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It was an endearing welcome and heartening, somehow, to share the beach with this happy dog and his family and to recognise that sentiment so familiar to Kiwis – the appreciation of the beach walk.

Broad, silky-sand beaches with ruffled edges bashed by powerful, hissing surf are a slightly frustrating reality of this warm part of Australia. They’re glorious to walk along, but not many are suitable for swimming. If the fact that no locals are swimming is not enough warning, signposts alert to strong rips, sudden drops, dumping, sharks and jellyfish.

As it turned out, we spent most days inland, only returning to the coast for leg-stretching evening walks at the end of each day. We based ourselves initially at Byron Bay and then further north,near Kingscliff.

Each day we meandered, finding new routes or retracing familiar ones to explore further. Each town we drove through appealed for different reasons. Some, such as Bangalow, enticed with its mainstreet row of antique and craft shops, boutiques and cafés. Others, such as Lismore, which is a small city rather than a town, promised a rich art experience. Unfortunately we missed the galleries the day we visited because we’d been seriously waylaid in Nimbin.

We understood that Nimbin was a tribute to counter-culture, but were still startled by its extreme hippy-ness. Never have I seen so many candles, crystals and rainbows in one place. Most shops seemed to be dedicated to environmental awareness, organics or tie-dyed velvet. The Nimbin museum is a bizarre, but brilliant trip through history via a rainbow serpent path. Its treasures include papier mâché figures and cut-down VW Kombis, posters, hand-painted messages, poems and slogans colliding in chaotic installation. ‘Imagination is better than knowledge’ says one graffiti, and that could be the museum’s mission statement. It could almost be the town’s mission statement.

So, we were waylaid in Nimbin. And having arrived after the four o’clock closure of Lismore’s galleries, which were next on our itinerary, we scuttled back to Byron Bay. 

New South Wales lighthouseUpmarket, chic Byron Bay is in seemingly permanent holiday mode. We stayed in an apartment in Fletcher Street, in the centre of town, from where we could wander to numerous restaurants and bars and nip across the road for breakfast in what is possibly the world’s friendliest café.

A long, golden and swimmable beach arches around a band of surf; a lighthouse at one end marks the eastern-most point of Australia. From the lighthouse we took in the vastness of the coastline, the sea never-ending, the swells rolling in.

On another day’s excursion we found ourselves in Bangalow again, accidently, but decided it was fate and returned to a shop specialising in things Tibetan. We were taken with the temple singing bowls, made of seven metals, that ring and echo and vibrate when struck with a soft mallet. They sang to us; we bought one.

In Zen mode, we stopped at Crystal Castle, a garden loaded with Buddhist references, labyrinths and therapeutic harmonies designed to enrich visitors’ spirits. It didn’t quite work for us but, as we weren’t in the market to buy crystals, tarot readings or aura photographs, we weren’t the best judges.

On we drove, to Mullumbimby, in time for lunch at the Rock ‘n’ Roll café, a laid-back place down an ally where visitors to the local music festival were hanging around. The town was buzzing with the festival, with people busking, skating, conversing and generally enjoying life.

We followed the road north and stopped for a break where the road kissed the coast and walked down to a wide white beach with the surf rolling in and no one in sight. Then we headed for Kingscliff, a little coastal town with a nice, sunny vibe and more than the average number of bikini shops and people wandering in slow mo’ in Hawaiian print shirts and sunhats.

Backtracking down the coast, we stayed at Casuarina Beach, a new development, and another glorious white beach with big, threatening surf. The resort we bunked in, the Santai Resort, had a modern, Balinese aesthetic and two lovely pools. From there we drove 10 minutes up to Salt, where several top restaurants beckoned. We settled for Fins, which provided an extraordinary and memorable culinary experience – with mouth-exploding native lime, fresh seafood and innovative flavour combinations.

The following day we hit the road again and drove to Murwillumbah, another intriguing and active little town. The regional art gallery and Stokers Siding Pottery provided evidence of the wealth of creative talent around. The region lies within a fertile valley, with the Tweed River winding through it, providing sustenance and inspiration.

From there we aimed for Mt Warning and Mavis’ Kitchen, a surprising restaurant in the shade of the mountain, in the middle of nowhere, in a beautiful old house that was shifted onto the site a few years ago.

The food was fantastic – much of it grown in the biodynamic kitchen garden or sourced locally from organic growers.

Local colourWe sat on the wide, breezy verandah for Sunday lunch, surrounded by families and groups of friends who had travelled from who-knows-where, attracted from far and wide to this centre of excellent nosh and calm, sunny loveliness. The scene oozed goodness and positive energy.

Charlie, one of the couple who owns Mavis’ showed us around, opening up various cottages and converted sheds, enticing us to change plans and stay the night. It was very tempting, as it’s a lovely property, with cosy, rustic home-stay rooms, free-range chooks, fruit trees galore and friendly, generous hosts. The place also has a particularly peaceful feeling, attributable says Charlie to its position under the special mountain.

Mt Warning – or Wollumbin – at the centre of a volcanic caldera – is an oddly-shaped mass that pokes up and catches clouds. It’s loaded with stories and mystery and strange bird calls. We took a short walk up one of its flanks, through groves of soaring Bangalow Palms and figs, and it was delicious to be in the shade.

For the day was very warm, even at the fading end of it – so we turned east and made for Salt, where we’d noticed lifeguards on duty. It was time to tackle this tempting surf, to take a swim between the flags. It wasn’t a swim though. It was a dumping, tossing battering. I was overwhelmed in the frothy, aggressive energy after just a few minutes, and sort of fell out onto the beach, utterly exhausted. But laughing. Like the happy yellow dog of day one

Photos by Liz Light

Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Autumn 2014 issue

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