Ben Hills

Awesome, mate, awesome,” says my newfound friend Mario, all 100-plus kilos of him, tattoos bulging out of his leather jerkin, as he surveys the smoky white plume of Protestors Falls plunging down a jagged cliff in the rainforest. We have trekked an easy few hundred metres from the road, through a green wonderland of mossy logs, giant gums dripping with epiphytes and palm trees stretching up for a glimpse of daylight. Crimson fruit squelch in the mud underfoot and, not far away, you can hear the splash of Terania Creek rolling down its rocky highway.

We are less than an hour’s drive from the beaches, the bands and the bright lights of bustling Byron Bay, but we could have slipped into an alternate universe: the country behind the coast, the Green beyond the Blue.

Here, everything moves at a quieter pace. Sleepy pubs and funky cafes redolent with patchouli oil are populated by people in braids and tie-dyed tunics; roadside stalls sell everything from purple yams to organic coffee; spiritual retreats offer a hundred paths to enlightenment from chakra balancing to glossolalia.

More practically, the hinterland offers affordable accommodation at times when the Bay is bursting at the seams. Last Christmas the town was scandalised when it was discovered one enterprising landlord was providing accommodation for no fewer than 50 backpackers in a house with one bathroom and two lavatories.

Get away from the rat race: there are classy guesthouses in little villages the world has not yet discovered just 15 minutes’ drive from the beach. And you will pay half the $400-plus a night that Byron Bay now feels it can charge upmarket holiday-makers.

It reminds you of the time when people appreciated “a nice drive” such as Coolamon Scenic Drive, switchbacking through rolling hills with views of the lighthouse and the sea beyond, and a maze of little backroads lined with camphor laurels, or the occasional stand of giant bamboo or line of bunya pines, past a macadamia plantation or a grove of lychee trees with a stall out the front selling fresh produce.

If it’s a Sunday try to catch the markets.

The Channon and Bangalow are the two most scenic, and there will always be some live entertainment (whether it’s a brass band or a couple of acrobats) among the stalls of arts and crafts and produce.

And brooding over the region are the peaks of the Nightcap National Park, a vast caldera clad with remnant rainforest saved from loggers a generation ago by the tree-huggers after whom Protestors Falls are named.

“Some of zem are still living here, on the property next-door,” says Brigitte Odum Havan, an exotic French/Vietnamese painter, bronze artist and yoga teacher who has built an “eco retreat” near the one-horse hamlet of The Channon. “Zey came up here from Melbourne University to save the forest, and zey never went ‘ome.”

Thanks to them, the Byron hinterland has some of the most beautiful bushwalking in the state – down to the Minyon Falls (actually, the Minyon Dribble the last time I walked there), along the old bridle trail where you can see the hollow tree the postman used to sleep in a century ago when he ran the mail from the Tweed to Ballina. (Try to go with experienced walkers, or you could finish up like me, hitch-hiking some 70 kilometres back to my car after taking a wrong trail.)

For those who weren’t born then or can’t remember the ’60s, The Channon is the place to come for a nostalgic time-trip. There are a pub in a recycled butter factory, a village store and a tea-house where I stopped off for a macadamia and tofu satay (what else?) and a lemon myrtle scone.

I declined a kind offer of a Reiki massage, even with Joan Baez warbling softly in the background, and browsed through the gallery which offered paintings of dolphins, hippie-dippy tie-dyed tops and hemp tobacco pouches – unusually, these were made of, rather than containing, hemp.

Brigitte is certainly not offering any illicit substances, but you can experience just about every other delight from the era of flowers and protests (she calls it “cultural escapism”) in her mud-brick retreat. From skinny dipping (please be careful, a sign warns, not to disturb the last surviving members of a colony of the endangered Fleahy’s barred frog) to yoga, a spa and a genuine long-drop composting loo.

Down the road, the people at Eternity Springs offer an even more hands-on experience of residential art workshops hosted by local and imported artists. If you have ever wanted to try your hand at watercolour painting, hebel carving, raku clay firing or block printing, this is the place. Unfortunately, you missed a “wonderful weekend devoted to the sensuality of clay” held in January.

Closer to Byron Bay – so close, alas, that they run tour buses out there – those who enjoy psychic tarot, cranial-sacro balancing and astrological readings would be mad to miss the Crystal Castle, a landmark in Rainbow Country for many years.

Even if you think all that is a load of bollocks, it’s a worthwhile detour. There are a pleasant little cafe, a maze where you can lose the kids for a while, and an impressive collection of enormous Brazilian amethyst geodes, black stalactites split open to reveal purple crystals within. One blackboard displays the menu; another displays “today’s transits” – it is, apparently, an auspicious day for Kylie Minogue and Guy Pearce.

My friend and I, however, are determined to have our auras photographed. A young woman called Tracy seats us on a sort of throne where we take turns to press our hands on metal sensors and smile at a Polaroid-style camera and, presto, a colourful picture appears from which one’s character, and much else, can be deduced. There is a special offer on today, $39 for two.

My friend’s aura is pink (“unconditional love”) with a patch of green on the throat, connoting an aptitude for public speaking or singing. Mine is mainly red (“force of will, passion, vitality” etc, all the stuff I knew already) but Tracy is most impressed – “Wow!” Some orange blobs turn out to be my “guides … angels, spirits, whatever you want to call them”.

My angels and I drive off for a spot of lunch and are guided unerringly to the Cafe at the End of the Universe, otherwise known as Malcolm’s Corner, a local institution buried in the heart of the forest on the upper reaches of Wilsons Creek.

One thing you will notice about the cafes in the hinterland is that no matter how remote and humble, they will always have something original on the menu, whether it’s coffee from one of the local growers or stunning-looking crimson-fleshed dragon fruit.

Bangalow’s strip of eateries and craft shops is well known, but take a detour to Rosebank, where the Green Frog Cafe is the place to bump into some of the colourful local “ferals”. And in the village of Newrybar a newly opened restaurant/deli/bakery called Harvest is getting a reputation among locals for smart, creative cuisine at half the price you’ll pay in The Bay.

Don’t miss the town of Federal (its name was changed from Jasper to commemorate Federation). I stopped for a glass of custard apple and lemonade fruit at Pogels Wood restaurant, a local institution with eccentric opening hours, and discovered a smart new gallery out the back (Jaspers) with a range of local art work including the original Duncan Smith noodle bowls (the ones with the hole in the side for your chopsticks), “mouth-blown glass” by Ruriko Toshima, and a display of jewellery made of dichroic glass glistening like dragonfly wings.

If you are into art a visit to Thursday Plantation, off the Pacific Highway a few kilometres north of Ballina, will leave you, well, challenged. The exhibits I particularly noted included a flock of emus made of old machinery, some huge plastic eyes on stalks, a 10-metre tall eel trap, and a three-armed red woollen jumper which seemed to have been knitted around a tree and carried a price tag of $1500.

If you phone first for an appointment, John Nilon will be happy to show you around his coffee plantation – one of the largest in the district with more than 100,000 trees – down the road at the village of Rosebank. Be warned that John, who is in his 70s, loves Italians (“they understand coffee”) but grumbles about pensioners who arrive by the busload, drink five cups of free coffee and leave without buying anything.

After he has shown us his trees and his coffee-roasting plant, John sits us down on the veranda of his ramshackle farmhouse and makes a pot of plunger coffee as good as any I have ever drunk. It has two centimetres of crema on top.

There are a number of modestly priced B&Bs and a couple of farmstays in the hinterland, and if you are after top-end accommodation it can now match almost anything Byron Bay has to offer.

Near Federal, Mark and Su Kelly have a secluded retreat on two hectares called the Tin Dog. It has peaceful palms, a trickling creek and a gracious, century-old timber residence, surrounded by verandas, which has been extended and modernised to accommodate four guest suites. Su is a demon chef, too, and promises genuine gourmet breakfasts.

Deeper into the hinterland, back up Wilsons Creek Road, Americans Piari and Michael Leibo have built two hexagonal chalets, self-contained and beautifully fitted out on the brink of a precipice with heart-stopping views across mountains to the Queensland border and down the valley to the sea.

Back at Protestors Falls, Mario has made up his mind. He is so impressed with the beauty of the place, he’s decided to move here from his present home in Blacktown. He is looking for a freehold property rather than a place on a community title because they would not allow his pets.


“Yeah, mate, I’ve got pit bulls.”

I don’t have the heart to tell him there are a few adjustments he’ll have to make to be accepted up here in Rainbow Country.

Destination beyond the bay

Crystal Castle is on Goonengerry Road, between Mullumbimby and Bangalow. Phone 02 6684 3111, website

Havan’s Ecotourist Retreat is on Terania Creek Road, The Channon. Rooms are $75-$115 a night. Phone 02 6688 6108, website

Eternity Springs Art Farm is on Tuntable Creek Road, The Channon. Phone 02 6688 6385, website

Thursday Plantation is on Gallans Road, Ballina. Phone 02 6686 7273.

The Koonyum Range Retreat is on Wilsons Creek Road. Accommodation is from $220 a night midweek to $520 for the weekend. Phone 02 6684 0350, website

The Tin Dog is in Macadamia Lane, Federal. Suites from $160 to $200 a night. Phone 02 6688 4465.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 8 March 2003
Edition: Late
Section: Travel
Sub section: Page: 7
Word count: 1928
Geographic area: NSW
Photos: Ben Hills
Caption: Green alternative …
1. Emus made of old machinery at Thursday Plantation
2. The locals are laidback and friendly;
3. John Nilon and his coffee beans.
Map: Byron Bay