Ben Kirkwood's Beach Byron Bay restaurant now has "the best ocean views in town" but that's not what he wanted.
A storm in October stripped the last remaining dunes in front of the popular outlet at Clarkes Beach, taking a row of trees with it and bringing the whole building close to the briny brink. Without work crews delivering sandbags it would have been over it.
"It was one minute to midnight for us," Mr Kirkwood said. "The next day we would have started the process of demolishing."
Beach Byron Bay restaurant owner Ben Kirkwood sits on a sandbag placed to save his business at Clarkes Beach. Credit:Danielle Smith
While the sandbags, laid over several hundred metres, saved his cafe for now, the nearby coastline has taken a hammering that has shocked locals and visitors familiar with one of the region's natural wonders.
Mr Kirkwood is now talking with Byron council and Crown Lands about what will happen to his 25-year lease, with one option being to shift the restaurant back from the beach should nature's wrath return again soon.
A Crown Lands' spokesman said the sandbags "will provide time for the [Planning] Department to work with the cafe tenant and Byron Shire Council to seek reconfiguration of the business operation in the shorter term, with longer term options including considering relocation of the cafe through a phased retreat".
"We've lost hundreds of trees," Mr Kirkwood said. "There was a lot of damage [from] a huge amount of erosion."
The town's Main Beach had to be closed in October because lifesavers couldn't get rescue equipment onto the sand.
Some of the wreckage from the recent beach erosion along parts of the coast near Byron Bay.Credit:Danielle Smith
While coastal erosion events in NSW have been a feature of 2020, with a spate of east coast lows renewing the risks for beachfront properties at Wamberal, Narrabeen and elsewhere, the battering of Byron's beaches is actually the result of almost the opposite weather phenomenon – not enough wave action from the north-east.
As revealed in an article in The Conversation, researchers at Griffith University have detailed the breakdown of the typical movement of sand up the coastline. The usual process has sand shifting northwards, with a so-called headland-bypassing around Cape Byron, the mostly easterly point of the Australian continent.
In normal conditions, the sand would be pushed around the cape and replenish the shoreline at Byron's Main and Clarkes beaches as they lose sand with the typical currents. Since about April this year, however, a lack of easterly and north-easterly winds and wave action has led to the build-up of so-called "sand slugs".
"You need the easterly waves to push [the sand] around the headland," said Tom Murray, a research fellow at Griffith University and one of the article's authors.
Without that nudge, the Byron beaches have been rapidly eroded, creating a lagoon in front of the cafe and removing the sand banks that create some of the best waves for surfers.
"This is the worst in at least 30 years," Dr Murray said. "It's a natural process – there's no human intervention."
Other beaches may be experiencing similar sand slugs, such as Fingal Head near Tweed Heads, and Noosa Heads on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.
Guiherme Vieira da Silva, another author and Griffith research fellow, said that while more study is needed to understand how climate change is affecting waves in both direction and strength, Byron's beaches will eventually get replenished.
Byron's Clarkes Beach has lost much of its sand - but scientists say it will eventually return but they can't say when.Credit:Danielle Smith
"The sand is there, the sand will be back – it's just a matter of time," Dr Vieira da Silva said, adding that global warming's influences include raising sea levels and also altering the so-called wave climate. "We believe it will impact the process [of waves]."
For now, though, Byron is facing more immediate issues. During the COVID-19 restrictions, the town emerged as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the curbs on tourism, with Queenslanders permitted to visit Byron but not much further south, while Sydneysiders limited to travel within NSW thronged to Byron in their thousands.
Mr Kirkwood's business has a backlog of some 150 weddings to work through, keeping his staff of 50 plus busy in a restaurant with a turnover nudging $12 million a year. "This is a big thing in a small town," he says.
The Reflections holiday park, adjacent to Mr Kirkwood's restaurant, continues to do a thriving trade despite having sandbags outside its front cabins after a storm in mid-2019.
Still, it might want to revise its telephone messages, which begin with "Where nature never felt so good", and end with "you are one step closer to nature".
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