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Counterculture Rainbow in the Rainforest

Counterculture Rainbow in the Rainforest
 
 

BACK in 1973 a group of hippy students hosted the Aquarius Festival in an otherwise remote and forgotten dairy farming village nestled at the bottom of a deep valley. Although it was a one-off event, many of its attendees never left, turning Nimbin into Australia’s alternative lifestyle capital.

Murwillumbah
Murwillumbah

Heavy rain had fallen overnight. Climbing Mount Warning yesterday had been very humid and as the day had drawn to a close the weather closed in producing heavy downpours. The previously placid Tweed River was thundering past Murwillumbah close to breaking its banks.

I had a friend join me. He has always had Nimbin on his bucket list and wouldn’t let the opportunity pass him by. With the heavy rain overnight it seemed rather doubtful that we would be able to make our way up the valley from Murillumbah and over the edge of the crater into Nimbin. We decided to try out luck anyway.

Tree fallen over the road
Tree fallen over the road

The road was clear of debris up to the Nimbin turnoff near a pass at Lillian Rock. About five minutes after the turnoff near the top of the crater rim we suddenly stopped where a large tree had fallen across the road. Cars were parked in either direction obviously going nowhere fast. We turned back to the main road and found a gravel road to cross the mountains. Although the road was a bit slippery, thankfully we made our way across the range without encountering any more fallen trees or landslides. We continued winding our way down the forested valley before the brilliant colours of buildings loudly painted in secondary colours suddenly announced our arrival in the hidden town of Nimbin.

In Nimbin
In Nimbin

The peaceful solitude of the saturated green forest had boldly been brushed aside to give way to the vibrant oranges, greens and purples of the town very crowded with local tourists checking out this most curious of towns.

The town was seriously crowded with a hive of visitors no doubt seeking the relative dryness of civilisation. I guessed all of the hiking trails were abandoned today drawing all the outdoorsy types back into civilisation. In amongst all the tourists was quite a concentration of locals, mainly hippies from an age bygone. The regular population of 468 people were greatly outnumbered by the tourists. Somehow during the journey across the crater rim we had shuffled through a time warp taking us back at least forty years. The only signs of being in the twenty first century were the modern cars parked in just about every parking space in town. That probably didn’t count as each traveller would have gone through the same time warp on their approach to this little town.

Colourful shops
Colourful shops

The locals were clearly stuck in their 40 year time warp with their 1970s new age ways and brightly coloured hemp clothing. The buildings seemed to have been built a century ago and never been upgraded with the fixtures of modern plastic architecture. Clearly there wasn’t a Bunnings here. The writer Austin Pick had described the town best: “It is as if a smoky avenue of Amsterdam has been placed in the middle of the mountains behind frontier-style facades.”

Where the museum used to be
Where the museum used to be

Somehow everything in the village seemed to fit nicely into place. Although the buildings were very old, they all seemed fairly sound standing solid even after many years of exposure to the harsh subtropical mountain environment. The only noticeable exception was a fenced off area concealing what used to be the famous museum and the Rainbow Cafe. The site was temporarily fenced off with a large cloth with marijuana leaves set up as a memorial. A path extended in between where the buildings used to stand. At the far end of the path appeared to be a stall where hard drugs were sold. I made a note to keep away from there.

Grocery shop
Grocery shop

For many years the museum used to stand here in the middle of town until it burnt to the ground a few months ago. Local legend tells that the Nimbin Museum was a whacky idea that popped up sitting in a composting dunny on a hippie commune in the jungle. The museum had 8 rooms packed full of memorabilia from the Aquarius Festival, but it had burnt to the ground taking the café with it and seriously damaging a couple of the other businesses.

Across the road the Hemp Embassy seemed to be substituting as a museum, displaying and selling drug paraphernalia to addicts who had made the pilgrimage from throughout the country to what the locals call the Rainbow Region.

Buskers outside the local pub
Buskers outside the local pub

The whole town is regarded as a social experiment of escapism. Sadly though being the haven for Australia’s counterculture also makes Nimbin the drug capital of Australia. A lot of the tourists (more so than the locals ironically) here had the characteristic bloodshot eyes and festering lethargy typical of a brain damaged drug addict. Clearly there was no law and order in this town, or was there?

In the middle of the town a couple of hippies were busking under the large sheltered verandah of a tavern in the choking mist of a cloud of toxic cigarette smoke. A large sign on the wall behind them outlined the local law of this alternative culture.

Nimbin Street Code

Hemp clothing shop
Hemp clothing shop

Respect Bundjalung law. Don’t fight, steal or be greedy. Have integrity. He kind, honest and fair. Respect all people. Children are watching and model themselves on your behaviour. Help keep Nimbin funky, friendly and free. Don’t force your addiction on others – work it out. Be responsible – leave your dog at home. We care about our children please be mindful of their safety. Life is sacred, including yours. Karma is for real. Love is for real. Nimbin tolerates most things but violence is not OK.

Community noticeboard
Community noticeboard

Despite the unfamiliar drug culture, there was a law here, just very different to what I was used to in the city. I suspected the law actually worked better here than the official laws in the city.

A little further along the road stood a community centre. Inside the community centre today were the monthly markets. Unfortunately most of the traders had stayed home today, but there were still a few there. Large noticeboards in the centre covered the ins and outs of living in a hippie commune, apparently quite a common thing around here, reminding me of the part of New Zealand I had come from, the valley had been full of these communes as well. Nimbin hasn’t always been like this though.

At the entrance of Nimbin
At the entrance of Nimbin

Nimbin started as a logging settlement in the 1840s due to the forests of magnificent red cedar. The trees had all been cleared before 1900, so the area adapted into dairy farming and banana plantations. These industries collapsed in the 1960s leaving the town with no future until a group of university students, hippies and party people held the Aquarius Festival in 1973. Many of the host pilgrims relocated and stayed here permanently, reciprocating similar festivals held in Woodstock (USA), Takaka (NZ), North Cave (England) and Freetown Christiana (Denmark). All these remain has hippy towns over 40 years following their one-off festivals and all are considered sister towns.

Stall in the rain
Stall in the rain

I entered several of the shops, all of which seemed to take me back a hundred years. Most were operated by hippie volunteers who were no doubt stuck on welfare, but that didn’t matter to them. There seemed to be no intention on making any sort of profit in some of these shops. The message seemed to be all about hemp, herbs and drugs.

The people here were quite peaceful. There was just one fellow out on the street in a black hood who was obviously selling hard drugs, but otherwise the traders all seemed perfectly nice people, though the constant cloud of cigarette smoke pervading what should have been the fresh rainforest humus was most irritating.

Hemp shops
Hemp shops

The culture there was most bizarre, the people who lived here seemed so far out of touch with reality, but then again in a remote village tucked in a remote corner of the volcano you would expect that. This was the centre of the relaxed culture so far away from anywhere. Even most of the tourists were here for a bit of escapism.

At the bottom end of town a wooden bridge crossed a stream dark brown in flood threatening to flood the road. On the banks of the river was what used to be a butter factory. It had been painted in very bright colours and subdivided into several shops. The largest was a candle factory where hardened molten wax covered everything almost as if the factory itself was melting. Multiple colours of wax covered the machinery. Most of the candles for sale were in a room that had once been cold storage. A huge refrigerator door led into the room where mostly pyramid shaped candles sat, giving the eerie atmosphere you would expect in a witches’ lair.

Candle factory
Candle factory

Around the other side of the factory was the Bringabong Café which had relocated recently from beside the museum in town thanks to fire damage. In amongst these were a couple of other shops and a small recording studio where hippies with their guitars would no doubt come to record their original drug-inspired music. The shops were set in what had been large cold storage refrigerators brightly decked out as shops. The café was fully functioning and the shop was full of bongs (things that druggies smoke their drugs from). I had never seen bongs before, nor have I ever smoked anything, so this was quite an educational experience to say the least.

A cabinet of bongs
A cabinet of bongs

Returning to town we followed the other side of the street, eventually reaching the Hemp Embassy. My first impression was this was the ultimate in drug stores. I was amazed such places like this exist. Perhaps the police turn a blind eye to these shops due to the tourist dollars brought to the town. Running these sorts of shops anywhere else in the world would bring on long jail sentences or execution, so clearly things were relaxed around here.

The weather was suddenly clearing – but what would only be a break in the weather. We headed southward a little out of town to the three rocks in a hill. This was apparently the oldest past of the volcano. Although the hot spot has been moving southwards along Eastern Australia, this was in the southern end of the volcano, so it was unusual this area had erupted first. Perhaps this was where the continental plate was weakest.

Nimbin Rocks
Nimbin Rocks

The volcano started eruption 23 million years ago in a time during the Miocene Era when Australia had already long separated from Antarctica on its northward collision course with Asia. The climate here was very warm and wet with sea levels rising high enough for Tasmania to become an island for the first time. The continent was largely covered in dense rainforest and inhabited by large carnivorous marsuipals totally unlike the small herbivorous ones see today.

Cathedral Rock
Cathedral Rock

There was a story behind the Nimbin Rocks. At one stage they were known as The Thimble, The Cathedral and the Needle. The indigenous people of the Whyiyabul Clan believe these rocks are home to the Nimbingee, or clever men. Their dreaming stories tell of these spirits protecting the area. This was the initiation grounds for young boys, where they would become the totem of the tribe. The dreaming also tells of the sleeping warrior of the nearby Nightcap Range lying in watch over the village with the Nimbin Rocks.

From the sleepy hollow of Nimbin we headed back over the hills to the relatively civilised Murwillumbah. Fortunately the sealed road across the crater had been cleared of the fallen tree that had forced us to divert earlier.

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Date:

 

Location: Country:

 

Latitude: Longitude: Altitude:

28 December 2014

 

Tweed Volcano

Australia

 

28°36'S
153°13'E
5 - 240m ASL

 

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