at her caravan park home, Byron Bay, July, 2009
Image: © Harsha Prabhu
I first met Norma when we worked the same shift at the newly established
Byron Environment Centre (BEC) in 1988. She still works for BEC today,
in the heart of town, at the petitions outreach, collecting signatures
supporting environmental campaigns, interacting with people from all
over the world.
Norma was born in New Zealand in 1924, went to primary school in England,
then lived in New Zealand, where she studied nursing. She was married
when she was nineteen. He was a returned prisoner-of-war. Her husband
retreated into alcohol. Her marriage was damaged by a war-damaged man.
She bears him no malice. They had seven children; one died early. Norma
walked out of the bad marriage when she was in her thirties, with her
young children to bring up on her own. She was a single mother long
before the term was invented. She had to move address to get away from
the social ostracism.
Norma came to Australia in 1960. She worked as a nurse at Cairns Base
Hospital. She was Matron at a Children’s Home on Palm Island Aboriginal
Reserve for five years. This was the beginning of her much prized and
trusting relationship with the aboriginal people.
She started traveling overseas with her youngest daughter. They climbed
the Himalayas, lived in houseboats, did the Magic Bus from Delhi to
Budapest, backpacking their way through almost 20 countries, including
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Sri Lanka. Then, with
her kids now grown, she started traveling around Australia on her own.
Norma was at the original Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in 1973. She remembers
skinny-dipping in the creeks and challenging photographers to take off
their clothes if they wanted a picture of the nude bathing beauties.
She came to Byron in 1974. She thought she would stay for a week. She
Norma seems to have devoted a large part of her life working for charities.
These include Amnesty, Al Anon, Make a Wish Foundation, Cancer Council,
Beggars Banquet and Animal Welfare stalls at markets, where she regularly
braves summer heat and winter early morning chill to raise funds for
these charities. Even while I was visiting her today, she answered the
phone to be told she had collected $100 for Animal Welfare at the last
Byron market. Norma’s people skills and kindness to strangers
are legendary. It is her most treasured gift. Ask her about it and she
will say: “I feel honoured and richly blessed.”
People know her for her colourful clothes, her shoes in two colours
and a safety glow vest (she wears this after her fall) as she rides
her bike around town. In a place know for its colourful characters,
Norma Forest, now in her 86th year, stands out as the original rainbow
Marshall, Byron Bay, 2009