Sunday 27th March 2016
Alstonville provided us with a delightful introduction to our journey around Australia and we were pleased we spent two nights there easing our way into travelling life together.
We found our fellow campers were warm and welcoming. When we struggled to erect our awning on the first day, a knowledgeable pensioner appeared to give us a helping hand and wish us well. When we encountered the same problem in reverse, putting the awning away, another camper appeared to help us out and wish us well. It was if the established travellers had a rota system to take care of the newbies like us.
The locals were equally charming—the man who helped us forage for nuts; the congregation at St Barts and a lovely old lady with a sparkle in her eye and a bounce in her step who offered to help me with my shopping bags. “Well people are always offering to help me,” she said, providing the impression that Alstonville was a community where people looked out for each other.
We left the established, social order of Alstonville on Easter Sunday with a warm glow in our hearts and headed for one of Australia’s most disorderly and anti-establishment towns, Nimbin.
In the late 1980s I had my first experiences of festival culture in Glastonbury, where I marveled wide-eyed at the spectacle of English farmland transformed into a hippy city for the weekend. My first walk around the festival site reminded me of thestreet market scene from the musical Oliver, with traders singing about their wares. Only rather than “ripe strawberries ripe” and “who will buy my sweet red roses”, the air was filled with the smell of weed and patchouli oil and illicit dealers shouting out the names of various drugs including hashish, acid and ecstasy.
Driving into the main street of Nimbin, with all its psychedlic shop fronts and bizarre bazaars, I was instantly struck by the thought that this is what the farmer’s field in Glastonbury might look like if the most hardcore hippies refused to close shop and go home at the end of the festival weekend.
And that is essentially how modern-day Nimbin was born. It was chosen by university students to host the 1973 Aquarius festival, Australia’s counter cultural version of the more internationally famous Woodstock festival.
Here the Flower Power generation came to celebrate art, sustainability, harmony and freedom and many never went home, giving birth to Australia’s “Rainbow Region” which spreads from Nimbin in the mountains of north-east New South Wales to the coastal community of Byron Bay, the most Easterly point on Australia’s mainland.
On the downside, some would say, the Flower Power generation brought their drug culture with them. On the upside they have left a legacy of sustainable living; organic food production; new age businesses; alternative therapies; spiritual practices and conscious communities, pioneering many outlandish concepts that have entered mainstream thinking.
The moment we drove into Nimbin’s rainbow coloured High Street with its Hemp Embassy selling iconic images of Jesus getting stoned with his disciples at the last supper (or the “last session”), I felt a splitting beween my “inner hippy”—who wanted to roll up a joint, get stoned and drop out—and my “inner square” who want to roll down the window and yell “Hey Nimbin, get your hair cut and get a job, you crazy hippies”.
According to the travel writer, Craig Tansley, Nimbin has become a parody of itself, more of a film set for the busloads of backpackers who travel from Byron Bay every day to gawp at the hippies. The Age of Aquarius, says Tansley, lives on in the hamlets around Nimbin and in the subtropical rainforest environment that the original Aquarians fought to preserve.
Back at the campsite, if Alstonville Showground was a little on the ghostly side, then the Nimbin Showground was post-apocalyptic.
On arrival we were greeted not by a quirky caretaker with a joke for the English, but by a faded, handwritten sign which ominously declared:
“Campers if you stay, you pay”.
It wasn’t entirely clear if this was a request to visitors to ensure they settled their bills before leaving, or another way of saying “stay if you want to, but you’ll pay for it!”
Whatever the meaning, it didn’t look like a good sign, in more ways than one.
Beyond the gateway, a sporadic mix of campers had randomly spread themselves around the ground to create a cross between a refugee camp, a shanty town and a junk yard. Our sparkly, 2008 motorhome, which looked a bit old school in Alstonville, made us look like Royalty visiting the scene of a natural disaster.
The first site to greet us when we passed through the gate was a big black dog squeezing out a huge crap on the field we were about to call home for the next 24 hours. “I’ll come back later with the shovel,” said a smoking man who wore a style of clothing that was mostly holes, held together by bits of fabric.
“Great,” we both chimed while simultaneously thinking “I bet you haven’t even got a shovel”.
We spent the next ten minutes, judging the suitability of the various different parties, strewn around the site, to be our closest neighbours for a day. We rejected those with growly dogs, screaming kids, stinky fires, aggressive music, crates of beer and woefully bad tattoos.
This left us with one choice, to locate ourselves close to a solitary man who had placed his tent opposite the fabulous mountainscape that (like us) looked down on the Nimbin Showground, and was sitting, reading a book. It could have been five step guide on “How To Kill Pommy Campers and Get Away With It” for all we knew, but we snobbishly decided that the literary man with an appreciation of a good view, would have the privilege of being our new neighbour.
We put down anchor and headed for the town centre where I was offered drugs on the streets for the first time this century. In Alstonville they help you pick up nuts, in Nimbin they try and sell you stuff to help you get off your nut.
We genuinely felt a little uncomfortable camping out in the seemingly boundary-less community of Nimbin and we joked that we might awake to find a party of well-meaning hippies had spray-painted our pristine, white motorhome, with badly-drawn symbols of love, peace and harmony, to help us get out the corporate square of branded RVs and “go with the flow man”.
One thing was certain, tomorrow we were going, whether “the flow” wanted us to or not.
DID WE FIND MAGIC IN NIMBIN? READ: DAY 2 in Nimbin, meeting the black dog to find out.