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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 body-piercing.

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 a relaxed,
eclectic lifestyle.

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 comfort.

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 hair.

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

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