Is Mullumbimby the New Byron?

February 26th, 2020

Readers may be interested to see this article which ran in the Qantas magazine. I am sure the last thing many Mullum residents want is for ‘The Biggest Little Town In Australia’ to be known as ‘The New Byron’. And readers are no doubt encouraged to overlook the fact the article is a pretty brazen puff-piece for Blackbird resort.

Byron Bay a bit busy? Nimbin a bit chilled? Mullumbimby is the best of both worlds.

I think I’ve found the busiest man in Mullumbimby. Dressed in a short-sleeved, tropical-fruit-motif shirt, board shorts, mirrored sunglasses, a bucket hat, and sandals, he’s shaking a pineapple maraca with one hand and a banana maraca with the other while gyrating his hips to keep a hula hoop aloft. “It’s all good in the neighbourhood,” he sings, through a long silver beard that lands on his chest. “It’s all good in the neighbourhood.”

“What’s your name?” I ask in a rare break. “Cool,” he says. Before I have a chance to repeat the question, he fires back: “What’s yours?” I tell him and he’s off again: “If you’re gonna shake it, shake it good… Di, it’s all good in the neighbourhood… It’s all good in the neighbo…” You get the drift.

Cool knows of what he sings. On this sunshiny morning, the Friday farmers’ market in this hinterland town of 3,600, 20 kilometres north-west of Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, could be the happiest place on earth – a Petri dish containing the silver-haired holdouts of the hippie community that flourished here in the ’70s, young families who gather in the shade of a tree, retirees, barefoot children with mussed-up hair and handsome young men singing Vance Joy covers. Gliding insouciantly through the tangle, past vendors selling lamb, honey, candles, and goat’s milk kefir, is a smattering of what appear to be Byron Bay influencers in cheesecloth frocks and cowboy boots or faded denim overalls fastened on one side, celery stalks and sourdough peeking out the top of their cane baskets.

“It’s a little town but it’s big on energy,” says one shopkeeper who came to Mullumbimby 20 years ago and never left. “It’s a very powerful place.” That power, says the man, tucking dreadlocks behind his ear, is “how it keeps its vibe”. I’d like to tell you his name but he doesn’t want to reveal it for fear of alienating the hordes of tree changers – also known as customers – who, while possibly keeping his business alive, might also be making the pace of life in the town “too fast”.

Yes, Mullumbimby, which sits geographically and philosophically between the counterculture epicentre of Nimbin and the cosmopolitan cool of Byron Bay, has changed. In recent years its appeal as a peaceful, picturesque and affordable alternative to Byron has led, ironically, to an explosion in house prices and an influx of city folk. Back in the day, “there were no roundabouts, no marked parking spaces, no IGA, no Woolies”, the shopkeeper says. Now there are all of those things, plus a spa, cool eateries and almost as many shops selling shabby-chic homewares as there are vendors of organic micro herbs. The hippies, he tells me, are now up in the hills.

Which is where I find James and Stella Hudson, who, three years ago, weathered the wrath of some locals to buy a property at Mullumbimby Creek on which to build Blackbird, three rustic-industrial-style luxury pavilions that sit unobtrusively on a hilltop with panoramic views from Mt Chincogan to the Cape Byron Lighthouse. When they pulled up to inspect the land – with James’s conservative English mother and shy young Japanese niece in tow – the owner of the property emerged to greet the arrivals in his birthday suit. “He was completely starkers,” laughs James, who quickly diverted everyone’s attention to the paddock of camphor and slash pine they would eventually clear to build the pavilions.
“We’ve had some amazing support along the way but there have been pockets of resistance,” says British-born James, who previously owned restaurants and bars in Sydney. “Mullumbimby has changed,” adds Stella, who has long family ties to the region. “We’re part of that and we are proud of that.” But do most welcome the so-called “biggest little town in Australia” being described as the new Byron? Ah, muses James, rubbing his chin. “No.”

And in a way, they’re right to resist. “Mullum”, as it’s fondly known, is as much an adjective as it is a noun. It’s a glorious town with wide streets and protest banners where some restaurants, cafés and even lifestyle stores still close on Sunday (“sooo Mullum”). Where a short drive rewards with gobsmacking waterfalls, serene gardens and farmers taking their goats for a walk (“how Mullum is that?”). Where chooks actually free-range like on the egg carton. “Byron and Mullum will never be the same,” says the dreadlocked shopkeeper. “These are the hills; a hippie place. You can be who you want to be in Mullumbimby.”

James and Stella Hudson definitely got the “community vibe” memo. When a recent Blackbird guest from Byron Bay declared he had to drive home that morning to feed his cat, Stella made a totally Mullum offer: “James will go and feed it!” she said. “He really won’t mind at all.”
But most of all, Mullum remains distilled in my new friend, Cool – welcoming marketgoers whatever their age, dress, postcode, Instagram handle or financial wherewithal with a song that has no end. “If you’re gonna shake it, shake it good; It’s all good in the neighbourhood.”

Places to Stay

Blackbird
A 15-minute drive out of town, this adults-only boutique hotel sits off a narrow gravel road in the hills, successfully combining Byron Bay cool with a Mullum sensibility. Owner James Hudson greets you with sparkling wine and local produce by the magnesium pool before showing you to your pavilion, a stylishly quirky cocoon with burnished concrete floors, reclaimed timber cabinetry and king-size beds with railway sleeper-framed views.

Places to Eat

Izakaya Yu
This small but buzzing Mullum icon could easily be in a backstreet in Osaka. Order an Asahi and spicy edamame then torture yourself with decisions. Whether it’s tuna sashimi (ours was caught that day) or Mullumbimby rolls (tempura prawn, cucumber, avocado and fish egg), it’s hard to go wrong. 02 6684 4545

Flock
Take a sprawling garden, a tin-roofed shed, colourful locals, mismatched furniture and a big dollop of sunshine and you have a cafe that’s made for Mullum. There’s a vast breakfast menu plus salads and a selection of treats.
Yaman Mullumbimby
The setting is basic – it’s as much a takeaway as a restaurant – but you can feel the love in every dish that emerges from Eliran Bazari and Yaron Abraham’s Yemenite kitchen. The malawach (traditional Yemenite pastry) is a must.

Punch and Daisy
It’s justifiably famous for its poached eggs and salsa verde but there’s so much more to this breezy, friendly cafe, whether it’s the changing menu (think Sri Lankan yellow coconut curry with barramundi), the organic seasonal salad (herbs flourish along the fence) or the aroma of coffee.

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