Australia’s Northern Rivers: Where nature is in charge

David Whitley August 17, 2015 Comments Off on Australia’s Northern Rivers: Where nature is in charge

The Cape Byron Lighthouse in Byron Bay.

The Cape Byron Lighthouse in Byron Bay.

The Northern Rivers region of New South Wales is all about cliffs, forests and a light human touch, as David Whitley discovers.

It’s not so much this leap, but the ones to come. Standing on a rock ledge above a freshwater pool, mere metres from the crashing surf, the jump down is enough to make you think carefully about how to do it – but not enough to invoke terror.

But Shane says this one is the baby. The 12 metre and 18 metre cliff jumps are still to come – and he gleefully admits that he loves pushing people off cliffs.

Shane is the co-owner of the Yamba YHA, and he started up his somewhat notorious tour as a way of showing off the gorgeous surf town he’s unashamedly in love with.

Geography has made Yamba a bit special. It’s where the Clarence River meets the ocean, and the headlands combine to create beaches facing in almost every direction. If the surf’s iffy at one of them, it’ll probably be good at another. There are few better places to pick up the surfing bug – and it leads to people who originally planned on staying for a day or two settling in for weeks.

A large part of Yamba’s charm comes from being out on a limb. It’s not on the way to or from anywhere else, and you have to make the conscious decision to detour to it. There’s a solitary road in, which hops over bridges spanning the channels of the Clarence delta. Enormous pelicans swim unperturbed as the cane fields give way to wild greenery.

The easy-going spirit of the town is at odds with Shane, a maniacally energetic character who nonchalantly concedes that someone’s probably going to end up bleeding on his tour. He sticks his head into a cave to see if he’s right about a snake being in there, and confesses his colleagues make him stay off the Red Bull for a few days if someone cries.

It would be churlish to spoil the many surprises in Shane’s outrageously tour, but suffice to say not everything is as it seems. And, on the way, Yamba’s prodigious charms become apparent – whether it’s the mobs of kangaroos on the golf course or the fish eager to be fed outside the tavern.

Yamba arguably marks the point where the drive up the Legendary Pacific Coast enters a zone that’s altogether more relaxed and nature-leaning. The Northern Rivers region at the top of New South Wales is tree-huggingly organic, occasionally lurching quite merrily into space cadet territory. Much of this was sparked by the Aquarius Festival in 1973, where students, hippies, ecological living devotees and a whole load of tie-dye got together in Nimbin to exchange ideas. Many attendees stayed on, and the ideals certainly did.

Nimbin itself teeters on the edge of hemp and rainbows self-parody, although it has noticeably been spruced up in recent years. Once a little shambling and shabby (and renowned for particularly strong ‘herbal’ cakes), it now seems to be turning its attentions to what makes the region so refreshing. New cafés are serving up organic juices, fresh fruit from the surrounding farms, locally grown macadamia nuts and cookies with top quality regional ingredients.

There’s very little big business in these parts – just an awful lot of people nurturing small pockets of land in a way that allows them to live a simple lifestyle. It’s very much a place of forests rather than stripped back farmland. The Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area is all around, with the walking trails and waterfalls of the Nightcap National Park providing the most endearingly beautiful example of it.

Multiple aspects of the region come together in its best known town. Byron Bay has no shortage of reiki practitioners and tarot readers, but it also has the surf culture. The Main Beach and Tallow Beach are gloriously long stretches of sand (albeit a little more crowded than others in the area – Brunswick Heads and Lennox Head are particularly special). Off them, novices taking surf school lessons and gnarled veterans alike ride the breaks into shore.

They’re often not alone either. The walk along the beaches, through the nature reserve and under the shadow of the mighty lighthouse on the Cape Byron headland, is a prime wildlife-viewing amble. Stare out to sea from the most easterly point on the Australian mainland, and you’ll often spot pods of dolphins elegantly flitting through the water and playing in the breaking waves. Cast the eyes a little further out between May and November, and they’ll often be joined by breaching humpback whales migrating up and down the coast.

It’s not just the surfers that can get close to them. Cape Byron Kayaks ( runs paddling tours that battle through the crashing foam before riding the swells out to where the dolphins are hanging out. On the way, birds dive down to catch fish and turtles bobble along serenely. But when the dolphins are finally found, the extra special magic of being low to the water rather than peering from the deck of a boat becomes apparent. They leap out right in front of the kayak nose – it’s as close as you’re conceivably going to get without unfairly disturbing them. And even the least alternative lifestyle-inclined paddler is likely to start feeling at one with nature.

This story was originally written for YHA Backpacker Essentials.

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