Known to many and criticised by most, but is this town in northern tropical New South Wales known for all the wrong reasons?
As we drive into Nimbin, the sun has just treated us to a dazzling sunset, and now it is dark … but not quiet. Campervans and cars line the streets in the small town that is basically made up of one main and six side streets. Even in the dark, the colour here is staggering – it hits you right between the eyes and sends you reeling the moment you see it.
It’s Nimbin MardiGrass festival this weekend (an annual event that supports the legalisation of cannabis), which explains the distinct Woodstock vibe that emanates from the town with eccentric looking crowds wearing bandanas and sporting dreadlocks roaming the streets. I admit to feeling slightly intimidated and am worried that wearing my Sydney gear, I will be identified as the non-hippy that I blatantly am.
Our accommodation for the weekend is Crofton’s Retreat, a fabulous guesthouse with gorgeous little self-contained rooms set on a spacious dairy farm a couple of kilometres out of Nimbin (perfect distance from the madness!). Our host Christine does everything she can to put us at ease. As well as settling us in with an impromptu homemade dinner, she answers our questions about this tiny town that’s had the media spotlight on it for some time now, and possibly for all the wrong reasons.
Even when it’s not MardiGrass, tourists arrive by the bus-load several times a day, rush around, get their picture taken outside the Hemp Embassy, grab a souvenir, stare at the locals and jump back on the bus again. But there is more to the town than that.
With a population of just 1,100, the community here is very strong. Yes, many of the people live an alternative lifestyle, but they are good people and Christine says “You can really be yourself here: people are just accepted.”
After a wonderful night’s sleep, we wake to see the landscape that was hidden from us the night before. We are in a valley with magnificent volcanic mountain ranges surrounding us, reminding us that we are in lush and diverse sub-tropical rainforest aptly named the Rainbow Region on the edge of World Heritage-listed Nightcap Range National Park.
It would be remiss to talk about Nimbin without touching upon the famous festival in 1973 that put this small dairy town on the map. Back when England ruled the world, there was great demand for butter and this was Nimbin’s main export.
Woodstock’s sister festival, Aquarius, was looking for a home and it was suggested the town should host it to bring ‘a bit of life back’. At the time when Nimbin was chosen, it was mostly a street of closed shops. The festival attracted thousands of people, many of whom stayed and the town has been booming ever since.
The colourful streets of Nimbin
In Nimbin itself, the unique shopfronts are a canvas for colour and expression – many of them were painted in the lead up to the Aquarius Festival, by the likes of political activist and performance artist Benny Zable (who we meet while we’re here), and even Rolf Harris created a story mural for Nimbin Hall. The Hemp Embassy educates the community and visitors about cannabis and hemp products, and the latter (not the former) of which it stocks. The Nimbin Museum is jam-packed with paraphernalia and very homemade-looking artwork that tell the stories of the local Aboriginal, pioneer and hippy eras; every inch of wall space is pasted with newspaper clippings on the town and its struggle to legalise cannabis.
A few minutes’ walk out of the main street is the Bush Theatre, an open and friendly space where you can enjoy a deck chair movie, and a candle factory. Housed in the old Nimbin Butter Factory, Nimbin Candles use traditional methods that involve dipping the wick continuously into a large vat of wax to create non-toxic, smokeless, slowburning taper candles (apparently very good for use in spells!), and some very colourful pyramid and pillar candles that are sold across the country. The very friendly owners will show you how they make them while you’re there.
In some ways, MardiGrass is an annual event much like any other with fantastic local foods, music in the form of bands (sometimes well-known international bands), market stalls and organised activities. The major difference is that all activities are aimed at celebrating the marijuana harvest, raising awareness of hemp products, and advocating the legalisation of marijuana for medicinal and personal use. There are public talks in the town hall about the medicinal benefits of cannabis; Hemp Olympix sports such as the Bong Throw & Yell; and hilarious events that see participants competing for titles such as Creative Roller. We sit and watch the Olympix for a few hours – a ludicrous spectacle hosted by an extremely witty MC.
Strangely, there is a big police presence, which has been harsh over recent years.
The typical MardiGrass festival-goer is likely to be found asleep on the grass with a cup of chai and a half-eaten piece of cake next to them rather than trying to get into a fight. There is also a Polite Force – made up mainly of law students who are educated in the finer points of civil rights and the law – that have taken it upon themselves to protect the rights of the festival goers. Dressed in blue jumpsuits with badges and golden retrievers (or cardboard cut-outs) by their sides, the Polite Force follows the police who, this year, stand on the outskirts; watching but not intimidating.
Living off the land
Permaculture is something the region does extremely well and much of the community is self-sufficient, or only buys from organic producers. Communal living is also a big part of this region, and there are many communes around Nimbin varying in size and legality. One of the largest and best known is Tuntable Falls – one of the first communal living areas set up, and more than 300 people live there today.
With a community so obviously open and alternative, it is little wonder that lost and troubled souls find themselves in Nimbin, seeking acceptance or peace or just a place to stay for a while. Andrew from the Nimbin visitor Information Centre says whimsically “Nimbin is living proof that there really is a place for everyone in the world.”
But what is forgotten about this region, and what thousands of people that visit the area often fail to see, is the staggering scenery and incredible landscape that surrounds this alternative town.
The Rainforest Way
The Rainforest Way from Nimbin to The Channon, that leads you into the heart of World Heritage status Nightcap National Park, is an enchanting road to drive.
Imagine Lord of the Ring-type landscapes, with mountainous backdrops, and dense, green rainforest at either side of the road that allegedly still bares resemblance to its state back in Gondwana days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is also the traditional land of the Widjabil clan of the Bundjalung Nation and the local community is enormously respectful of this.
As we drive home the rainforest wraps us up and occasionally spits us out at vantage points that sweep back across the valley to Nimbin, and then leads us deeper into the forest. There are plenty of walking trails and picnic areas to admire the breathtaking peaks, gullies and ridges that consist of solidified and eroded lava from the extinct Mount Warning volcano, that are covered in subtropical rainforest. One such feature is Minyon Falls. This 104-metre waterfall, which can be seen from a viewing platform from across the gully, must be a truly spectacular sight after heavy rainfall.
There are some delightful towns on the drive through such as The Channon, known for its artistic community and its monthly craft markets. We also pass through Bangalow, an obvious drawcard with fabulous boutique shopping, and some excellent eateries such as Ate where we settle in for a meal of locally caught fish and a wonderfully fresh organic tomato, basil and black olive salad.
I’m disappointed when the road pops out at the coast, and we stop the car to snap a picture of Byron Bay in the distance. It means that the rainforest is behind me now, and I hate to leave it. But wearing my hippy pants that I picked up at the festival, and carrying a handful of nuts I bought from the side of the road, I’m taking a little piece of Nimbin’s heart with me.