The Gold Coast is famous for three things: record-breaking surf; beautiful people; and seeing a shark attack every three days, maybe once a week at slow times. Obviously nonsense: only two of those are true.

Officially, the Gold Coast is a small region, but most travellers use the term to refer to the long stretch between Sydney and Brisbane, which encompasses (amongst others) the towns of Byron Bay, Surfer’s Paradise and – of course – Gold Coast. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world can be found here, and sealife like dolphins, sharks and clichéd surfers can be seen from every beach.

After leaving Sydney, I had a brief stop in Port Macquarie. The town itself hasn’t got much to recommend it unless you enjoy long walks in high temperatures, although there is a koala hospital if you haven’t managed to see any yet. The highlight of my stop was the hostel itself. I stayed in Port Macquarie Backpackers, where I felt more like a family member than a guest.

The above is not to say that you have no private time at PMB, but if you do want company – whether it’s a travel buddy, a friend to cook with or just someone to hang out on the beanbags and play video games – you can find it. Within 10 minutes of arriving, I ran into two German girls (Selina and Miri) whom I’d last seen in Katoomba, and we became travel partners up to Brisbane. Gaining and waving goodbye to friends like this is common in the backpacking community; you either go with the flow or you change your plans and stay together.

Side note: the number of Germans backpacking the east coast of Australia means a great supply of schnitzel and German beers. With those staples fulfilled, the only thing that Selina had to complain about was the bread; pre-sliced stuff, apparently, being the work of the Devil, or possibly Americans. I’d have thought it would have appealed to her efficient German nature, but there you go. Selina and Miri were the first of many great German travellers  I met on the trip – most of them on Fraser Island. But we’ll get to that… 

I spent Halloween in Macquarie. Most of the hostel went out to the pool to drink and watch bats flying overhead. We had people dressed as creepy dolls, a bone-wielding scarecrow and…a bin. Absolutely terrifying. Matt, who worked in the hostel, had made punch using enough jelly to make it part-solid: to simulate drinking congealed blood, apparently. I’m going to blame that for some of us stripping down to our underwear and jumping into the pool later that night. 

From Macquarie, I caught a bus in the early morning to Byron Bay: a favourite hangout of the surfing crowd and and a town whose sales of swimwear, wooden beads, incense and crystals could probably fund a coup in a small African country.

One of the most welcome things about Byron after Sydney is that its major attraction – the beach – is entirely free. I spent several days doing nothing but relaxing by the water, and occasionally wandering into town for food.

The days where travellers had to make do with noodles and porridge for every meal are long behind us; Byron has a thriving foody culture. A burger joint, Bayger, is especially recommended (bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado burger with sweet potato fries: $14), as is Dip (for brunch) and In The Pink/Gelati (for ice cream). The latter runs a competition challenging customers to guess the weight of their ice cream to the gram – if they guess right, it’s free! We quite seriously discussed whether buying a pair of pocket scales would be justified to take advantage of this offer: like a spy flirting with type two diabetes.

Naturally, being the home of Australia’s surfing culture, I had lessons booked, which were ‘free’ with my Greyhound ticket, along with a night on Magnetic Island and a day tour to the Atherton Tablelands in Cairns (Bruce Cobber pass: £385). It’s really not worth paying extra for the upgrade passes like the Bonza (adding three nights on Fraser Island) or Cruiser (Fraser/Whitsundays), as you’ll always find cheaper deals on these tours in hostels.

I took lessons with Cat, an English girl who had arrived on the same Greyhound and was staying in the same hostel (Backpackers Inn: $30 a night). Rachel, from Northern Ireland, joined us, but as our beachside photographer rather than being in the water. 

Cat had apparently inherited her namesake’s sense of balance and was practically doing yoga on the surfboard within half an hour, while I ended up catching a wave by mistake and bodyboarding in while looking fed up. Despite spending more time in the water than on it, though, I successfully stood and surfed to shore by the end of the day.

As the family back home (you know who you are) were constantly reminding me, Byron Bay is known for being something of a shark hotspot. I felt totally safe, though: jet skis are constantly patrolling for signs of sharks, and our instructor was also on the lookout. It wasn’t until one of my hostel roommates actually saw a shark while surfing that I remembered the dangers. I left that story out of my reports back to the family, for some reason.

After surfing, we went to the Indie Travel store on Byron’s Main Street to book tours further up the coast. I took a Fraser ‘tag-along’ tour (you drive yourself, following a guide) and a cruise through the Whitsundays National Park, right in the middle of the Barrier Reef. These are the east coast’s major hotspots; the blunt consensus was, “If you’re not doing Fraser and the Whitsundays, what the fuck are you doing in Australia?” With PR like that, who could say no? 

Some fast talking and a lot of smiling meant that I secured a day trip to the Reef from Cairns for free. The total cost was about $900, which was more than I wanted to pay but justified because I secured the free reef tour. I’d advise anyone else to shop around and especially visit the hostels – even ones they’re not staying in. 

Towards the end of my time in Byron, I met up with four friends from Macquarie: Tristan (of bin-wearing fame), Tom, Selina and Miri, for a super-Australian night of barbeque and goon (boxed wine: the backpackers’ drink of choice) in my hostel. Afterwards, we went to The Northern, a good live music venue, to watch a reggae-rock band called the Sea Gypsies. We finished the night in Lala Land: not really my scene but fun with friends.

Byron’s nightlife is heaving, and there are plenty of places to choose from. One of the most popular, with live music every night, is Beach (free entry but expensive drinks). For a more traditional club night, head to the other end of the main street (near the Greyhound bus stop) to Cheeky Monkeys ($10 entrance fee). This place certainly wouldn’t pass H&S checks in the UK, as everyone stands on tables and benches to dance. Not very stable, even without the beer!

Our nights out proved to me that Byron is the most laid-back place I’ve ever been. Spilling a drink, which would cause a fight in the boozy British culture, is thrown off with a Shaka sign. This probably has something to do with the closeness of Nimbin, the nation’s weed capital. The most heated argument I saw in my week in the Bay was between two buskers – and they were French.

So, Byron Bay: beautiful scenery; beautiful, relaxed people; and relentlessly standing fast against the tide of invasive capitalism. Of course, this does mean you run into the occasional dreadlocked drum circle on the street, but hey – nowhere is perfect.


2 thoughts on “Surf’s Up

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