‘Just have to make the most of it:’ Upended schoolies descend on Byron Bay

As the Saturday sun rose over the waters of Byron Bay, Mia Stewart and Dylan West sat in their car watching with sunglasses on and cans of energy drink in hand.

Their group of five had driven nine hours through the night from their homes on the Central Coast. After accommodation plans fell through when they arrived about 4.30am, they were woken in their seats at dawn as parking tickets were placed under the wipers.

Sunny Starr, Liana Nesbit, Lauren McDougall, Mia Stewart and Dylan West, from The Entrance High School on the Central Coast, drove through the night and arrived in Byron Bay 4.30am on Saturday.Credit:Elise Derwin

But the rough start did not dampen their excitement for a week away from parents and the vast disruptions 2020 had thrown at them in the form of lockdowns, remote learning and pared-back formals or graduations. "Just anything other than what we’ve been doing all year is better," Ms Stewart said.

That time-worn transition from school to what lies beyond was also marked by a changing of the guard across the northern NSW tourist hub this weekend, with many wrapping up their stays as newcomers descended for a week expected to be bigger than the previous one.

On Friday night, walking into town from their caravan park cabins for dinner, spirits were still high among a group of Blue Mountains school leavers initially bound for the Gold Coast. It had been a week of bad bush doofs and "healing" beach trips, self-made group tattoos of the car some had taken the 11-hour journey in and barely undercover police in Hawaiian shirts.

Sarah Rheinberger, Kjell Everingham, Greta Merriman, Aidan Miller from the Blue Mountains gave each other matching tattoos of the car they drove to Byron Bay.Credit:Elise Derwin

"This week's been a blur," said Will Cooke when trying to recall which night some members of the group were kicked out of the line for the Beach Hotel, one of the few venues in town. "We know it's our last night though."

For those not yet of legal drinking age, the beachfront park was an alternative gathering place for schoolies, the same way Byron itself became a hastily arranged destination for many after planned trips to the Gold Coast, Bali or Fiji were upended by state and national border restrictions.

Schoolies from Freshwater Senior Campus in Byron Bay,Credit:Elise Derwin

Without much in the way of lighting or music on the night they headed to one of the impromptu hidden parties flagged via group chat, the entry fee for the Blue Mountain group guys (girls get in free) felt a little steep. "Why are we paying $10 to be in the bush?" Mr Cooke said.

Many Byron residents said the number of schoolies in town was not much different to past years. One, Joan Connolly, remarked the schoolies were "not a problem really", except for their cars "[taking] more parking spaces" in town.

The park by Main Beach in Byron on Friday night.Credit:Elise Derwin

Katie Economos, who had previously booked a trip to Fiji with some of her friends from Freshwater Senior Campus on Sydney’s northern beaches, said she had been told repeatedly her cohort did not know what it was missing out on this year.

Schoolies Mistie Mildenhall and Sav Smith from Ballina Coast High School celebrate finishing their school year.Credit:Elise Derwin

"I only just turned 18 so sitting down at a pub is all I know," she said at the Aquarius Backpackers Resort they eventually managed to book. "But you just have to make the most of it."

As the night wore on, lines outside the pubs and bottle shops grew. So too did the crowd in the beachfront park.

Up to 500 gathered in groups of 10 to 20, some danced to music from portable speakers while others found an amplified didgeridoo performance in the car park – the next-best thing to closed or seated-only clubs. More posed for photos in front of a large flashing rainbow traffic sign urging them to "share smiles, not COVID".

Schoolies from Freshwater Senior Campus arrive at Aquaris Backpackers.Credit:Elise Derwin

Byron Youth Service worker Deborah Pearse, who watched over the park with a team of four, ready to step in if things escalated, said things had been relatively tame.

"We had pizza [to give out] … that always helps," she said. "I've done it for 19 years and it's the same. Just no music and no structure or no activities [this time]."

Detective chief inspector Matt Kehoe, the officer in charge of Byron police, said there would be about 300 extra shifts filled by staff from outside the district to help manage the 8000-strong schoolies peak set to arrive from Saturday. He had been "pretty pleased" with behaviour so far after only 10 minor drug, traffic or licensing incidents to Friday.

Police have urged new arrivals to continue to play by both the rule of law and pandemic best practice. Residents have also been asked to cut the kids, some of whom may be away for the first time on their own, "a bit of slack".

Local police were supported by several hundred extra police from outside the region.Credit:Elise Derwin

Evidence of the celebrations the night before were easy to see on Saturday morning: sun glinting off broken glass, a council team with bin bags and extender arms to pick up the stray cans and bottles, lines at the few places already selling coffee, groups seeing in the sunrise without sleep.

Among the others eventually waking were St Philip's Christian College graduates Emily Pudney, Ella Kearton and Tiana O’Leary, who arrived on Thursday after an eight-hour drive from Port Stephens after also originally booking a week at Surfers Paradise.

Schoolies Tiana O’Leary, Ella Kearton and Emily Pudney from St Philips Christian College in Port Stephens camp at Reflections Holiday Park on Clarkes Beach.Credit:Elise Derwin

Setting up a tent among a sea of strangers, the young women received some Byron schoolies wisdom from other school leavers: head to the park at night or get into the pubs early, keep an eye on the bush doof group chat.

"They nurtured us and they took us out," Ella Kearton said on Friday. "We didn't want to stay in the bay, where we live, so it was really good that we could travel up here."

"It's a nice place to be independent for the first time."

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