The gypsy kids’ campground would be beautiful, if not for the debris. A baked bean can, water bottle, and a dog bowl are scattered on the dirt amongst three deflated tents and piles of soiled blankets. There’s a pink massage claw, a tabloid magazine and liquor bottles.
The squatter camps like this one in the hinterland surrounding Byron Bay are illegal, but easy to find; behind the main strip, Jonson Street, walk a few meters inland, and tents appear. Neon-green, foliage-topped rosewood trees join baby blue sky; the salty summer air steadies on ninety by noon. Waves tumble nearby.
“Sometimes the police ask you to move on, only if you’re being disrespectful to nature and trashing the place,” says 20-year-old Kai, who’s been living out here for three years. Kai, like the other people interviewed for this article, didn’t offer his last name, as illegal camping is punishable by fine, or worse — disdain from his peers for opening their secret world to the media. “At least someone is interested in us,” says Kai, when approached for an interview.
Kai is a typical Byron Bay gypsy kid; under 25, impassively homeless, and living in a tented community with his peers on the fringes of one of Australia’s richest towns. The name ‘gypsy kid’ is typically used by those who’ve never met them, professionals looking on from the other side of town. The kids refer to themselves as a “pack,” “mob” or “family.”
Kai’s dark skin makes him stand out, a rarity in a predominately white town; his father is Maori, and his mother English. He sports a tuft of peroxide in his fringed hair, and a ripped sleeveless Hawaiian shirt. He’s shoeless, always. He could be an extra from “Point Break.”
Fearing police, the kids abandon camp at daybreak. “No one’s at camp during the day, [police] can’t do nothing if they don’t see us with our tents,” says Kai.
“We’re like a little family. We share what we’ve got, and if someone shares with you, you share with them,” he says. Travelers sometimes share their supply of weed and wine, a non-verbal exchange for companionship and accommodation in the dunes.
“We get a lot of travelers,” Kai says. “Here one day, gone the next. Sometimes they stay.”
For a seemingly carefree existence, the gypsy kids live a life of monotony, based on what they’re trying to obtain day to day. There’s talk of DMT (the psychedelic drug); someone owes someone money. Come to the library; I gotta charge my phone. Score, fight, food, rinse and repeat.
On a typical day, Kai wakes at daybreak and folds his tent, hiding his personals in a bush. He then walks to town, sometimes with another kid, depending on his need for that day — if you’re scoring drugs, there’s less chance of getting ripped off when you’re with a friend. Food is the next priority, after drugs.
“Larder’s so good when you’re baked,” Kai says with a grin, referring to the homeless kitchen where the kids get many of their meals.
Like a high-school cafeteria, the crowd at Liberation Larder is divided into cliques, roughly according to drug of choice: parkies (alcoholics who live in the park), smackies (pin-pupiled heroin addicts), doofers (psychedelics), travelers (weed), and gypsy kids (What you got?).
Liberation Larder sits within the Byron Bay Community Centre, wedged between a kaftan boutique and tourist trap selling Crocodile Dundee-style leather hats for $179. The kitchen served over 29,000 meals to the disadvantaged in 2015, up ten percent from the previous year. Larder President Helen Hamilton says they’re seeing a lot more women and young people.
Larder lunches are hot and plentiful, the daily menu emblazoned on a giant blackboard; items like tofu stir fry, vegetarian lasagna, green curry and rice, roasted vegetables, with desserts like apple and nectarine crumble with yogurt.
On this particular afternoon, the gypsy kids, some look as young as thirteen, are stationed outside the kitchen’s back exit on the grass patch, one braiding another’s hair, a sharp contrast to the adults here, who become agitated when lunch is delayed.
“Byron Bay is beautiful, man. I was supposed to be here for one day, and I’ve been here for like, a long time,” Kai says. He speaks in warm clips, smiling with all of his teeth brightening his soft, glazed eyes, happily stoned.
It’s easy to become a gypsy kid, and difficult to leave, says 45-year-old James Arthur Warren, founder of Blue House Free School, a mobile education program that travels up and down the east coast of Australia, built for gypsies like Warren himself. Warren is passing through Byron to purchase a mobile classroom in Adelaide, and living off the land.
“There’s no way out; their welfare benefits get eaten up by fines,” says Warren, perched on the pathway outside of Larder, nibbling on an apple, with grey dreadlocks and bronzed physique. “They’ve got a $150 penalty for drinking in public and none of these guys have that kind of money; they’re alcoholics.”
“They just need to be helped, they need to be treated,” he says. Warren explains that in order to receive welfare, the gypsy kids must attend appointments with employment agencies. “It’s a bit hard for these kids to look for 20 jobs a fortnight. They don’t have Internet access; there’s only so many times they can walk into these shops saying, ‘have you got a job?’ They need proper help, some decent clothes and a pair of shoes for a start.”
Warren references a young Indigenous man living in the dunes, desperate to get out. “He’s got a lot of issues; abandonment, being fostered out as a kid, parents passing away. There’s been no role models in his life so he’s pretty much drifting and I’m sure he’d love to go to university and study.”
* * *
Under the crystal-clear water of Byron Bay, deadly bull sharks circle, waiting. The region leads the coast in attacks. This is the society of Byron; sparkling surface, but dip below and you’re swallowed whole.
Byron Bay sits north of Sydney, two hours from Brisbane, in the Northern Rivers region. The median house price is over AUD $1 million (US $700,000). The 9,000-person town supports a tourist industry of 1.5 million visitors per year, drawn to its picturesque topography, winding roads curling around rainforests and white-sanded beaches.
Byron attracts celebrities; Elle Macpherson, Olivia Newton-John and Jack Johnson owned hideaways here. Recently, “Thor” star Chris Hemsworth bought a $7 million Byron bungalow.
Byron presents endless dichotomies: candy-coloured holiday shacks and homeless kitchens; Cheeky Monkeys nightclub and the Hare Krishna café; socialites and smackheads. It boasts Australia’s most exclusive rehab ̶ The Sanctuary ̶ and one of the highest drug-crime rates in the country. In November, Byron hosts “schoolies” celebrations; Australia’s high-end Senior Week, where the town doubles in size with alcohol-drenched teenagers.
Statistics paint a very different story from the glossy postcards sold five-for-a-dollar. Byron Bay has been identified as one of the biggest unemployment hotspots in the country, three percent higher than the national average. In 2014 one Byron Bay food manufacturer reportedly attracted about 800 applications when it advertised a minimum wage position. Tourists mean money, the local population at the behest of their visitors, not the other way around. The leading industries are accommodation, food service, retail and construction.
The gypsy kids divide public opinion. The weekend before Christmas, a community enforcement officer was attacked in the dunes during a blitz on illegal camping. He sustained a black eye, facial cuts, and a broken dislocated thumb. Incidents like this fuel perception of the gypsy kids as a public safety issue. “Don’t go there at night,” people warn, “those kids have mental problems.”
Many resent the strain they put on local resources like the Larder.
“Modern-day gypsies just want a free ride,” wrote Terry Gray on the Voice of Byron Facebook page. “Go book into a caravan park like everyone else and put money back into local businesses (not just the pubs and bottle shops). Stop being a burden on the welfare agencies (cause it’s all about a free feed) and take the bloody rubbish with you.”
Over the phone, Gray’s voice softens when he reveals that at 50 years old, he was homeless. Until recently, Gray illegally squatted around Byron in a tent with his dog. He divides Byron’s homeless in two: “ones who choose that lifestyle, and ones who can’t genuinely find a place,” reserving resentment toward “takers” who live off the land, just as he did recently.
“I’ve been struggling and homeless before and I’ve had to use some of the services around town, like the Neighbourhood Centre [Larder]. I’ve gone in for a meal and they have been lining up in front of me, and I’ve actually missed out.” Gray describes the gypsy kids as “a whole generation of ‘freegans’ who want everything for free.”
But others believe they’re just kids, pursuing a higher spiritual journey, for which Byron was built. According to the Arakwai Aboriginal elders, Byron Bay has been a sacred healing and fertility ground for over 20,000 years. For those who believe, Byron is an energetic vortex, with vast quantities of minerals and crystals underfoot, and ley lines — mystical alignments, making it a mecca for those in the market to find themselves.
Charlie (who declined to give his last name), a 34-year-old former dental technician, empathizes with the gypsy kids, because he’s on an odyssey himself. Mid-2015, he left the corporate world in Western Australia, his job, house and professional community, to join the protest against “insidious” invasions of the rights of Indigenous Australians.
“Some kids are on the streets because of drugs and alcohol, but a lot of them aren’t,” Charlie says. “Some are using them recreationally and for spiritual reasons, like taking magic mushrooms. They’re not just getting out of their neck. They’re making a connection with the infinite.”
Charlie mans Art in the Park “on every fine day,” perched on a blanket surrounded by pencils and paper, encouraging locals to make art and hang out. Charlie believes gypsy is a lifestyle, not a result of the world turning on the kids, but them on it.
“The general population has become far more disenfranchised, with the way the world in general is heading towards; they’re looking for alternatives,” Charlie says. “The irony is, these kids live the way we used to — a little bit like the original Australians.
“They still want what everyone else does,” Charlie adds, “companionship, love, food, shelter — and they can find that with each other.”
* * *
When not at camp or Larder, Kai will go to the library to download music on his Samsung, or stroll the beach aimlessly, if sufficiently buzzed. And there’s always drama to attend to, inevitable from a pack of teens who govern themselves. Stealing is the ultimate invasion of gypsy code, punishable by “a punch in the face.” But all is forgiven come nightfall, when the party starts.
“Everyone hangs out at night and drinks. I don’t drink. I just stick with weed,” Kai says, but he made an exception when he celebrated his twentieth birthday in May at camp. “I got drunk, and then stoned. Passed out, woke up, did it all again the next day.”
Drug and alcohol dependency grease the hamster wheel of gypsy life. Welfare is paid fortnightly: the Youth Allowance rate, for persons under 21 and living away from home, is $853.60 per month (USD $620) and more, if one supplies an official rental agreement. Food is easy to come by in Byron, with the BBQ on Friday in the park, and the community center reheating frozen meals on request.
Unlike their big city counterparts, Byron’s homeless youths don’t beg. If they want it, they go after it. “I don’t like money. Never have. Don’t want to even think about it,” said Kai. The million-dollar Byron housing market doesn’t lure him.
“I’m going to live like this for a while. For years,” he says. “If not here, then back in the dunes in Queensland, or New Zealand. Wherever.”
* * *
Summer arrives in Byron not by smell, or sound, but movement. As the rich prepare their homes forrenters, the gypsy kids move about town, snatching a few weeks of anonymity before town explodes with tourists. One afternoon in early December, a group of them, led by Kai, strolled into the Byron Bay Library, a common rendezvous point for the gypsy kids. Behind him came a girl of no more than fifteen, with braces, hair and nails thick with dirt, swimming in a pullover much too large to be her own. She plonked down onto a seat, relieving her pocket of rolling tobacco — White Ox, the standard-issue tobacco in New South Wales prisons. The rainbow boy rigged his phone and charger, then hers, to the power outlet on the desk. Their shoeless feet tapped as they scrolled their phones.
From behind the girl, a man swooped her White Ox off the table, and made for the door. She screamed after him by name, through frustrated tears, until he was out of sight.
“Don’t worry,” Kai soothed her, “he’s an arsehole. Everybody knows that. Let’s go back to camp.” Soon, the offending man reappeared, dropped the pouch on the table and left. The girl rolled her eyes, wiping away her last tear. This is how families are.
* * *
Anna James is a journalist based in Byron Bay, Australia where she produces and co-hosts the Community Newsroom on BayFM. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rudiger Wasser is a photographer based in Byron Bay, Australia. He covers mainly documentary/people, urban and architecture. To follow his photographic blog and galleries go to rudigerwasser.com.