Byron Bay - where it all began
Byron Bay, a small town on the east coast of Australia, was the starting point of my very first trip around the country at the end of June 2016. The countless experiences I was going to live in the twelve months that followed marked me deeply and changed my life forever. So inevitably, when I decided to start writing a novel inspired by this initiatory journey, it was with this memorable episode that I chose to start… Exactly 7 years later, I offer you a slightly shortened version of the first chapter of this book, which I hope to complete in the next few months!
It’s been about an hour since the first light of day broke through the darkness. I barely slept since my flight left Kuala Lumpur shortly after midnight and I’m starting to feel the weight of fatigue. I never managed to find a comfortable position in the tiny space I’ve been allocated. My back hurts, my neck is stiff, and my legs are sore from being compressed against the back of the seat in front of me. I also have a furry mouth, a dry throat and the beginning of a headache, but since the dark night has started to give way to a delicate dawn, none of these multiple inconveniences have the slightest importance anymore. I’m not able to take my eyes off the window, observing the scene which gradually emerges from the shadows, lit by the sun gently rising over the horizon. Thousands of meters below the fuselage of the aircraft, the desertic plains of the centre of Australia stretch as far as the eye can see.
It is a fascinating sight, of an implacable and magnetic beauty. Whatever the direction, I can’t see anything but immense plains of intense red, streaked by long sand dunes and punctuated here and there by a few rocky hills. I catch sight of the wide meanders of a dry river that carries nothing but ocher dust. This arid, sun-scorched land has probably not received a drop of rain in months, maybe years. In some places, millennia of erosion have patiently shaped the landscape, giving it a striking texture that can only be appreciated from the sky and gives me the impression of contemplating the surface of an unknown planet. I am unable to detach myself from this mesmerizing vision. It is a gigantic abstract and minimalist canvas, almost monochromatic, which unfolds before my bloodshot eyes clouded with exhaustment.
Little by little, almost imperceptibly, tiny touches of green appear. As the plane begins to lose altitude, the color palette gains in variety, forming geometric figures no longer shaped by nature. I see a few isolated farms, roads connecting them, then a few clusters of dwellings eventually turning into villages. Modern civilization reasserts itself as we approach our destination. A few minutes later, we are already flying over Brisbane, the third largest city in the country, from where we begin the final descent to Coolangatta and the Gold Coast airport, a hundred kilometers further south. In barely half an hour, I will finally set foot on Australian soil.
My heart beats a little faster in my chest and dozens of thoughts simultaneously cross my mind. Excitement competes with anxiety, impatience mingles with apprehension. I have been waiting and dreading this moment for weeks. In the days leading up to my departure, my mood oscillated countless times between elation bordering on fervour, intense nervousness and crippling stress, culminating in a whirlwind of emotions as I left Europe for good. A part of me was eager to finally begin this adventure, while another was scared at the idea of going so far alone. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the right decision, or if I was making a terrible mistake. I suddenly feared to miss my routine existence more than I could possibly bear.
All these questions and all these doubts followed one another in uninterrupted loops during the trip, from one flight to another, via a hectic stopover in Bangkok which didn’t really help me to calm down (see also “Lost in Bangkok“), then a luckily uneventful correspondence of a few hours in Kuala Lumpur. It was only since the Australian desert slowly began to appear that I was able to put my anxiety aside temporarily, concentrating on the extraordinary sight before my eyes. Curiously, it is a form of melancholy that takes over when the wheels of the plane land gently on the tarmac. I am still facing the outside, but several fleeting images are superimposed on the landscape that unfolds in front of me through the window: my apartment in Neuchâtel in Switzerland, the superb view I had over the Alps from my terrace when the weather was nice, our nights out in Lausanne with Aurélien, my best friend… And then the plane finally stops opposite the terminal and this hint of nostalgia disappears just as suddenly as it had appeared in the hubbub of passengers getting up to grab their luggage.
Coolangatta airport is tiny and I arrive very quickly at the security check, ready to present my passport. It’s probably a bit stupid, but I can’t help to have this irrational fear that I might be refused entry into the country, for some unknown and arbitrary reason. The tension that must probably be read on my face contrasts with the happy smiles of the family in front of me. In fact, most of the travelers around me seem cheerful and relaxed. As I take my place in the queue, I pass two policemen who look particularly laid back. Neither of them has that pale face due to prolonged exposure to artificial light or that somewhat blank expression in the eyes that is often characteristic of security guards or soldiers on patrol, who know that most much of their working time will consist of waiting without anything happening. They are tanned, they hold a cup of coffee in their hands, and the youngest seems to be telling a hilarious story to his colleague who laughs happily. I can easily picture them rushing to the nearest beach with their surfboards under their arms as soon as their work day is over.
It’s luckily without any difficulties that I manage to go through customs. The very smiling woman who stamps my passport even greets me with a “good day mate”; I didn’t expect the first person to give me that friendly nickname to be a customs officer! I thank her, a little surprised by such a warm welcome, then go through the security gate and pick up my backpack. I suddenly realize that I am starving. We haven’t been served a meal on the low-cost flight I took part in, and I stop at a shop to buy myself a fruit juice and a pastry. I see a few tables and chairs on the other side of a bay window, outside the terminal, and I sit down there to enjoy my makeshift breakfast. It’s barely past nine in the morning but the sky is perfectly clear and the sun is warming my skin. I feel good, even to the point of forgetting my fatigue.
That’s it, I’m officially in Australia. I don’t think I really manage to figure it out yet. As if to help me to become aware of where I am, a surprising welcoming committee appears at that moment: two ibises with white and black feathers, pecking with their long ebony beaks at the crumbs strewn on the ground. It’s probably a common sight here and no one pays attention to it, but I’m delighted to see them wandering around me. A wave of emotion suddenly sweeps over me. It’s an exhilarating feeling to have finally arrived in this country that I have dreamed of for so long. I am seized by an intense euphoria at the idea that my journey has really begun, and a big smile stretches on my face. For the first time since my departure, the anxiety that sticks to my skin begins to ease a little.
I reach Byron Bay around 11:30 am, driving the car I rented at the airport. The trip took me a little over an hour, just enough to familiarise myself with driving on the other side of the road, which to my relief turned out to be much easier than I feared. It will probably take me a little longer to remember that the indicators and windscreen wipers controls are reversed as well, but also to learn that the steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle and not on the left. This at least had the merit of making the guy from the rental company laugh when I naturally sat in the passenger seat before leaving the car park…
It is still too early to check in in the room I rented on Airbnb and I decide to start by taking a walk in Byron Bay. If I believe the Lonely Planet guidebook that my parents gave me before I left, this little town experienced a sudden notoriety in the late 1960s when dozens of surfers flocked to the area, bringing their laid back and alternative lifestyle with them; it is now a very popular destination and apparently one of the prettiest coastal towns in Australia. I don’t have another point of comparison to judge it yet, but I’m delighted with this first walk. As in many places, the heritage of that original hippie movement has gradually faded since the rise of modern globalised tourism, but there is still a very peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. The facades of the buildings on either side of the main street are protected by large porches, most of them in wood, giving the whole a somewhat western look. Bohemian second-hand clothes shops and trendy stores adjoin cafes, restaurants and surf shops, and many colourful vans that I contemplate with envy are parked along the sidewalk. I also see several people walking around barefoot, looking perfectly at ease. Stress doesn’t seem to exist here, and the euphoria I felt at the airport slowly turns into a kind of joyful elation.
The street leads to a vast esplanade facing the Pacific Ocean, which I admire for the first time in my life. I see a flat rock at the edge of the beach and sit on it, soaking up all the sensations that surround me: the beauty of the landscape, the smell of the ocean spray, the softness of the sun, the screams of a group of children playing on the lawn not far from me. I have the impression of being in this kind of place where one randomly arrives only to spend a few days, ending up waking up ten years later, barefoot on the sand, desperately trying to remember what his existence that suddenly seems so complicated was like before. I don’t know if this is the fate that awaits me, but it is at least the ideal surroundings that I need to get rid of the few negative thoughts that still clutter my mind.
In the early afternoon, I go to the accommodation I booked, on the outskirts of the city. As soon as I drop my luggage in my room, exhaustment and jet lag finally caught up with me and I collapse on the bed, too tired to keep moving. When I painfully emerge from my nap a couple of hours later, the sun is already low on the horizon and I quickly return to the seaside to spend the evening there.
I sat back down on the same flat rock from which I have a perfect view over the endless main beach of Byron Bay, with its population of surfers tirelessly looking for the perfect wave. Further to my right, the coast ends at the cliffs of Cape Byron, overlooked by a lighthouse whose light shines intermittently. To my left, the shore extends to the horizon in an infinity of wooded hills with bluish reflections, dominated by the imposing silhouette of a mountain higher than the others, Mount Warning, more poetically named Wollumbin which means “cloud catcher” in the local aboriginal language, if I believe what I read in my guide. It is a panorama of great beauty, and it is in front of this spectacle that I open for the first time an object that is particularly close to my heart.
Before leaving Switzerland, the country where I lived for the past few years, Robin, one of my best friends, gave me a notebook in which he wrote down a travel story describing unforgettable moments he experienced a few months earlier in Ecuador, during a several-week journey in South America. He left the following pages blank, and he entrusted me with the mission of writing a story related to the adventures that I will experience before transmitting the notebook to another traveler, and so on until all the pages are completed and that the last person to have it in their hands sends it back to Robin who has taken care to write down his address at the beginning. The idea is simple but I found it extraordinary, and I was very flattered to be the first chosen to carry this notebook. He gave me the order not to open it until I had set foot in Australia, and this moment seemed ideal to immerse myself in his story:
In the drowsiness of that stormy afternoon of June, nothing is happening, or so little. I am desperately looking for an activity to keep my mind occupied. There’s only a ridiculous fan swirling endlessly above me in my office. Outside, a train passes by, and like it I would like to leave, racing through the landscapes, taking a look at every thing, and let my imagination wander with the passerby. On my table, left in the middle of a pile of books, I catch sight of my travel diary and I open it randomly…
I loved my reading. That story touched me deeply, and suddenly, the gorgeous landscape in front of me merges with the distant echoes of a party that took place months earlier on the other side of the world, and with the memories that Robin so aptly described. I am somewhere between Australia and Ecuador, halfway between dream and reality.
As the sun goes down, the colors of the idyllic setting around me gradually gain in intensity while all the elements of the decor slowly take on a copper hue. Below the rock where I am sitting, the waves lapping the sand leave a crackle of golden foam in their path. A singer settles down behind me, mingling the sounds of her voice and her folk guitar with the cries of dozens of birds that have come to nest for the night in the trees a little further. I stay there alone until the sun finally disappears over the horizon, leaving behind an incredible gradient of colors in the sky. The temperature has dropped and I have goosebumps, but the sudden coolness is not the only cause.
I didn’t take my camera to capture the moment but that doesn’t matter. I sort of feel that the images I have before my eyes will leave an indelible mark on my mind and that nothing will ever possibly erase them. In front of this fabulous landscape, all the anxieties and concerns that have inhabited me since my departure disappear one after the other, replaced by an exhilarating sensation of freedom, stronger than I have ever felt before. It is a revelation, an epiphany. I can reach the very essence of this just beginning journey, and I start to glimpse the answers to questions that I have not yet asked myself. Suddenly, being there all alone nearly seventeen thousand kilometers away from home is no longer scary, but exciting. I no longer have apprehension but I’m sure of one thing: I made the right decision. At this precise moment, I know that I am exactly where I need to be.