the 2016 Census. Yet 2.1 million tourists visit annually. That is just under the entire population of Brisbane flooding Byron's one-lane roads that proudly boast no traffic lights. The craterlike potholes peppering the town's bitumen are a clear sign of the strain from these massive visitor numbers.
"People are not coming to participate. They get what they want and pack up and go home at the end of the weekend," local businessman Rich Johnson explains. "It was a place to be yourself without fear of judgment. It's a diverse town - there's been working class, millionaires, hippies, musos, artists, the doof crowd, transient people on their holidays - such a rich tapestry of people make up the rich essence of the town," Johnson, 49, says.
"If you talk about Byron losing its soul, it's people coming here and ignoring those reasons," he says. "They're coming in with southern attitudes that don't reflect the core principles of the people who live here.
"This tidal wave of mainstream conventional Australian attitudes that has descended upon the town in recent years has sucked the oxygen out a bit of the sensibility that we have and I think people are feeling that."
Johnson moved to the town as an eight-year-old in 1978, when his father left a job in advertising in Sydney to start a hobby farm. As soon as he arrived, Johnson was enchanted. "I discovered surfing, I discovered nature and I discovered the alternative hippy culture," he says.
He is now, along with business partner Norm Black, 49, the biggest private employer in Byron Bay, employing 120 people through their online travel company TripADeal.
Byron Bay's unemployment levels have dropped to 3.9 per cent, according to Department of Employment March 2019 figures (compared to 5 per cent nationally) - a significant decrease from the 10.69 per cent in 2015.
Johnson is proud that two local blokes now offer a valid career path for people in the
area, where once hospitality was the only form of income. But he admits this plays a part in the town's shift.
"I'm contributing to it as much as everyone else. I don't want to be a hypocrite," he says.
Byron's constant rotation of festivals, including Bluesfest, Splendour in the Grass, Falls, Byron Writers Festival and Byron Bay Surf Festival, offer little reprieve from the crowds flocking to the town. The loss of a seasonal ebb and flow is something many locals mourn and blame for the town losing those essential moments to recharge its soul.
"There was always a moment at the end of the school holidays in February when it would drop off a cliff and you got your town back for a few months," Johnson says. "Everyone would come back out of the woodwork. Suddenly at the coffee shops it was just locals, the waves were just locals. It gave you respite from the intense love the town got from the tourists.
"Now we've lost those moments in the year where we can catch our breath.
"Those pauses were what kept us connected and kept us going. You have to work harder for those moments now."
AN ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLE
Byron has long been defined not only by the alternative lifestyle, but also a staunchly activist attitude. The township may be small, but they are ballsy. The West Byron housing development, the rollout of 5G and the Byron bypass have triggered recent protests by many concerned community members.
While locals may have fought off McDonald's and Club Med, you can still buy a Subway sandwich, a Domino's pizza and a Sportsgirl jumpsuit.
On the east side of town, The Top Shop, which first opened in 1951, was where you would once go still dripping wet and sandy from a swim at Clarkes Beach for a milkshake and a fistful of lollies, or maybe to fill up the car with petrol and grab a Chiko Roll.
Now, it's a hugely popular cafe, with a beautiful young crowd lazing on the grass sharing acai bowls and a queue down the street in summer for a coffee.
That's not to say the crystals, mungbean burgers and beetroot juice have gone. But they've been appropriated by middle class holiday-makers and seachangers to fit their philosophy of stylish simplicity, motivated not by economic necessity but a lifestyle choice.
A recent article by US magazine Vanity Fair titled "The Coast of Utopia", profiled Byron Bay's clique of what it described as "mid-tier family lifestyle micro-influencers". Translated, that's a group of surfer mums - known as "murfers" - who use Instagram to promote an explicitly curated Byron lifestyle of perfect simplicity.
View this post on Instagram
In 2011, Courtney Adamo set up her Instagram account to share photos with her family. Today, the mother of five has a quarter of a million followers and a seemingly perfect life. But can it be real? At the #linkinbio, Adamo and the surfing mamas of Byron Bay take V.F. inside their idyllic world. Photographs by: @tierneygearon Story by: @carina_chocano
Emphasis was placed on the women's so-called hypocrisy of being white, privileged and commodifying Byron Bay on Instagram to make money. There was mention of their uniform of neutral-coloured linens, their toddlers who drink herbal tea and a $10,000 oven described by one of the influencers - mother-of-five Courtney Adamo - as a "splurge". The article articulated a growing preconception many outsiders looking in have about Byron.
Melbourne tourist Leanne Gratton, on her first trip to Byron with a group of girlfriends, joked to Qweekend that she thought she would need to wear beige linen to visit.
"I didn't have any other impression, other than it was a nice beachy town to go to with a lighthouse. And women in neutral colours," she says, admiring Main Beach. "And we joked we'd bump into Chris Hemsworth."
Her friend Kate Craig, also from Melbourne, adds: "There's certainly a look a lot of people like to go for here - neutral tones, earthy and natural, but you can tell a lot of work has been put into it. The neutral clothes are quite expensive."
Apart from highlighting the popularity of linen, the Vanity Fair article caused an emotional reaction for some in the town.
"I personally know a lot of those people who were ambushed in that article," Byron Shire Mayor Simon Richardson says. "Bottom line, there are a lot of people wanting to live their lives as healthily as they can in this area.
"They surf, they work in legitimate businesses, they love their kids, they want to support local business. You wonder what is wrong with that. Byron has always been a melting pot of different people. They're coming here because they care about the quality of food they eat, their lives are more than watching television, they're supporting local crafts people, and that article did not acknowledge that."
Johnson described it as a "storm in a teacup".
"It was an outsider's view that shone a light on the truth of how the town had changed," he says. "It gave us a chance to say 'this is happening, are we OK with this, and if we're not, let's recalibrate and dial the frequency back to where we want it to be'."
His wife Claire Alexander-Johnson, 33 - the much-loved Instagram mum influencer @jetsetmama - grew up in London and is raising their three (soon to be four) children, Atlas, 7, Everest, 5 and Zephyr, 2, in Byron Bay.
She is not concerned that a certain image of Byron could perpetuate a cycle, attracting similar people.
"If people came here wanting a really whitewashed, flower crowns, beautiful, privileged existence, they would find themselves quite lonely, quite quickly, because actually it doesn't really exist," she says.
"What is here is gritty and messy. And when you get involved in community action and protest and all the things that really enrich you in this town and make what Byron is - this community spirit … that's what actually makes everyone stay and brings everyone together."
When television producer Deb Cox moved to the Byron area, she only planned to stay for a year. That was 22 years ago. She co-created the cherished ABC drama SeaChange with Andrew Knight while living in Byron and is behind the show's popular remake on Channel 9, which was also shot in the Northern Rivers.
Cox, 61, says she is "fascinated" by Instagram influencers' commodification of Byron's lifestyle.
"I feel like I can't criticise it because you could really say that about SeaChange. It is a fantasy that no place is perfect and it is what you make it," she says. "When I do it though, I make it clear it is a work of fiction."
She adds that her adult son, who grew up in the area, "finds it very perturbing that the place he grew up in is being used like that".
Despite Instagram's materialisation of Byron, Cox reinforces that the area's soul has fundamentally remained unchanged.
"Even those influencers, compared to say 20 years ago with the feral people coming down from the hills and playing their drums and eating organic food, there was still a cohesion about a philosophy of living lightly on the planet, recycling, having a social responsibility, being nice to each other. I don't think that has changed," Cox says. "The people have changed but the sensibility hasn't changed. You could put a boho princess wearing a dress that costs $1000 next to a feral from the hills and they would protest about the same thing."
But what has undeniably changed is Byron's affordability.
When Cox first moved to the area she said the hippies were visible in the centre of town.
"It was beautiful and tolerant and relaxed, but over time those people were outpriced," she explains. "Those people drifted to the perimeter, the old families, the people who lived there for generations have cut their losses, sold their properties and moved out."
PRICED OUT OF TOWN
Two blocks from Main Beach, you can buy a $1140 leather jacket, a $2990 Moroccan rug (in earth tones, naturally) and a $7 turmeric latte, on top of paying $4 an hour for parking.
But walk a little further down Fletcher St and outside the Lifeline op shop is a homeless man in a sleeping bag on the footpath. Homelessness and crime are very obvious issues affecting the town. Byron has almost double the NSW average of sex assaults and is the third-highest local government area in the state for theft from a person, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
A recent Byron Shire Council survey found 171 people living on the streets - a significant increase in homeless numbers from previous years, a rise that has been attributed to the area's high rents. Byron overtook Sydney in March as the nation's most expensive places to live, with the median house price now at $950,000, compared to $533,000 in Brisbane, according to CoreLogic. The average rent for a house in Byron Bay is $700 a week (Brisbane's average rent is $480). These eye-watering property prices have pushed out the old working-class families, the elderly, single-parent families and the indigenous people.
It seems heartbreaking in the irony that before it was discovered by Captain James Cook in 1770, the area was known as Cavanbah, which means meeting place for the Arakwal people, who have lived in the area for 22,000 years - until now.
"It is probably one of the extreme few communities in Australia or the world where the indigenous people cannot afford to live on country," Arakwal Corporation general manager Sharon Sloane, 48, says. "It's not often that we have heard of this, of being priced out of our country.
"I am striving to achieve employment for Arakwal people to at least work on their own country. They have a connection to their area. If they are unable to live financially, working on country is the next best thing, which is sad."
Fourth-generation Byron local, Rebecca Olive, 41, admits she too has been priced out of the town.
The surfing academic is a scholar of her hometown's magnetic waves, but like so many others, wouldn't be able to afford to live there.
"I don't want to be part of what's really happening in Byron," says Olive, who lives in Fairfield in Brisbane's south, and is a lecturer at The University of Queensland. "I chose not to live there, but the truth is when I was living there, I was working two or three jobs.
"It feels like the town is becoming less and less a place I can relate to and that I can go to. But it's my hometown. No one can take that relationship from me, no matter what happens."
Olive says she first noticed Byron change on New Year's Eve 1993 when the crowds suddenly increased.
"People were jumping off buildings, it was crazy," she says. "I remember going to work the next day and from Suffolk to Byron (there) was just rubbish.
"It made me sad as I realised then that people didn't care about our town like we did. I was 16 at the time and I had to get my head around that."
She has noticed Byron's emphasis on youth, beauty and skin - a concentration fuelled by Instagram, she says.
"I do feel like Byron is a town of supermodels and beautiful people," she says. "If I think about being a young teenager now it must be really tough to continue to be part of that.
"Also, Byron is very visibly white. That's not to say there aren't loads of people of colour but on Instagram they are all white."
Olive believes the town will persevere through the Instagram wave, just like it did with colonialism, whaling, the Aquarius festival, the abattoir, hyper development and tourism.
"It's changing. I want to make sense of that. But my god, it's a beautiful place," she says. "Of course, people want to go there. It's spectacular and you can be whatever you want to be because it is accepting and welcoming, and that is special."
Spell and the Gypsy Collective co-founder and Byron local, Liz Abegg, moved from Bondi in 2009 to start a jewellery business with her sister.
She credits Byron's acceptance as a defining factor in helping their business become a globally sought after fashion label that employs 30 women and contributes to local charities and not-for-profits.
"I think we have found our place in the community because we started at the Byron markets as the two of us, this tiny ramshackle business," says Abegg. "For me, yes, Byron is changing, but I want to see the beauty in that change and contribute to the community to make it better."
While it has undoubtedly morphed from sleeping seaside hamlet to an expensive, busy and perhaps over-loved town, has Byron lost its soul?
"If I thought that, I wouldn't live here," Cox says. "But we have to remain vigilant or it will become homogenised and it will no longer be special."
And what would that look like? "I guess it would be the Gold Coast," she says. "I feel like that's what it would turn into."
Olive says the town needs to be seen without the distortion and amplification of Instagram. It needs to be seen as exactly that - a place people call home, with good waves.
"That's what gets lost. This is a place where people live, grow, have relationships, integrate families. It is just a town that people live in," she says. "It's not utopia, it's not an imagined community. It's a place where people live and die and choose to be." ■