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Saturday July 2, 2011

Sway of Byron Bay

From catching shrimp in the mud to skydiving and cuddling koala bears, Byron Bay and beyond in New South Wales has lots to offer.

IT all happened so quickly. As I moved closer and closer to the open shutters, I began to think if any sane person would do what I was about to do.

My instructor Terry didn’t give me time to hesitate. He instructed me to lean my head back and fold my legs under the aircraft.

“One, two…” Before I could hear the count of three, I found myself free-falling from 14,000 feet (4,267m) above the ground. All I could hear from then on was the white noise whizzing in my ears as I let myself fall, letting go of every muscle or thought that tried to take control.

Hungry flock: Feeding the pelicans — with salmon skin — is part of the activities on the Tweed Endeavour Cruises.

Gravity got the best of me as I fell through the clouds. Falling at the speed of about 220kph, I stretched my arms out. Skydiving is as close to flying as humans can get, I’ve been told, and certainly it was like nothing I had ever felt before. After a minute or so, Terry pulled the parachute, and we jolted upwards slightly.

As I breathed a sigh of relief, he said, “You did it!” Phew.

I tried to blow out the pressure in my ears, and then spent the next few minutes marvelling at the carpet of greenery beneath my dangling feet, just by the east coast of Australia next to the South Pacific Ocean. Looking at the Monopoly-sized rooftops below, I felt like a giant whose feet were about to crush the tiny people on the ground.

Before my evil laugh kicked in, I was brought back to reality when Terry said, “Now lift your feet up as high as you can.”

We landed smoothly on the big yellow X that marks the Byron Bay dropzone, one of the four skydiving dropzones under Skydive Australia.

This familiarisation trip to Byron Bay and beyond, organised by AirAsia X (AAX), Tourism New South Wales and Tourism Northern Rivers, proved a much-needed break away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We had boarded the AAX overnight flight from the LCC terminal and arrived the next morning at the Coolangatta Airport in Gold Coast.

Since our trip was primarily focused on New South Wales (NSW), we were expecting the drive to our accommodation to be of a fair distance but were pleasantly surprised that it was just 10 minutes away at the Outrigger Twins Towns Resort in Tweed Heads. The Gold Coast may be well known for its theme parks, but beyond it lies a whole different side of Australia hidden from the rest of the world. After taking some time to freshen up, we hop on our bus. You can forget all about traffic jams and rush hour. At Byron Bay and the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, you can easily step of the merry-go-round of life and let Mother Nature fill your senses.

The Cape Byron Lighthouse.

The activities are endless, from the sky to the ground, and let’s not forget the clear blue waters.

We got on one of the cruises by Tweed Endeavour Cruises on Tweed River, home to mudcrabs with claws the size of an adult’s fist. Rolling up our jeans, we grabbed a yabbie pump (a stainless steel cylindrical tube that had a shaft through the centre with a plunger system attached) each, and walked down the boat along the shallower areas of Tweed River as we tried our hands at pumping for saltwater shrimps.

“You’ve got to shove the pump into the sand, pull the handle up to get the sand into the tube, and pump it back quickly into the baskets to sieve the yabbies out,” our guide Ben explained, as we put our biceps to work.

After we had had enough of pumping, we moved on to the second activity – fishing, where we used the yabbies we caught earlier as baits. Reluctant to go near the fishing lines at first due to my phobia of hooks, I was thrilled when I felt a tug on my rod, and saw the tip of it tilting from the tension of the line. “I think I got one!” I announced, as I reeled the line back up quickly and saw a fish hanging from the line, flipping its tail back and forth.

We ended our day after sunset at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, a not-for-profit organisation, back across the border in Queensland. A research and conservation facility with a collection of over 1,400 mammals, birds and reptiles, the sanctuary is well known for its daily wild lorikeet feeding session.

Participating in their Wildnight Adventure tour, we got the rare opportunity to see some of the less commonly found Australian wildlife such as the bilby and Tasmanian devils at their most active time of day. The sanctuary being one of the very few places left where cuddling a koala is allowed, everyone on the tour got a chance to hold a koala for a snapshot.

My animal rights instinct kicked in, but I was assured by the koala caretaker that the sanctuary adhered strictly to the government code of practice, and none of the creatures would be harmed or affected because they were given adequate rest times. We also got to witness an aboriginal dance performance before the tour wrapped up with some hot chocolate for all of us.

We spent the next day on a road trip heading south towards Mount Warning to explore the Byron hinterlands. Even though it may be tempting, try not to sleep if you’re on this road as the scenic drive is really something.

An aboriginal dance performance for visitors at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Passing by the farms, I saw signboards advertising whole organic pumpkins for sale at A$2 each, not to mention the stiffened wallabies on the road, unfortunate road kills. But look past that, and eventually, you will see Mount Warning on the horizon. Named by Captain James Cook in 1770, the mountain is considered a sacred place by many aboriginal communities.

It is as if we had entered a scene from a children’s storybook when we stopped at Tyalgum Village, a rural village of about 300 people, 45 minutes’ drive from Gold Coast. Everyone greets each other by name, and if you’re a resident, you would most certainly be stopped for a chat along the street.

We entered Flutterbies Cafe, a quaint little cafe known for its signature Flutterbies cake (a crumbly cake served with fresh cream and strawberry jam on top). Enjoying a tea party with friends surrounded by teddy bears and all things girly rekindled memories of my childhood, except the hot chocolate and cupcakes were not make-believe.

Before sunset, we visited Crystal Castle, a heaven for crystal enthusiasts. Located at an intersection of earth energy lines, the Crystal Castle is built according to the principles of “harmonious architecture” with no 90° angles.

Apart from large crystals, iconic statues from different faiths are located around a labyrinth inspired by the 800-year-old Chartres Cathedral labyrinth near Paris, and it is common practice for visitors to leave coins on them, which would be collected and donated to a good cause. After walking through the garden, we each had our aura photos taken.

Take what you may from the readings, but we were told that the colours that appear on the photograph reflected the energy field we projected!

Afterwards, we stopped at the Ballina Beach Resort, just 20 minutes south from Byron Bay, where we were served a sumptuous seafood dinner at the Naulitus Bar and Grill.

We spent our last day in Byron Bay, where we put up at the Apartments Inn in the heart of town. Located just 65km from Coolangatta airport, Byron Bay is famous for its alternative lifestyles and attracts people from all walks of life.

If I had more time, I would probably be lazing on the beach or mingling with the locals over a good cuppa.

But since we had a schedule to keep to, we headed to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, Australia’s most powerful lighthouse three kilometres from Byron Bay. At the foot of the lighthouse, you can pop a few coins into the coin-operated binoculars and take in the sights of the most easterly point of Australia, and if you’re lucky, you may even spot a whale.

Ben from Tweed Endeavour Cruises showing the difference between a male (left) and a female crab.

Next, we pulled up at the nearby Lennox Community Market, which is held every second and fifth Sunday of the month.

The market hosts a variety of stalls, ranging from those hawking handmade knick-knacks to local food produce. If you love coffee, don’t forget to get a taste of some local Byron coffee at the end of the market. You won’t miss it since there is always a long queue in front!

After an hour at the market, we headed back to Byron Bay for a kayaking session with Cape Byron Kayaks. After a briefing on how to use our oars, my partner and I took on the waves one by one, trying to keep our kayak from capsizing.

Being in the front seat of the two-seater kayak was rather scary, especially seeing the waves grow bigger as we approached. Once we were out in the glistening waters, we waited patiently until we spotted a school of dolphins from afar.

“Normally, you would be able to see the dolphins from a lot closer, and they sometimes sneak up behind you!” our guide told us. We ended our day by sharing stories over dinner at the Byron Resort and Spa.

Although it was only a brief trip, I felt a certain affinity for Byron. I’m sure I’ll find my way back there sooner or later.


Outrigger Twin Towns Resort, Tweed Heads

Wharf Street, Tweed Heads NSW 2485

E-mail: twintowns@outrigger.com.au

Contact no: +61 7 5536 2121 / 1800 192 020 (toll free)

Ballina Beach Resort

1 Compton Drive, Lighthouse Beach

East Ballina, NSW 2478

Email: info@ballinabeachresort.com.au

Contact no: +61 2 6686 8888

Apartments Inn Byron

20-22 Fletcher Street, Byron Bay,

NSW 2481

Email: innfo@apartmentsinnbyron.com.au

Contact no: +61 2 662096 00 / 1800 307 660 (toll free)

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