Image: Nimbin during the Aquarius Festival 1973
Nimbin is the remnant of a festival that went on slightly too long in 1973; people came to smoke, discuss, party and protest, and didn’t really leave. A myriad of student intellectuals, hippies, wandering nomads and freethinking idealists, the festival-goes lingered, and formed communes and occupancy communities dedicated to pursuing an “alternative lifestyle”. The escapist sub-culture built, the narcotic seeds were sown, and the village dedicated to counterculture was born. The town even made legal history when it received the first application for a group title ownership of land in Australia, and has been self-sustainable and resistant to consumerist growth ever since.
Being part of the ‘Rainbow Region’, the hippy haven is located amongst the Macadamia plantations of the Australian state New South Wales; roughly 70km west of the better-known tourist hotspot Byron Bay. It was here that I signed up to the cheapest $25 tour going, with a middle-aged man called John who operated out of his spray-painted ‘Be Happy’ van. Sitting behind the wheel on a chair that read ‘Will Sell Wife For Beer’, wearing a dirty-white t-shirt that clung to his pouchy belly, John made quite a picture. Sporting a greasy slick back which sporadically flopped in front of his Buddy-Holly style spectacles, John’s eyes would crinkle in the rear-view mirror as he told one liner jokes that earned polite smiles on the way there, and hysterical laughter on the way back (and no, it wasn’t because they got funnier).
It wasn’t long before we realised the tours are a front for backpacker drug runs, with his introductory package information advising us on the procurement of weed and hash, and warning against the sky-high tourist prices for cocaine and ecstasy. This was when I came across the reason why the hippy-haven town still exists: as a frontier to do battle for the legalisation of pot.
In Australia the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis is currently punishable by fines and imprisonment. Nimbin however has decided to eschew finer details of the law, and the whole settlement is dedicated to and consumed by the fight against the prohibition of weed. Take for example its organisation of Mardi Grass, a festival on the first weekend in May, dedicated to fun and frivolity and the political cause. Annual activities include a Prohibition Protest Rally, the Nimbin Cannabis Cup and the Hemp Olympix, which to win you have to take part in joint-rolling contests and the Bong ‘Throw’n’Yell’.
Every shop, building, wall space, advertisement, graffiti epithet and brick in the whole town is dedicated to its cannabis cause. Driving into the village and down its High Street (and only street), Nimbin is a bright patchwork of multi-coloured buildings, flags, artwork, and token dreadlock-sporting residents. Possessing a museum, pubs, shops, the Rainbow Retreat hotel, a pharmacy and hospital, the town is a pastiche of the ordinary shrouded in a purple haze. The smell of marijuana oozes from every pore of the place; you could get high just from walking into the estate agents next to ‘Happy High Herbs’. The simulacrum is only more comic when you notice the police station stilling awkwardly at the end of the street.
Boasting an approximate population of 352 residents (according to a 2006 census), the town has an unemployment rate estimated at 18.1%. Riding on its own novelty factor, the Nimbin’s prominent industry is tourism, providing a surreal experience for travellers and liberals all over the world who are looking for cultural immersion (well, that and hash). However, if it isn’t a drug-endued euphoria from wacky tabacky that you are looking for, don’t worry, as there are plenty of alternative leisure activities the town has to offer. A visit to the Nimbin Museum perhaps, or a rifle through the goods that ‘Bring-a-Bong’ is flogging.
Nimbin is a mecca for the unorthodox. Whether you are a grass-roots activist, feminist, humanist, anarchist (or in possession of any new-age philosophy with a divisional suffix), this is the place for you. Whilst a bit of a tourist gimmick, the town and its residents raise some interesting questions on the soft drug, and whether it has a place in mainstream society. With California and Amsterdam leading the way in the legalisation move, Nimbin may not remain a novelty for much longer.