I know a place, not far from where I live, where the undulating hills are emerald green with rich grass, where luscious untamed rainforest grows wild and sweet scented, where the sunlit, sandy beaches are kissed by sapphire blue sea and the people are sun tanned and peaceful and always smiling. But I carry this place in my heart as the place where the whales are. Like pilgrims on a sacred journey, my husband and I religiously make the trip from our little farm in Canungra, in the Gold Coast Hinterland, to Byron Bay, New South Wales, in early September every year, to watch the humpback whales play in the bay, gracefully thrusting their giant backs, gleaming silver in the brilliant sunlight, out of Byron's pristine sapphire waters. Since I was a little girl, I have long been captivated by the majestic beauty of whales and dreamed of one day getting to see one, but despite living on the coast of southeast Queensland, I always seemed to narrowly miss my opportunity. When I first met my husband, he told me that he knew where the whales were, and promised to take me. Two weekends later, we made the trek to Byron Bay and I instantly fell in love. From the moment I arrived, I was charmed by the eclectic mix of people, steak houses next to vegan cafes, designer boutiques next to handmade clothing stores and a lively pub overlooking the beach. But there was more: from the beautiful Cape Byron Lighthouse, worth a visit to Byron in and of itself just to behold it, one can look out over the jagged cliff face to the sprawling, undulating coastline and below to the cerulean waters and from there bear witness to Byron’s unspoiled sea life sanctuary of sharks, sea turtles and yes, humpback whales. Walking the boardwalk through the sandy, rugged headland, tangled with vegetation and dusted with sand, one can stand at the easternmost point of Australia and stare boldly out at the horizon feeling, truly, as though one teeters at the very tip of the world itself. A whale watching vessel skirts the Cape and one can often see it, small and white, motoring like a little toy remote control racing boat through the water in search of an up close and personal encounter with a mighty humpback whale. But my husband and I often don’t linger here too long when we visit: choosing instead to move south past the busy lighthouse to Broken Head… the place where the whales are.
HOW TO GET TO WHERE THE WHALES ARE
From Byron Bay, drive south along Broken Head Road and once you get about 2 km south of Suffolk Park, turn left into Broken Head Reserve Road. Continue about 3 km to the end and you will arrive at the picnic area. From there, you have two options. You can cruise with the ocean breeze through the rainforest along the Three Sisters walking track if you have little to no hiking experience and want a nice, gentle walk, or if you’re feeling adventurous, head further north and hike the unofficial track through the wilderness and vegetation, clinging to trees to lower yourself down the jagged rainforest path and working up a gentle, sea breeze-kissed sweat as you slip softly over smooth rock and duck low tree branches (it’s even more of a workout on the way back up). As the rainforest clears away to a steep and green windswept coastal hill, you’ll be at a vantage point to overlook Byron’s breathtaking coast, and the view of the bay is spectacular. Parking costs $4. As it is a nature reserve and a wildlife conservation site, you will have to leave your furbaby at home for the day.
MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR WHALE WATCHING EXPERIENCE
We go in late August/ early September as the whales make their way south with their adorable newborn calves, frolicking in the softly open mouth of the coastline. It’s like something out of a dream, watching them all play and languish in the warm waters of the bay. We often also see a lively pod of dolphins playing here at this time, too, and in and of themselves they are almost as worth the trip as the whales. The exuberant life force of springtime runs hot through the young dolphins, and springing males will often put on a display to rival an orchestrated Sea World performance. Binoculars, if you have access to them, are well advised, although the naked eye is able to spot the whales from a distance surprisingly well. Temperatures are usually around 20 – 24 degrees at this time of year, give or take and you can usually get away with wearing shorts and a lightweight shirt. September is the driest month and in five years we have yet to be quenched by a downpour, but note that it does get extremely windy, particularly if you choose to explore the rugged hill of the reserve, so bring a cardigan, or tuck up under a blanket with a thermos of coffee for extra comfort. Chapstick, for the same reason, and a coconut oil based sunscreen, are also well advised. If you linger until just before dusk, you might be fortunate enough to spot the occasional firefly as you make your way back up through the sandy, untouched and tangled rainforest walk to your car. This was the case for us on our first date and first trip to Byron Bay, adding a magical, Disney-esque touch of romance (I joke to my husband that he pulled out all the stops).
Before heading home, I recommend calling in at the Byron Bay Beach Hotel for a cold cider or beer and a reasonably priced light meal, to watch from the beachside beer garden as the sun sets over the glorious Byron coast. The live acts of the Beach Hotel always provide a divine atmosphere in which to bask as Byron amphibiously transforms herself from a laid back, sun-warmed beach sanctuary to a partygoer’s heaven. Get swept up in the raw ambiance and dance the night away beneath the stars with love in your heart and twinkling toes, or quietly excuse yourself back home, carrying Byron's sunshine and unassuming peacefulness with your spirit. The choice is yours and either way, it’s a trip guaranteed to be whatever your soul needs it to be, when you go to visit the place where the whales are.