Australia: Byron Bay, New South Wales – Dom Perignon on the Beach

dom perignon 2003 vintage & falafel

I first came to Byron Bay in the  mid-1980s, in my high school years. I stayed with my family at the First Sun Caravan Park right by Main Beach and the memorial swimming pool built in 1969. I enjoyed the chocolate milk from the milk truck that came around in the morning, with a little tinkly bell. Me and my mate Stephen ran around on the beach, swam, fished, checked out the surf shop and perved on the Swedish women who sunbathed naked a few kilometres along the bay beach.

I tripped to Byron several more times in the 1990s. First during the great recession of 1993, where I, and many hippy types, hung out at cafes and at the monthly markets, and skinny dipped on the beach and down the tea tree lakes. We smoked a lot of dope and drank port with unemployed surfies, foreigners and uni students from Sydney on their winter break. I stayed at the Arts Factory Lodge, a favourite haunt of dole bludging Aussies, East German crime writes called Jan and young European and Canadian folk .  I stayed again during the 1997 recession where I did much the same as ’93 but stayed longer and branched out into the ‘Byron hinterland’ planting garlic and Bunya pine trees on a small farm in Coorabell. And in between, around ’95, on a break from a job on a farm in Victoria I had had for four weeks , I visited with a Swiss woman named Corrine who was married to a Swiss man, which is  ‘cool’ if all parties agree, and really a kind of a ‘Byron’ thing to do – along with banter about star signs, being vegan/ eating meet, and auras and chakras and the like. I’m not sure how cool Corrine’s hubby was in the end, but then again, who cared, we were having fun.

Unlike most people in the world who come to Byron, I haven’t just come for a holiday or as an unemployed bum, I’ve researched the place and, humility aside, I am now the world expert on surfies and hippies in Byron Bay during the 1960s and early 1970s (except those who were there who probably claim they can’t remember it); I’ve even published a chapter about the period in a book by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, which makes me very clever indeed, but not up with the likes of Robert Shiller who won a noble prize for economics and who has written books which give great insight into why the recessions which had brought me to Byron Bay on a number of occasions occur, but little on the subject of skinny dipping, dope smoking or East German crime writing. Mr Shiller doesn’t write much on these subjects as he is what you call a ‘capitalist’ which is something the ‘bourgeoisie’ like as it promotes buying and selling houses, getting jobs and saving money for retirement, at places like Byron Bay,  in the autumn/ fall but mostly winter years of their lives. What Rob and his fancy pants nobel prize winning colleagues are not good at explaining is why is it only when you’re old enough to retire, and your skin is too saggy to skinny dip, and your penis is all flaccid and you have Alzheimer’s, that you can stop working and have fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I love capitalism and I think it’s amazing when I walk around and see new houses, cars, and chocolate milk and shit and think like noone, not even the government, has told these dudes to make this stuff, they just go and make it and sell it to people. And I love that banks can give you stacks of cash to buy big houses, which they borrow from these Chinese dudes,  and you’re like, woh man, I don’t know if I can really afford this whole house ‘trip’, and the bank is all like, ‘don’t worry dude, we’ll put your loan with a bunch of other loans and sell them all to Icelandic people who won’t have a clue that you are some hippy who can’t pay it back!’ and then you realise you don’t have any real cash to get anything else so you go to the bank and say, ‘what’s up with that man I have no bread because you lent me all that money to buy this big pad’, and they give you a credit card to buy the chocolate milk, which costs around three bucks at the time but through some amazing mathematical miracle, and if you only pay the minimum on your credit card, takes you like 27 years and 9 months to pay back.

Even when the government says, ‘no you can’t make stuff!!’, for example meth amphetamines, there’s a bunch of ‘bandito’ type capitalists who are still like, woh dude, we’re still going to make it because there’s squillions of dolares to be made, like that chicken guy on Breaking Bad.

But, getting back to Byron Bay, and forgetting the point, if any, that I was trying to make, it has had a bit of a reputation for being this hippy alternative place than shuns bourgeois/ capitalist values. A place where you can sit by a fire on the beach, with a guitar, some cheap port and some ‘doobs’ and chat away until the wee hours of the morning when you might strip off and take a dip at sunrise.

This may have been the case a bit in the late 60s and early 70s, and even to an extent in the 80s and 90s, but then came the start of the 2000s and I can assure you that most, if not all, of the fun things you used to be able to do in Byron Bay are now banned. You haven’t been able to have a fire on the beach for years, they’ve tried to shut down the only clothing optional beach, there’s hardly even as much as an exposed boob to see anywhere now, you’ll get arrested for smoking a ‘doob’ at sunset and, in reference to the title of this article, you can’t even enjoy a drop of 2003 vintage French champagne (I know that description is somewhat of a tautology these days given you can’t call it champagne unless it’s from Champagne in France) while watching the sunset on the beach!

Last New Year’s Eve I had planned to do just that with my mother, sister and the family, until my daughter spotted the ‘no alcohol’ sign among all the other signs banning everything on the beach.

“But we can just sneak down the beach and drink it, no one will catch us” I had pleaded. But obviously the fun police have infiltrated the Australian schooling system and she refused to budge, despite my added reassurances that it surely can’t apply to a $200 bottle of sparkling wine. With the bottle dangerously warming to the point of being undrinkable (well over that prescribed by James Bond when he explains “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”) I had to think fast. Corkage, must find a place with corkage. Around in the alley at the back of Beach Hotel we find a little place that’ll let us drink our champagne for $3.50. They have no buckets of ice, and it is not quite as exotic as anything in a bond film, but still, the felafels are good and we finish the bottle which, I must say, is no where near as nice as the non-vintage Bollinger I had had a few weeks earlier for my 40th birthday.

The Byron ‘scene’ has obviously changed, I thought as I sipped the last drop of ‘Dom’ and looked up at the window looking into the toilets of the Beach Hotel which blocked the views of the ocean. It’s still nice, and you can get great food and coffee at plenty of places besides the felafel shop, and there’s still the beautiful bay beach and warm water and the walk up to the lighthouse where you might even still spot a goat, if the rangers haven’t shot the last of them by now – yet more ‘rules’ about excluding feral animals from national parks – but if you’re looking for the halcyon hippy days you’ll now only mostly find them in historical references at the tacky souvenir shops, and maybe if you go out to the hills around Coorabell, where you might hear the unmistakeable ‘death cough’ of a Polish hippy who has been chugging away on spilffs since the ‘good old days’.  But overall, Byron Bay is now just another bourgeois, oh so bourgeois, coastal town, just without the nasty high rise buildings.