Byron Bay, the most northerly suburb of Sydney

Aerial view of Cape Byron. File photo.

Sydneysider Sunny Grace is now dividing her time between the Harbour City and the Byron Bay district for family reasons. She shares some astute observations about her new northern locale.

My final job of the year was postponed due to rain just as the threat of Covid-19 spreading from the Northern Beaches into Greater Sydney loomed – so I jumped on an early flight to join my family up in the Byron Shire for Christmas and New Year. My husband and sons had relocated there already and my plan was to go between Sydney and Byron for the next few months.

From our previous experience of living in the Shire, I know how busy the Bay can be at this time of year – but nothing compared to Christmas 2020. It was a seething mass of tourists trying to escape the city and Covid, desperate for a change of scenery after months of being stuck inside and no chance of international travel. 

There is a strange phenomenon up here of claiming ‘local’ rights. The ‘locals’ complain about the influx of tourists and new residents trying to find their own slice of paradise in a town being loved to death with the rapidity of the beaches washing into the sea. This ‘locals only’ mentality is much like the fight for the waves at popular surf beaches like Bondi and Maroubra.

But what makes a local? I would argue the only true locals are the traditional landowners, the Bundjalung people of the Arakwal nation, who believe the Byron area is a healing place and if you stay too long you go mad. Something I have seen with my own eyes.

But who else can be truly called a local? The whalers and farmers from back in the day? The surfies and hippies who came in the 1970s and held on long enough to strike it rich when the sea changers came knocking? Is it anyone with enough money to afford to buy these days? Or is it anyone who is born here, including my youngest son? He was born in the old Mullumbimby Hospital in 2002 during one of our former forays into living up here. Since coming back here he has felt a sense of home. 

I first came to Byron Bay when my hippie ‘godparents’ – or is that hippie ‘alternative religion parents’? – were running a bakery in Newrybar, now the bustling Harvest cafe. I brought my husband for a holiday in the mid-nineties staying at my producer boss’s house at Broken Head overlooking the ocean (she recently sold that property to Chris Hemsworth who tore down her house and built his own mansion – a sign of the times for this area).

The Hemsworth mega-mansion at Byron Bay. File photo.

We could see whales breaching from the bed. My husband fell in love with the area then and has wanted to live here ever since, hence our many sojourns, some lasting years but usually ending due to lack of money or work or my boredom. I miss the diversity, arts, culture and inspiration of the city. The contrast between the Inner West and Byron Shire is quite marked.

From Billinudgel, a little-known town up the highway, where my husband and sons were renting, we managed to avoid much of the madness of Byron this Christmas. Except when we dropped our sons into ‘town’ to meet their Sydney mates. Byron was full of people our son’s age denied their gap year due to Covid and looking for adventure. We knew to drop them in early before the column of cars snaked along the one road in all the way back to the highway.

Even my favourite little town, Brunswick Heads, was at capacity.  Producers, photographers, actors, models all lined up for their morning coffee. I could see them either planning a way to escape up this way too, or shaking their heads at how busy it was. Not quite the relaxing time they had in mind. 

Perhaps it would have been better to stay in Sydney and risk the spread of Covid for a quiet swim at the beach. Still, as more people have finally realised they can work from home (something us freelancers have known for some time), the Byron Shire has become even more desirable. 

When it became obvious the tiny shack in Billinudgel wasn’t going to cut it for the boys, we needed to find a bigger place. Terrified of being homeless in Byron, where the rental market is dismal and getting worse, I widened the search to include the Ballina Shire, an area shunned by sea changers a mere ten years ago for being full of bogans and welfare recipients. We found one we could afford in Ballina Heights and I promptly filled in the application. Lucky for us, we have an amazing rental history, most homes being five year rentals. 

Shelley Beach at Ballina. Photo: Nerdge/Wikimedia Commons.

I spoke to the real estate agent who had done the checks and said she would put us first on the list of applicants. Naively, we drove to the inspection thinking it would be a case of meeting the agent, putting down the deposit and packing the truck. However, as we pulled into the street, the true state of the rental market hit home. Car after car pulled into the street and families piled out onto the grass. I felt anxiety grip my stomach. This was the only house that would allow pets in our price range that wasn’t a damp old mould trap. My oldest son and I joined the queue and waited as only five people at a time were allowed in due to Covid. My husband stayed in the car, his PTSD precluding him from stressful situations and crowds. 

I struck up a conversation with a woman in the queue in a NSW Health uniform. She was a nurse who had been looking for a new place for six weeks. She said she would be homeless as of Thursday if she didn’t find something. I felt conflicted between wanting to get the house myself and walking away for her. But the determined look on the face of one of the men in the queue screamed ‘everyone for themselves’ in this market. Still, I do think the government really needs to do more for housing affordability, especially for essential workers. Haven’t they learned anything from this pandemic about mental health? 

For days after the inspection I waited patiently using all the tools I have gathered since the firebomb (see: ‘Emptying the nest‘): acceptance, patience, letting go – but the anxiety crept in with no call from the agent.

Finally, I received an email saying someone else was offering more rent and could we match them? I upped them ten dollars per week and waited. There was nothing more I could do while the landlord made their choice.

The following day, I was on my way to Sydney for work when the phone call came through to let us know we were successful and the lease was ours. I had made a deal with my husband that he and the boys would do the move, seeing as I had done the major one from Alexandria mostly alone. 

As of March, I will have one more move to make – into a friend’s apartment in Sydney overlooking the sea. This will be my room of one’s own, as per Virginia Wolfe’s decree – essential for a female writer. With husband and sons safely ensconced in a new nest up north, I will continue to fly between the two, and hopefully have the best of both worlds.

Time will tell. 

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.

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