February 16, 2013

A wild weekend in Ballina

It was Australia Day, but the weather prospects were grim for our long weekend on North Coast New South Wales. I knew most if not all of my pictures would be grey through rain-spatters. Can you have too much of a blue-sky thing?

It was oppressively overcast, but dry, all the way to the border and beyond. I could not ignore the signs to Byron where, after coffee at Twisted Sista (naturally), it started to rain. In Byron, you continue to walk in rain wearing next to nothing: that way you don't get wet clothes, I suppose. The beaches were deserted save for crazy kite surfers, but the streets were buzzing. The theme for the weekend was quickly established – hunkered down, disgruntled gulls.
We didn't return to the highway, instead taking The Coast Road to Ballina. In true British fashion, we ate our lunch in the car on Lennox Head, peering blindly through the windscreen. The elements had to be battled, briefly, for the sake of photographing the angry sea. A little way down the road Sharps Beach was closed to swimmers. Two surf life savers huddled in their car: it was still school holidays, when they are on duty every day. The beauty of Sharps' immaculate beach could not be dulled by inclement weather: rocks were being blasted by sand-laden wind and rain.
By the time we got to Ballina, I was ready to retreat into a nice dry hotel room with my book. We were staying at historic Ballina Manor, which was a girls' school in the 1920s and later a boarding house but was scheduled for demolition by the turn of the century to make room for a block of units (Australian for flats or apartments). It was rescued and carefully restored: six former pupils of the North Coast Girls College, by then in their late 80s, attended the opening of Ballina Manor boutique hotel in 2000.

We were booked in for dinner that evening, so had no need to go anywhere. But it was only raining moderately and I knew it could only get worse. I felt duty bound to see something of the town while we could still walk around. So we waterproofed and went to Ballina North Wall, a breakwater on the north shore at the mouth of the Richmond River, one of New South Wales's great Northern Rivers. Most of the town fronts the river or North Creek – Fishery Creek effectively makes an island of central Ballina – but East Ballina has fine Pacific beaches. As we walked along the Wall, sand from Lighthouse Beach blasted any exposed skin, the waters across Ballina Bar churned ominously and I feared for my camera lens as I crouched in the lee of the breakwater's boulders.
Shelly Beach is shelly, as you might expect. I tried to imagine what it would look like on a bright sunshiny day.
Ballina Head Light* is short and dumpy, 760 km north of Sydney, and thinks it's called Richmond River Lighthouse. It was finally time to give up on Australia Day weather.
The next day the weather was just as bad. We had coffee by the river while deciding where to eat that night. The Point was showing the Australian Open men's final so that kind of decided it.
Just a bit further upstream in Fawcett Park, Joe Stark's fish and pelican sculptures were whizzing so fast in the wind it was difficult to focus.
I liked Ballina. I only wish I'd seen it in typical Australia Day weather. I'd liked to have wandered along the main drag – River Street – but it was just too wet and most shops were closed. The Pacific Highway used to pass through town along River and Kerr streets, but since 2010 a bypass and swanky flyover have enabled drivers to skirt around Ballina barely realising it's there. Which is just what we did a couple of years ago on our way back to Brisbane from the Waterfall Way.

Unfortunately few towns can escape the 'Australian ugliness': Ballina's pub, the Australian Hotel, is blighted by big yellow XXXX Gold signs, and the RSL lettering is so big it can probably be read from the space station. But never mind, watery Ballina, with its wide Northern River, creeks and beaches, is worth a visit. It caters for tourists and recreational fishers, and if you're a Sydneysider hellbent on Byron, then Ballina's airport is only 20 minutes away. There are commercial fishing villages further south, and that's where we were heading next.

* Lighthouses of Australia by John Ibbotson


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  2. Ha! Our Australia Day was also mainly the Australian Open final and we also wondered what Port Stephens, in our case, looks like in normal weather.