When six foreign twenty-something-year-olds take a road trip up the east coast of Australia, there are many spots you can expect to find on their list: Sydney, Byron Bay, Surfer’s Paradise, Airlie Beach, Cairns. These are the buzzword places; the places pictured on Qantas airline pamphlets and bartered off to you by student travel companies in neat little packages. They are stylish and established homes to World Heritage UNESCO sites, brimming with world-famous attractions and activities. I mean, it was practically our duty as young travellers to take pictures at Whitehaven Beach—one of the most photographed sites in Australia—snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and walk barefoot up to the lighthouse at Byron Bay, right? I’m not saying all these places and experiences weren’t amazing, because they really were some of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen, but one of my most favourite places ended up actually being Yamba, a little fishing town located about an hour and a half’s drive south of Byron Bay. In fact, we all liked it so much we stopped there twice, once on the way up and once on the way back down.
A quick word about my trip: I’m on exchange in Australia, studying at the Australian National University in Canberra, and within the first couple months of my stay, I met five other exchange students who are as crazy as I am, and just as desperate for adventure too! We decided to rent an RV, the six of us, and drive from Sydney to Cairns, and back. The six of us. In one van. Over seven thousand kilometres. The logistics of such an endeavour I will save for another post, but let it be known that I am now a believer. I believe in the power of six near-strangers and en route showers and many, many dollars saved. But for people of such different backgrounds who were subject to the same travel pamphlets and who fought over radio stations the whole way, we could all agree on Yamba.
First of all, as it is a small town, we had no trouble parking right next to the water. With bigger cities come stricter parking laws, and many are not friendly to overnight campers. Exhibit A: being woken up at 5:45am in Byron Bay by an angry citizen, who claimed he “is the law”, and who noisily made us aware that we actually couldn’t park on the side of the road with no signage prohibiting it (tip: familiarize yourself with state parking laws before arriving). Having arrived to Yamba in the night, we parked where we could both hear the ocean and have free access to a barbeque and public toilets—a true blessing and a marvellous characteristic of coastal towns, I might add. Then, in the morning, we awoke to this:
Just beyond the picnic area was this paradisal curve of white sand and golden waves, with a scenic lighthouse on one end and a quiet salt water rock pool on the other. We spent all morning bobbing along with—and body-surfing—the huge waves, and it never got even close to how crowded all the other beaches were.
The beach we happened to wake up next to was Main Beach, by Flinders Park and the Pacific Hotel. It was fitted out with very convenient showers, toilets, and picnic tables, as well as a little stall selling food and drinks. But, if it was the Main Beach, why did we feel like we were the privileged few who happened upon a big secret? It was too much luck to have the beach nearly to ourselves on both visits. No, the reason why the curve of sand and surf felt so intimate is because little Yamba has ten other beaches up its sleeves! With such a small population, and if you don’t visit during tourist season, there are more than enough slices of paradise to go around—and all decked out with amenities for those crazy road-trippers. Byron Bay’s main beach, in comparison, was always teeming with life and, while that’s not a bad thing at all, it was really refreshing to have a more intimate connection with good ol’ Mother Nature.
My stomach growled just thinking about it. Yamba is filled with delicious and aromatic cafes, restaurants, and bakeries suited for all taste buds. Everything is fresh, and there are so many places to load up on hefty and affordable crates of fish and chips (perfect for those on a budget out there). We grabbed pastries and coffee from bakeries in the morning and each of us got takeaway from different places later, including Indian, Thai, Italian, and, of course, more fish and chips. While Byron Bay does have a larger town area, Yamba has the charm of a highly pedestrian civic, with very few cars on the roads and space for outdoor patios that won’t be disturbed by passersby.
This is where you really have to embrace the maturity of the fishing town. You will not find the constant and ubiquitous live performance life that Byron has on every corner, nor will you find bars like Byron’s Cheeky Monkey—a popular backpacker club famous for the fact that no one dances on the floor, only on tables and benches…like little cheeky monkeys? In Yamba, the YHA and the Pacific Hotel were the only places we found much life after 11pm (even the Macca’s wasn’t open 24 hours, and that’s a rarity). So, instead of going out, the six of us had a nice family barbeque and played cards and laughed a lot while getting to know each other better. It was a place where we learned how to nibble moderately on our slice of paradise instead of wolfing it down and tossing it back with far too much goon (read: cheap casket wine).
The Cooler Older Sibling
While Yamba isn’t the place to go out and get smashed with your mates or dance for hours on tables at a club, it also isn’t a place where you have to worry about being catcalled or where people are trying to hustle you to buy a myriad of goods or services. It isn’t the wild, hot, restless younger sibling who is constantly yelling out just to hear itself. It isn’t looking for your approval either—no, Yamba is not the experimental youth who is equal parts nervous and an affected coolness. Yamba is tidy, responsible, gets a good amount of sleep every night, and wisely ages amongst the sun and sand, with ambition in its waves and an air of complete security in itself. Yamba is Byron Bay’s cooler older sibling who doesn’t care about being labelled with a particular “vibe”, it just wants good waves, good food, and good company.