Before Hemsworth: What Byron Bay used to be like before Hollywood moved in

 Matt Damon bought a $22 million home in Byron Bay a couple of months back (allegedly). I wonder if it was my old mate who sold him his pad. When I knew Dave, he was a concreter; now he drives a shiny black Range Rover and sells nice homes to families for eight figures. Nothing's the same in Byron any more. Kids at my old high school dream of becoming Chris Hemsworth's real estate agent, not a doctor or lawyer… they'd rather earn real money.

Matt Damon's moving to Wategos Beach: just below the big cape that made Byron famous in the first place. You couldn't give houses away there when I was a kid. The only road in winds its way through steep sloping coastal forest; no kid should ride it at night – even at daytime, you're taking your life in your hands. Parents didn't want to buy a house there, unless they fancied a part-time job as their kids' taxi driver. I used to spend weekends there with a buddy. His mum didn't have a choice – she was raising two kids on her own on a part-time salary. I hope she held onto that place (it was listed then at $190,000) – now the average house price is $10 million.

All any of us old-time locals had to do was hold onto our family homes and we were rich (scanning the real estate section yesterday, I saw a house on Lighthouse Road going for $7.2 million that we nearly bought in 1988 for $180,000). Trouble was, Byron locals never had much money back then, many were just renting a stake in the place. Then house prices doubled and tripled and quadrupled, and rents sky-rocketed… landlords at holiday time turfed us out to make room for a house full of kids from Sydney's North Shore.

My uncle moved to Byron Bay in 1970, a refugee from Sydney suburbia. He grew his hair long and bought an old farmhouse out the back of Bangalow to grow veggies and raise goats. In 1981 – when my parents' marriage expired – we moved here with mum, bunking in an old farmhouse off Old Bangalow Road for five-dollars-a-week. It went up to 10-dollars-a-week when my brother got a horse. We were typical new arrivals back then, we arrived with nothing much; we didn't run billion-dollar web companies from our kitchen table.

I learnt to surf on my uncle's cast-off single fin surfboard at Byron's best break, The Pass. We'd pile into the family's 1970 HG Kingswood station wagon for marathon days at the beach, esky in tow. Meals out were few and far between, usually seafood mornay or chicken and chips at the RSL where they'd call out your number ("number 44, come to the bistro, your meals are getting cold"). For special occasions we'd dress up for Mexican Micks (where Cheeky Monkeys is now), or The Argentine Ant (where Rae's on Wategos is now, and where rooms start at around $1000-a-night).

On Friday nights we went roller skating at the old dance hall beside Main Beach (they pulled it down in 1983). It would've blocked the sea view The Beach Hotel is famous across the world for. That wasn't there back then though, it was The Top Pub – the kind of place they hosed out at the end of every night and parents warned you to walk across the street from.

'Strop' Cornell pulled it down in 1990 to build his chic new establishment (which sold this year for $100 million). Strop's pub – and Strop's best mate - changed everything for Byron. That's Paul Hogan I'm talking about: the biggest, brightest star in the whole wide world back then: an '80s Chris Hemsworth, but with wrinkles around his blue eyes. The Beach Hotel changed the beachfront, but it wasn't till Hoges moved here just after that and married his Crocodile Dundee sweetheart that the world went bananas. Sly Stallone and Tom Cruise were here, apparently. A Current Affair sent reporters to look for them; when they couldn't find anyone of note, they asked the town's most quotable drunks if they'd seen Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why, they deduced, would Hollywood come to a backwater like Byron? Geez, that sure changed quick.

When I drive through town these days, the shell's still the same, it's the people who've changed. The hippie children of The Age of Aquarius who shaped the Byron region I knew found much quieter hills to live in; the hippies who move here now have trust funds (they need them to pay the rent). Though Byron Bay was never really a hippie town; that's just the way the media romanticised it. There were lots of hippies about, they just generally lived everywhere else but Byron. Byron was a simple, working-class Australian country town at heart. Cars were rusty, kids' clothes were hand-me-downs. For every local in flowing robes and bare feet there were five in King Gees. Sydney-siders invaded at Christmas time, but none of them stayed on.

But times change: Chris Hemsworth does tuck shop duty at the primary school where I was school captain. My brush with fame was seeing Crowded House at Farmer Smiffs' Chicks (the chips were best there, you ask Neil Finn), but Byron kids today probably don't bat an eyelid seeing Mick Jagger or Kylie Minogue walking down Jonson Street. I miss my old town. But maybe I'd miss it less if I had a house I could sell to a Hemsworth.

See also: Byron Bay, it's not a coastal Australian paradise anymore

See also: Where to go to escape the crowds of Byron

Comments