On the road again, naturally
A gentle driving jaunt around the Byron Bay hinterland
THE last time I drove a car it probably had running boards, but being out of practice is of no concern to hire companies. I just sign a form at Ballina airport and next thing I’m dodging trucks in the rain on the Pacific Highway, blinded by the spray of passing vehicles.
All the wipers are flapping, even the little flippy ones on the mirrors. Any more and I’d be airborne. The choice of light switches is confusing so I turn them all on, giving fair warning that a latter-day Mr Magoo is on the loose.
I’m off to the hill country of Coorabell. It holds a dress-circle position in the hinterland overlooking Byron Bay on the NSWnorth coast.
Mini-estates of urban escapees have colonised rolling farmland, allotments of a few hectares featuring pavilions and villas secluded by lush gardens, usually with calming vistas from expansive decks. I think of Connecticut on the caldera, or Palm Beach in a paddock.
The teeming fecundity of subtropical volcanic soil is never really tamed. Amid possums, pythons and composting toilets, local handymen do a roaring trade as constant gardeners, repelling the lantana and ferreting out invasive camphor laurels to maintain these architectural experiments, a number of which can be booked for short stays via online providers such as stayz.com.au.
There’s no public transport and the irony of ripping through fossil fuel to enjoy a green lifestyle does not escape me as I wind around blind corners on a 10-minute drive to the nearest shop, where buying ground coffee for my hosts’ espresso machine costs twice what it would in the city.
But whenever the sun breaks through, there’s a golden light, a steaming sense of paradise until the next shower. I head deeper into the hills. Down canopied lanes the bitumen turns to gravel and Repentance Creek is washing over the road at door-window depth. A wrong turn takes me into the forest. The trail becomes a tunnel as I ford more swollen streams, swerve to avoid falling branches and shudder over the sort of potholes that make me glad I don’t actually own this car. Occasional mailboxes on overgrown gates become increasingly woeful, less likely to have ever seen a letter. Is that banjos I hear as I pass a crumbling fence decorated with cow skulls?
I’ve strayed on to a track that’s just a dotted wiggle on the map. I’m now beyond even that approximate cartography, seemingly in who-really-knows territory. Time to turn back.
I make it to Mullumbimby, a pleasant farming town where La Table cafe and restaurant is a recent and fine French alternative to the various ugg-boots-and-beanies eateries, which all seem to have pumpkin somewhere on their menus.
And then there’s pretty Bangalow. The knitting circle at the Country Women’s Association meeting room in the main street is a step back to the 1950s, complete with a photo of a young Queen. Just the place to snap up a handmade tea-cosy. The CWAowns this building and it’s staying put, a pioneer stalwart as stylish stores with metropolitan prices gentrify the town. One of the women tells me the historical society’s reopened tearooms serve a decent scone.
All that remains is to thank the friends with whom I’ve been staying with a bottle of local limoncello from the farmers’ market at Byron Bay before returning the car to Ballina airport. It’s sustained no apparent damage but is completely covered in mud. I’m ready for a spot on Top Gear after this. stayz.com.au latable.com.au visitnsw.com
Past meets present in pretty Bangalow’s main street