In this two-part series, Californian Serena Renner shares with us her journey, searching for alternative Australia somewhere between Sydney and the Woodford Folk Festival in South-East Queensland.
On the third day of our road trip, my senses started to snap out of their workweek slumber. Passing farm stands and river bends in the patchwork pastures of central New South Wales, I detected new shades of green and felt the energy of fresh rainwater rushing down the Bellingen River. I rolled down the window to inhale the clean air.
When we arrived at the Bellingen Backpackers YHA, we met David, a lean man with a Sri Lankan accent who wore a green button-up hiking shirt rolled at the elbows, unruly hair tied back in a ponytail, and no shoes. “You have arrived,” he said, after we explained the purpose of our visit. “This is the epicentre of Bohemia.”
Besides a desire to slip back into a more present rhythm, my husband Kevin and I planned this road trip to explore Australia’s edgier side: to find people living on the fringes of society and conscious communities creating their own culture.
We had moved to Sydney a year prior from the Bay Area of California, arguably the capital of counterculture, where freaks and renegades popped into our lives on what seemed like a weekly basis. I knew Australia had its free spirits, too, but I didn’t know where to look. So rather than go home to the States for Christmas, we decided to drive up the east coast in search of outsiders like ourselves.
From Sydney to the Woodford Folk Festival, we’d see what characters, communes and left-of-centre customs we could unearth. We hired a Jucy campervan, stocked it with surfboards and musical instruments and set off for an imaginary place we called “Bohemia”.
Day 1: Treachery
It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve when we pulled into Treachery Camp near Seal Rocks – a campground known for surfers as well as dingoes, bush turkeys, possums and monitor lizards, striped like Aboriginal bark paintings – and set up camp in a shady spot overlooking a swamp. The vans and tents surrounding us showed off Christmas ornaments, tinsel and Santa hats. Over the sand dunes, glassy waves beckoned for a sunset surf, so I slid along a few sets as the sky glowed orange sherbet.
For dinner, we cooked a kale noodle dish, which we ate by the campfire under the stars. It wasn’t the Christmas Eve we were used to, but it felt more authentic in its simplicity. Foreign accents drifted over from the neighbouring site, and we wondered what stories they told. What brought these travellers to the woods this Christmas? Where were their families? Why don’t more people spend holidays with the families they choose?
We retreated to our Jucy, decked out in solar-powered fairy lights, with a bottle of wine and watched Into the Wild, the story of the young American idealist Christopher McCandless whose quest for self-reliance took him to the remote Alaska wilderness, where he died tragically of starvation.
Watching a film about one man’s rejection of material possessions and search for truth felt appropriate on this alternative Christmas Eve. I later learned there’s a Seal Rocks local, “Walk Away Dave” who, partially inspired by McCandless, lives on the sand dunes near Treachery and collects every piece of plastic rubbish that washes up on the beach. We were with him in spirit.
The next morning, I caught a few more waves with two girls in Santa hats and witnessed one family’s breakfast interrupted by a menacing monitor lizard.
“Mum, I’ve seen that on World’s Deadliest Creatures!” the son yelled before mum shoved the kids behind their father. It was a Christmas to remember.
Day 2: Hat Head National Park
The deep green river valley that leads to Hat Head National Park is dotted with cows and wheelbarrows that brim with local produce. We pulled over and bought a zucchini and squash by dropping a two-dollar coin into a metal tin. The sky turned stormy, but that didn’t stop us from jumping into the warm, rejuvenating sea near the Hungry Gate campground until near darkness. Rain interrupted our dinner and that of the resident kangaroos, so we hunkered down in our Jucy and fell asleep to droplets clapping on the roof.
The next morning it was all sun. We hiked from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse to North Smoky Beach, where we chased sand crabs, collected scallop shells and driftwood and played like teenagers in the crystal clear water.
Days 3 & 4: Bellingen
And then came David at the Bellingen Backpackers, who wrote his first receipt ever for our reservation to sleep in the hostel parking lot.
“Yeah, man. You get a discount for that,” he said. Before we knew it, David was revealing all his local secrets, from a self-sustaining community called Bundagen that runs tours every Tuesday to a nearby enclave known as Promised Land, where swimming holes pool along the Never Never River.
“It deserves its name,” David said. “The water is so clean you can drink it. Well, I would drink it.”
The rain returned that evening, and it didn’t stop for two days. Instead of heading back to a beach campground, we opted for an extra night in the parking lot like real Bellingen bohemians. At least we had access to the shelter of the hostel not to mention a great local café called No. 5 Church Street, which was hosting live music the following night.
We already had a soft spot for Bellingen anyway. It’s a small town with all the makings of “Alternative Australia” – a hemp store, a solar centre, edible landscaping outside an organic food co-op, a stenciled pot plant on the sidewalk and the word “Hippies” painted in bubble letters at the bottom of the skate park bowl. The place felt progressive without being too out there – something like wild hair pulled back in a ponytail.
It’s also surrounded by incredible nature, which we discovered on a soggy hike through the Gondwana-era palms, figs and ferns of Dorrigo National Park.
Why not spend a rainy day in the rainforest? we reckoned. It was a great idea, but not in sandals. Every time we stopped to photograph a tree or waterfall, a leech would latch on to a foot or ankle. At the end of the Crystal Shower Falls circuit, Kevin found a bloated bloodsucker burrowed under the strap of his thong. I had one in my hair, which soon jumped to my eyebrow…
Luckily, we weren’t too far from Promised Land, that storied haven of rock pools where we could wash the blood and mud from our bodies even if it made the water less drinkable.
Back at the hostel, we noticed several portraits of an iconic face mounted on the living room wall. A caption revealed the subject’s identity: David Helfgott, the savant pianist immortalised in the Australian film Shine. He lives in Promised Land. We probably drove by his house.
Our Bellingen ramble ended back where it started, at No. 5 Church Street, for green curry and fish and chips – the Dorrigo potatoes are as sacred as Promised Land’s water – along with Harvest Pale Ale from Bellingen Brewery and biodynamic gelato for dessert. A young central coast duo called Original Sin played folk covers from Gillian Welch and Bob Dylan in a space outfitted with mismatched furniture, a few pieces draped in handmade crochet.
Many people reminded us of old friends.
Day 5: Angourie
There wasn’t much swell in the town’s famous surf reserve, so we hiked the headland; swam in two bluestone quarries turned freshwater pools; watched the sun set over Wooloweyah Lake; and had a delicious dinner at Barbaresco – the only restaurant in town, which probably by design, doesn’t have a website. The rustic, candle-lit space serves wood-fired pizzas, small plates, and cocktails to a casual crowd of sun-bleached locals.
Sufficiently satisfied and buzzed, we waddled across the street. There we slept in our Jucy opposite the house of a lady we met that morning at Angourie’s only coffee shop.