Greatest beach



David Whitley heads north of Byron Bay to learn why Australians are so proud and protective of their beaches

Australia’s attachment to the beach is something that cannot be explained in adequate terms anywhere else. The rest of the world likes the beach, but nowhere else is it such an integral part of the psyche.  Australia is a country where people will happily give up their weekends to volunteer for lifeguard duty, and surf-lifesaving clubs bicker amongst themselves about which was set up first. 

If you want to rile an Aussie, um and ah about the quality of Australia’s beaches. Say that they’re good, but no better than elsewhere in the world. After all, there are great beaches in Asia – or the Pacific Islands, or South America, or the Caribbean, or… 

You won’t get that far, of course. Equivocate for a couple of seconds, and the diatribe will start. “Aussie beaches are the best in the bloody world, mate.” Then they’ll reel off a list of brilliant beaches; gradually wearing you down until they find one you’ve never been to or heard of. “What, you’ve never been to Bungabunga Cove? Well go to Bungabunga Cove and then tell me that Aussie beaches aren’t the best in the world.” 

Of course, a lot depends on how you define a great beach. Miami’s South Beach is world class for people-watching. Others go by whiteness of sand, size of waves and length (incidentally, the world’s longest beach is in Bangladesh). And in truth, it’s often the case that the most famous beaches aren’t the most impressive. This is certainly the case in Australia. Bondi Beach tends to underwhelm if you’ve had it built up – it’s famous because it’s the closest to central Sydney rather than Sydney’s best. Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays is absolutely stupendous for its looks and squeaky white sands. 

But it’s clogged with daytrippers getting their photo taken, and you can forget about swimming or surf. Neither of these really represents the Great Australian Beach. For that, you have to get in a car and veer towards the coast when you realise you’re safely out of tour bus range. Just north of Byron Bay, I pulled the car up outside the Brunswick Heads Surf Lifesaving Club. I walked through the gap in the vegetation on top of the dunes, and emerged on the Brunswick Heads Main Beach. There were a couple of people doing yoga, and a couple of people walking their dogs. They were barely noticeable in the grand scheme of things, though. The epic sweep of the sand dwarfed them. 

To my left, a breakwater in the distance signified the entrance of the Brunswick River to the Pacific Ocean. To my right, I could see Cape Byron. Well, just about anyway – the sand stretched for miles and miles. It was too early for the surf lifesavers; there were no flags up to swim between. Instead, there was a raw majesty in the savage waves, breaking multiple times before they hit the shore and spray spitting off them as they hit a climax. The sand wasn’t raked, there wasn’t a sunbed in sight, and the only building to be seen behind me was the surf lifesaver’s hut. 

This is what people mean by the Great Australian Beach. Something so wild and ferociously mesmerising, on such a scale, yet with only the barest nods to human ‘improvement’. I stood entranced, losing all sense of time. I’ve no idea if it’s really the best beach in the world or even Australia – there are many along the coast that are similar – but the power and the edge-of-the-world aura does it for me.

Disclosure: In Byron Bay, David stayed in the very cool authentic Airstream Trailer at the Atlantic Guesthouses as a guest of Destination New South Wales