|Forces of Nature
Byron Bay, New South Wales
by Sarah Shuckburgh
Byron Bay is the place to shed
unwanted cares and years, says Sarah Shuckburgh.
THERE is an intoxicating power to the rain. Walls of
water pound from the darkened sky. The deluge soaks
passers-by to the skin, instantly drenching clothes, shoes
and hair, and inundating bags of groceries. Absurdly large
drops bounce up from the ground. Backpackers squint and
blink into the downpour and carry on up the street, which is
now a swirling river. Surfers, already wet from the ocean,
splash barefoot through the puddles. Tousle-headed hippies
shelter in the doorway of the crystal shop opposite, their
flowing clothes clinging damply to their legs.
We are safely under cover in a cafe, rain thundering like
frenzied drumbeats on the awning above our heads. At a
nearby table, a tarot reader calmly gathers up his sodden
cards. Elsewhere in Australia his straggly pony-tail,
patchwork trousers and psychedelic waistcoat might raise
eyebrows, but here nobody looks twice. His customer has
auburn hair tumbling out of combs; her tie-dyed dress
reveals intricate henna tattoos, and a strangely clad baby
is clasped to her hip. A cyclist in a kaftan swerves to read
the adverts for floats, fortune-telling, beads and
As suddenly as it began, the rain stops. There are heavy
showers throughout the year in Byron Bay but, even so, the
climate must be one of the best in the world: consistently
warm and sunny, and never unbearably hot. Like much
of the coast of New South Wales, the Bay has miles of pale
sand and fine waves for surfing; its hinterland is
subtropical rainforest and bush. But Byron Bay is unique:
here, the Australian fixation with suburbia has lost out to
It is a resort which bans McDonald's, KFCs, Pizza Huts and
all chain stores, but has more than 100 cafes and
restaurants, many serving gourmet dishes from the Pacific
Rim and beyond. The council forbids noisy jet-skis, tall
buildings, beach-front developments and tacky commercialism,
but encourages buskers, small enterprises and a laid-back,
oddball atmosphere. There are no parking meters and no
traffic lights - although there are bumper-to-bumper jams at
busy times - and the main roundabout is a small island lush
with palms, around which bongo drummers meet.
My daughter has been to Byron before, among hordes of
gap-year teenagers who pass through on their way north.
Whenever we walk up the main drag, buses are disgorging more
dusty backpackers. Psychedelic camper vans lurch past, bound
for Aboriginal sites or dance festivals. In the beach-front
gardens, we weave between trance-like drummers, religious
nuts surrounded by flower-strewn tracts, lone guitarists,
resting surfers, cross-legged meditators, people practising
t'ai chi, and bemused, gawping visitors from suburbia.
This time, my daughter and I are travelling in some comfort.
Byron Bay is beginning to attract sophisticated, upmarket
visitors as well as impoverished surfers and backpackers. We
intend to do some serious research: how does luxurious
pampering compare to Byron Bay's cheaper, alternative cures?
Our research begins in earnest that very night, at the Azabu
hotel, two miles outside Byron Bay. As we arrive, the gentle
trickle of fountains is punctuated by the croaks of a frog
as big as my fist. The evening feels balmy to us, but logs
blaze in the fireplace. The windows are open; scented
candles flicker in the breeze from a softly whirring fan,
and we hear faint, indefinable music. On the teak walkway
which leads to our room, we pass a hot tub and a curved
swimming pool where more candles bob on the water. Our room
has a terrace which reaches out to touch the lush
rainforest. Cockatoos call from hoop pines just yards away
as I lie in the sunken bath by our open doors.
We are more than a mile from the sea, but I can hear the
surf clearly. Frogs croak, huge fruit bats swoop across the
night sky, and there are sinister scuffles in the
undergrowth. This is like camping out in the bush, but in
Next morning, we have breakfast by the log fire, which is
still smouldering. After a tray of cut fruit which could
feed a family for a week, I choose a heap of pancakes with
bananas, syrup and thick cream (after my croissants). Amy
opts for eggs with asparagus and hollandaise sauce on French
toast (after her porridge). It is just as well that we have
no strenuous plans for the day. We have to take only a few
steps along the walkway to the treatment rooms.
We decide on the full rejuvenating package. I try to argue
that, at 23, Amy hardly needs rejuvenating, but she
complains that it won't be fair if we don't have the same.
So we are installed in adjacent rooms with our smiling
therapists, whose flawless faces radiate health.
My girl sounds Australian, but comes from Cambridge, like
me. As she scrubs my body with salt, we chatter on about the
Fens, and then about the 40ft prawn which towers over the
Pacific highway where she now lives. But as she embarks on
the massage, I find words fail me. Amy, too, is
uncharacteristically quiet on her side of the partition, and
soon all I can hear is a clatter of dishes from the kitchen
and the strange, cosmic music that wafts from the cassette
player in the corner.
Three hours later, pummelled, steamed and gleaming with
exotic oils and serums, we are back on our terrace, dressed
in fluffy white dressing gowns, sipping herbal teas. I feel
less rejuvenated than incapacitated. I seem unable to speak
or move. For ages, we sit and rehydrate in silence, soothed
by the squawks and rustles of the forest.
Finally, we get dressed and check out. And thus ends stage
one of our research. The next day, I am floating in a cold,
murky lake, my arms and legs dirty brown in the opaque
water. Bravely diving beneath the surface, I open my eyes
and am startled by absolute blackness. Not a glimmer of
light filters through. It is absurdly disorienting. As I
rise towards the surface, I look up, and the inky black
turns to molten toffee, to liquid caramel and then finally
to golden syrup as I emerge into the sunshine.
Our beauty treatment is taking place, completely free, in
one of the area's rare tea-tree lakes. Oil seeps from the
surrounding melaleuca trees, staining the water brown. Some
of these tea-tree lakes are linked to ancient Aboriginal
traditions, and the dark water certainly lends a mysterious
atmosphere. We grab gritty sand from the bottom and smear it
on our skin. We float on our backs to bring shine to our
We also wallow like beached whales in the shallows, and then
duck back into the brown soup, to ensure that the
therapeutic qualities reach every part of our anatomies. The
water is chilly but not unpleasant, and not as cold as
outdoor swims at home. When we feel the therapy has worked,
we walk the few yards to the beach and brave the buffeting
waves. The ocean feels warm and vibrant, but also violent
and threatening after the dark, strangely still
waters of the lake.
Later, as we sit in an open-air cafe sipping another herbal
infusion, we try to quantify the sense of wellbeing achieved
by our treatments, one expensive, one free. Our
deliberations are interrupted by another sort of cleansing.
An astonishing, extraordinary assault on our senses banishes
all worries and all stress. A tempestuous, cacophonous yet
therapeutic force, unstoppable, uncontrollable and entirely
natural, washes over us, soaking us to the skin.
Torrential rain is falling on Byron Bay again.
First published by the Telegraph