1 October 2021 ·

The Back Roads Of Byron In A Mazda MX-5

Mazda Byron Bay Lighthouse

WORDS BY STEPHEN CORBY

Every time I make it to beautiful Byron Bay, I am compelled to leave again, immediately.

It’s not because it’s become so crowded that it feels more like Byron Bombay, and it’s not the suspiciously clean-looking hippies. No, it’s the roads nearby - so many wonderful, winding roads through so much gloriously green countryside - that beckon me immediately away from the no-longer humble, no-longer hamlet of Byron.

I wasn’t near foolish enough to mention this to my dearly beloved wife when I suggested the greatest of all getaways to her - one without kids - and a few nights at the ever so slightly decadent Elements of Byron resort. She was so excited when we arrived - and so keen to get to the child-free pool, with its swim-up bar, 29-degree water (even in Autumn it’s Summer) and Mexican food truck - that she didn’t even notice me pausing in the car park to check out the special delivery I’d arranged.

Sparkling Soul Red in the sunlight was the new MX-5 GT RS, the secret weapon in my cunning plan to convince my long-suffering and trenchant partner that driving is not only fun, but can make your very soul sing.

The problem with her and yes, I’m sure there’s only one, is that she does all of her motoring in a big city and, while she enjoys operating a car, she just can’t relate to what I’m banging on about when I get misty eyed and monologue at length about the joy of driving.

The carefully carved and visually splendid roads of the Byron hinterland were going to bring her around, but first I thought I’d better let her have at least a day of relaxation.

While she gorged on books I would occasionally sneak off to feast my eyes on this racy GT RS version of the MX-5. I’ve always loved this car for its purity of purpose and the way it connects you intimately to any road, but over the years, and decades, I’ve come to love the look of it more and more as well.

Earlier versions were always attractive, and happy looking, but it feels like Mazda’s designers have increasingly been creating MX-5s to my personal taste. Each version just gets a little bit meaner, more serious, and more Japanime cool, and the current look makes me want one more than ever. The 17-inch fogged alloy wheels on the GT RS, created by BBS, make it even more aggressive, more ready.

As I mentioned, one of the best things about Byron is leaving it behind, because  you are so quickly into high-road heaven. Barely five minutes out of town we are on the Hinterland Highway, climbing a series of super-fast S-bends that could have been designed with our Mazda in mind.

Sitting low to the ground, revving the ready 2.0-litre to the max in each gear and enjoying every single shift with the perfect manual gearbox, I’ve gone from bored by the pool to starting to drool in under 10 minutes.

As is oft the case, my wife is less than impressed by my lunacy and starts making this particular face she has that communicates both derision - of the “are you actually trying to impress me” variety - and a pointed suggestion that I slow down.

Mazda MX-5 Wheel

After a brief stop in Bangalow, partly to check out the local hotel, which was recently the centre of an unsuccessful bidding war between pub barons Justin Hemmes and Stu Laundy - apparently they both thought it was worth $50m, but even that wasn’t enough - I suggest we switch seats.This happens about as often as I volunteer to do the vacuuming at home, so it was greeted with some suspicion, yet still eagerly agreed to.

I point her at Possum Creek Road, a particularly wonderful ribbon of road with a cracking collection of corners leading to soaring views back over Byron and a glittering ocean.

My wife’s driving is what I guess I should call admirably cautious at first,  but I can feel her warming to it. Like me, she loves a manual gearbox, and I can tell she’s enjoying that extra encouragement a transmission like this gives you to get involved with the car.

I try very hard not to criticise her, nor tell her when to change gears, and I only fail a few times.

I also foolishly try to interest her with the fact that this GT RS has special Bilstein gas-pressurised dampers, that deliver track-ready feedback, and a sold alloy strut tower brace for even greater rigidity and more direct steering response.

She’s more impressed by the special Brembo brake package, which reduces fade resistance by 26 per cent, and reduces the unsprung mass by 2kg.

Mazda MX-5 Byron Bay

The idea that what makes the MX-5 so entertaining and alive to drive is its small size, low mass and excellent power-to-weight ratio is one that actually seems to grab my very patient partner’s attention, for once.

As we tackle the Binna Burra Road, a couple of times just to be sure, and head for an excellent lunch at the Japanese-themed cafe Doma, in the tiny hill-top town of Federal, I can see that there could be some debate over who will get the keys at meal’s end.

Sure enough, I’m reduced to the role of navigator and, while trying to find a way into the intriguingly named Nightcap National Park, I accidentally take us down a dead-end that finishes at Rocky Creek Dam.

Fortunately, it turns out to be home to several spectacular walks and a serene lookout over a vast, man-created stretch of water, part of which is covered in hundreds of lily pads, evoking memories of Japan.

I’m allowed to take the wheel again, briefly, as the road takes us out of the tall trees and brisk shade of the National Park (although it still wasn’t chilly enough to make us raise the roof; top-down motoring is too much fun) and into the sun for a downhill run into Mullumbimby.

While Byron Bay seems to have sold its alternative roots to real-estate developers and Hollywood Come Latelys, there’s still plenty of historic hippy-ness on display in Mullumbimby. The coffee shops are almost as excellent as the people watching.

Mazda Bangalow Hotel

It was with some delight and only a tinge of jealousy that I watched my wife snatch the keys off the table for the last leg home, which she managed to make longer, and better, by taking Goonengerry Road all the way back to Federal again.

By now, I could recognise the look in her eyes, as I’ve felt it in mine. A fierce focus on reading the road, getting the line through each corner right, being in the perfect gear, and enjoying that change of direction shift in your stomach as you swoop through a switchback.

She was feeling it, at last, the joy of driving, and that night, over dinner, I experienced one of those rare moments that come about so infrequently in a marriage.  My wife told me that yes, just perhaps, for once, I might be right about something. In the right car, on the right road, with the roof down and the sun on your skin, driving is even more  fun than lying by a pool, more fun than most things, in fact.

Now, if only I can talk her into letting me buy one.

Mazda MX-5 Byron Bay