Ben Hills reveals all

It’s Day One of my sea change and this is the only radio station I can find at six in the morning, a talkback host indulging some barking-mad caller on an AM station in faraway Lismore.

Where are Margaret Throsby’s dulcet tones, or my morning fix of NewsRadio? All I can get on the FM band is a sound like a storm at sea. TV doesn’t work either. My mobile phone is dead. As for the Telstra internet connection – I discover later that a flock of well-motivated carrier pigeons would be faster and more reliable.

When you have spent most of your life in the city, you tend to dismiss those from the bush who complain about infrastructure as “bloody whingeing farmers”. This is the reality.

It was not supposed to be like this. This is not the boondocks of Boggabilla – it is Byron Bay, baby-boomer nirvana, the sort of place where millions of fiftysomethings say they would love to drop out. SeaChange, the ABC series that captured the aspirations of an ageing nation, was written here.

I roll out of bed and stumble through a thicket of tuckeroo trees to stand on a sand dune watching the beam of the lighthouse sweep the dark horizon every 20 seconds. A full moon is reflected in the wet sand as I jog along the beach. The sun is just coming up through cloudbanks the colour of salmon roe as I climb up through the rainforest to the lookout on top of Broken Head where I can see the resident school of dolphins playing tag with the early-morning surfers.

Suddenly everything’s all right. This is what I came here for. This is why I uprooted myself and travelled 800 kilometres from the smog and the traffic jams and the nine-to-five grind of the city. What do a few minor inconveniences matter?

A lot of people make the mistake of falling in love with some cute little place on the beach or in the hills (what have we got against the flatlands of Forbes?) and wake up to find themselves trapped in a rural backwater where they know no one and the main topic of conversation in the social hub, the bowling club, is yesterday’s funeral or next month’s craft festival.

Byron Bay wasn’t going to be like that. I knew the place reasonably well from holidaying there on and off for a decade or so, and had a few friends and business contacts.

The year before I had bought what the agent described as a “groovy little beach house” intending it to be a holiday home – changing personal circumstances, and a fortuitous offer of a contract from my employer, gave me the opportunity to make a new life there.

It’s a relatively small town (the resident population is only about 10,000, and the largest employer is said to be the local chicken processing works), though I had a pretty good idea I was never going to be bored.

A friend of mine, Mark, was once reconnoitring coastal towns in NSW looking for somewhere to move. Whenever he found somewhere promising he would ring his father in New Zealand to get his opinion. Jervis Bay – no. Ulladulla – no. Gosford – no. Byron Bay – yes. When he asked his father why, the old guy said “You’ve worked hard all your life and made a bit of money – why would you want to live somewhere where there’s nothing to spend it on?”

Byron Bay punches way above its weight in social amenities thanks to the million and more tourists who go there for the sun and the sand and the surf. It has more first-class restaurants than Canberra, the liveliest live-music pubs between Brisbane and Sydney, three cinemas (if you count the daggy screen in what was once a pig abattoir) and, thanks to all the socially concerned boomers and pensioners with time on their hands, no building over three storeys, no McDonald’s, no Club Med and a thriving, though still precarious, population of Wallum froglets.

As well as Easter’s Blues and Roots festival, which pulls in people from around the world, it has festivals for writers, filmmakers, foodies, you name it. One of the few drawbacks of having a spare room in Byron Bay is that you are going to discover you had far more friends than you ever realised – especially when unscrupulous, unlicensed landlords can get $50 a night renting out a car-trailer covered with a plastic sheet in their backyard.

It is also a place of tremendous social diversity, unlike other coastal towns, such as Ballina, which resemble giant retirement villages with walking frames clashing in the main street on Saturday mornings as pensioners dash for the shops before everything closes for the weekend.

In Byron Bay, the person you bump into at the Railway Friendly Bar could be a debt-collector or an unemployed hooker, a refugee from a New Age commune or a filmmaker, a retired rock musician, a town planner, the man who caught the town’s biggest jewfish, the American who invented the Jet Ski, or a stage hypnotist keen to discuss his penis-pumping machine.

I started keeping a diary for the first time in my life, thinking maybe I would write a down-under Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It hasn’t come together as a book yet – I’m still missing the murder – but I’ve had some great out-of-city experiences, as well as a few out-of-body ones.

I drank my first absinth in Byron Bay, courtesy of a man I’d better call Paddy (because that isn’t his name) who is a genius in the lost art of home distilling. He ferments molasses he buys in 44-gallon drums from the sugar mill at Broadwater, distils it in a Heath Robinson contraption in his garden shed, and flavours the resultant rocket fuel with essences – or, in the case of the absinth, with home-grown wormwood – to make whisky or black Galliano or poteen or whatever takes his fancy.

I went to a barbecue at a prison farm with a man who thinks he is going to jail for fraud and thought it would be wise to inspect the facilities. I went bushwalking with a remarkable woman who has spent the past decade welding together an enormous steel ocean-going yacht in her backyard. I had a $195 massage (no, a real massage) involving “bio molecular perfecting fluid”.

I made the mistake of letting people know I was trying to set up a publishing business (would you believe no one had registered “SeaChange Media”?) and immediately found myself up to my ears in manuscripts. Everyone in Byron Bay has a story, and most of them think it’s only a matter of tidying up the spelling a bit before Steven Spielberg comes begging to their door.

And so I learnt the remarkable history of the cat-and-mouse game played out between an eccentric local real estate agent and the police, who were determined to foil the fun he derived from the innocent pastime of firing off his 18th-century brass cannon. And the saga of the deep-sea diver and reformed heroin addict who fell in love with an old wooden boat in Tasmania and decided to sail it home, surviving storms and a mutiny.

The work, of course, was the problem. Because – though it may sound like it – I wasn’t actually retired. I was on a contract to write for The Sydney Morning Herald, and casting around for other opportunities to get involved with interesting projects to help pay the milkman.

We have been told for years that telecommuting will set us free from slavery to city workplaces, and to some extent that’s true, though it can be hard to concentrate when you can hear the surf from your study.

Once I had the phones working and the ASDL broadband connected, it was a cinch to do my research and file my copy and pictures – indeed, for several years Australian 60 Minutes has had a producer based in Umbria, Italy.

The problem in a job like mine is partly technical – there is a limited interest for a Sydney readership in goings-on in the Northern Rivers, though I did have a bit of fun with a shonky local property developer. And there are things going on around Sydney that can’t be accessed immediately by the internet – courts, Parliament and so on – where you physically have to be there.

More importantly, if you generate most of your own story ideas, you are dependent on your contacts. And your contacts won’t call if they don’t see your face around town.

“I thought you’d retired,” said one of my best sources in the security industry when we bumped into each other in the pub after I’d been living in Byron Bay for a couple of months.

And driving up and down that shameful goat track called the Pacific Highway became an ordeal – especially after I began to get impatient and collected a pile of speed-camera tickets.

I don’t want this to sound like a whinge, but last month I decided I needed to spend more time in Sydney, and it was back to Plan A – take a flat here and use the place on the beach for holidays.

I miss falling to sleep to the sound of the surf. I miss my friends. I miss the laid-back lifestyle. But it won’t be forever – maybe one of these days I really will be ready to retire, and I can’t think of a better place to do it.

Publishing Info

Pub:  Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Wednesday 24 December 2003
Edition: Late
Section: Metropolitan
Sub section:
Page: 13
Word count: 1612
Photo: Tanya Lake