The best town in Australia?

David Whitley takes a detour on the road north to find the surfers’ magical fantasy land that is Yamba

It doesn’t take long after veering off the Pacific Highway to realise that there’s something a little bit special. Sugar cane fields appear, interspersed with cobalt blue channels branching from the Clarence River’s fabulously messy delta. Enormous pelicans glide along the water, unaware of how marvellously ridiculous they look.

And at the end, as the Clarence finally meets the sea, is Yamba. It has long been a sleepy little surf town, with basic cabin and holiday park accommodation along the river shore, but in the last five years or so, people have begun to take notice. In 2009, Australian Traveller Magazine named it the best town in Australia, and since then more upscale restaurants have opened, while backpackers have started to trickle in.

Shane Henwood, who co-owns and manages the Yamba YHA with his family, says he initially came to the town for the surfing. He’s not the only one – Angourie Point is one of the world’s most feared and salivated-over surfing breaks, while the founder of the Billabong surfwear empire has a huge mansion on the hilltop.

Big waves make Yamba a key surf spot, but having ten beaches rather helps too. Four of them can be reached within a fifteen minute walk of the main street, and the crucial thing is that they’re all facing in different directions.

“Locals call Yamba the Byron Bay of 20 years ago, or the real Surfer’s Paradise,” says Shane. “And we’re proud to say that we get the longest stays out of any YHA in Australia.”

Many of those long-stayers are people who get bitten by the surf bug, but Yamba does have that magical traveller gravitas to it. Not everyone has head of it, it’s not quite on the obvious backpacker trail, living is relatively cheap once there and it’s just hard enough to get to for visitor numbers to stay relatively low.

For the newcomers, however, there is the rather jolting introduction of Shane’s ‘legendary’ $15 tour of the area, which includes feeding fish and – more pertinently – cliff-jumping. The man is rather unnerving, largely because he has far, far too much energy. “I never, ever get sick of pushing people off cliffs,” he says with excitable zeal. “But if someone cries, they ban me from the Red Bull for a few days.

“Yamba is a relaxing place, unless you’re hanging with me and I’ve had Red Bull. I do stupid stuff when I’ve had Red Bull.”

This becomes apparent when he spots a snake. “If it’s a brown, it can kill you within 47 minutes. If it’s a red-bellied black snake, you’ve got a day.” He then throws himself into a little cavelet, Steve Irwin-style, to see if he can catch it.

It would be fair to say that the tour is far more about what isn’t advertised than what is. At the first cliff, a relative tiddler, he’s absolved from pushing anyone off. Everyone’s game enough to take the heels-first plunge into the pool created long ago when townsfolk quarried out the rock to make breakwaters.



When it gets to the 12 and 18 metre cliff jumps, however, it’s an altogether different story. Without adding spoilers, let’s just say things don’t quite go as billed.

On the way back, we stop by the waterside tavern to feed bread to fish – “Clarence River piranhas”, Shane says not altogether convincingly – and drop by the golf course. Forget the water traps and bunkers – there’s an altogether more Australian hazard for Yamba’s golfers. The course is absolutely riddled with kangaroos, and they’ve frankly no intention of moving on the cry of “fore”.

They’re not the only locals that are difficult to budge either. The residents of Yamba seem, almost universally, to know they’re on to a good thing. The mission now is to stop the entire world finding out about it.


by David Whitley 

Disclosure: David stayed at the Yamba YHA as a guest of YHA Australia. 




Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at

You can get the Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Image credit 1 2