Skip to content

This Is Northern New South Wales

A Small Town Welcome – Peter Bowes

Old Byron Bay : Words by Peter Bowes : Photo by Max Pendergast


A welcome was hard earned here, and almost always conditional. Byron Bay usually defended itself against any newcomer with either blankfaced rebuffal or a beating.

The town had no shortage of strong-armed men with both the butter factory and the slaughterhouse in full production, and any young visitor from the cities to the north and south was run through a frightening series of gauntlets before given any measure of acceptance.
You’ve been drinking in the Public bar of the Great Northern every night since you arrived on the train from Sydney, up for a few months of long waves and winter warmth.
Everybody in the bar knows your business but you are yet to receive a friendly word from any of them. Though you try.

Three men are drinking at a table by the door, there is one spare seat there and you ask whether it is taken. And of course it is, despite that the fourth man who was sitting in it left an hour ago to start his twelve-hour shift at Norco.

You move off.
An old man is lounging in a corner of the bar listening to a Brisbane League game, he has his smokes, his form guide, a schooner and a double tot of OP rum all set out on the bar in front of him – like a widower’s picnic – and when you ask him what the score is, not that you really want to know, he talks over your shoulder to the three blokes sitting at the table by the door. He asks them how come the railway is giving free tickets to Byron for fuckin’ idiots from Sydney.

You move off.
The café is quiet at 7.15 pm and all the booths are empty, you know that they shut at about 8 so half an hour should be plenty of time to buy a feed of sausages and eggs. The waitress doesn’t appear right away though, she’s in the kitchen talking to someone, you can hear her laughing, and after ten minutes she walks through the swing doors and into the room.

She walks around the booths one by one and picks up all the menus from the tables, including yours; she stacks these by the cash register. Then she upends all the stools on top of the counter and turns off the outside light. It’s 7.30.

The kitchen light goes out and a backdoor closes.

You wait.

Nothing is moving on the street outside.

The waitress glances at you as she wipes down the counter and you hear a car pull up outside with a little tyre squeal, and a car horn sounds once. Then all is quiet again. There is no dinner here tonight and you get up from the booth and walk to the door.

Outside the boyfriend is leaning up against his car. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled high to show his heavy arms and as you walk outside the café he pulls himself upright and takes a step in your direction. He is a big young man, towering.

Her eyes are at your back, you can feel them, and his eyes watch as you approach him. He is wearing narrow black jeans and a clean white shirt, he is barefoot and unsmiling, and heavily tanned, or coloured, and there is no seeing into his eyes tonight.

He hits you very hard on the side of the head and the café’s glass window bends just like plastic as you fall against it, only to rebound into the second blow, this time to the stomach.

Down now.

She leaves the café and locks up the front doors, then walks around you and climbs into the car. You notice that she has nice legs, he is still standing there undecided so you bleed a little onto the footpath in submission, waiting for him to go away.

They move off.
A youth in a Freshwater Surf Club T-shirt has taken a small calibre rifle from his car and is walking towards the beach. He’s with about three or four others and they have all been camped at the Pass for a couple of days enjoying the swell; taking aggressive ownership of the lines that bend around the Cape and peel away through Wategos and then around the Pass. They are all excellent surfers, strong and quick, and one of them has earned some notoriety from a well-publicised trip to Hawaii the previous year. This is their last day at the Bay before continuing on up the coast to the Queensland points.

The fellow with the rifle squats down behind the fishing boats that have been drawn up to the high-water mark and takes a bead on a silver gull. He has no shortage of targets today as birds are feeding in the tide ponds in their hundreds.

Silver Gulls, Terns, Pacific Gulls, Pelicans and Black-tails. A couple of Oyster-catchers are sleeping beside a mound of stinking kelp and wave after wave draws away down the cove in the windless air. This is not a day for killing gulls.

A tossed stone scatters the birds to the air at the same time as the youth pulls the trigger, and he turns to see who has interrupted his sport and spots another young man standing up on the grassy knoll that overlooks the boat ramp, from where he shies another and heavier rock, this time at the shooter, and with greater accuracy.

There follows a short and virulent engagement between the two that ends when the fellow with the rifle retreats to his car. His three friends have now joined him, and half a dozen local youths, including a few Islanders, have wandered down from the Pass lookout to watch the confrontation. Standing with them is a young giant of a man.
The Freshwater car spits gravel all the way up to Lighthouse Road leaving the stone thrower, a Sydney boy, alone with the group of local surfers.

One or two smile at him, and the big fellow comes over close, he’s barefoot and unsmiling and heavily tanned, or coloured, and he extends his oversized hand. There is a benign recognition in his eyes now and the two shake hands.

Find out more about Peter Bowes here –