I had to get out of the van. Nothing against my friends, but the 1980 rainbow-striped white Ford Econovan in which the four of us had been driving, eating and sleeping in for the past week since we left Sydney was beginning to lose its charm.
This was just the first leg of our 40 day van excursion in which we planned on covering half of the Australian continent, but already I needed some alone time.
So it was with this spirit of the lone traveler that I checked into one of Byron Bay’s most interesting hostels, The Arts Factory, and laid down on what felt like the most comfortable pieces of bedding in the Southern Hemisphere.
Relaxed and rejuvenated, I stared at the white ceiling and wondered what to do with myself next.
Then it hit me. I remembered conversationalists in Sydney who spoke of a little-known place off the main coastal highway called Nimbin, known as “the hippie capital of Australia,” where locals in the 1970’s attempted to break away from their surrounding capitalist society and form a Utopian civilization. Sounded interesting to me.
So in the spirit of our whimsical hippie forefathers I turned to the four bored-looking British girls whose room I had invaded and said, “Wanna go to Nimbin?”
Now back in those days, the summer of 1997, I was into the Beatles – huge. A friend in college named “The Tongue” introduced me to them and soon after I bought a guitar so I could learn to play all their songs. The first song I ever learned was John Lennon’s soft, emotional ballad, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” The song was, and still is, very dear to my heart. Our new British friends shared my affinity with the Beatles. We soon found ourselves belting out lyrics from happy Beatles tunes together for the entire the hour-long drive from coastal Byron Bay until we pulled into Nimbin on a bleak, cloudy July afternoon.
The town itself consists of little more than its one main drag, Cullen Street, which is lined with a disproportionate number craft shops, cafes, and dazed red-eyed locals. Pot, although technically still illegal, is the biggest form of currency around here and police tend to look the other way when encountering potheads. They’re more concerned with crimes involving harder drugs, theft or violence.
The town’s most attention-grabbing structure is the world-famous Nimbin Hemp Embassy, a dark and dank tribute to all things cannabis. A VW van painted with pot leaves, “peace,” and the like greets visitors at the entrance where locals hang out around the “Legalize Marijuana” stall.
The museum is definitely worth the free visit. The place beams out messages of alternative lifestyles spelled out on pot leaf-shaped poems, quotes, banners and art pieces that dress the walls of this pulsing structure.
My personal favorite was the 1967 interview with Paul McCartney who told Life magazine that the world would be a much more peaceful and harmonious place if all politicians did acid.
Scoring drugs in Nimbin is no problem. If you stand around for a few seconds you will surely be offered drugs from a variety of sources – even women with babies in their arms. But if you hang out in the shops and restaurants long enough you could easily acquire them for free from locals eager the acquaint themselves with a new smoking partner.
Although a large number of the town’s approximately 319 residents are whacked out drug addicts stumbling around in a permanent haze, some are quite interesting and intelligent. Friendly locals will eagerly extol the virtues of a non-monetary society based on human trust and mutual respect, a society Nimbin has been trying to instill ever since hippies invaded the town in 1973 for the Australian Union of Students’ Aquarius Festival and never left.
But the Utopian society many dreamed of was never formed. Although it doesn’t cost much to get by in this town, which was once a thriving dairy pasture before recession hit in the 1970’s, you’re still gonna need at least some money to exist here.
Although the town is mostly poor and filled with unmotivated rejects, there is an undeniable aura of hope in a better way of human relations radiating throughout the town. The hippie hope, although beaten and bruised, is still alive and well in Nimbin.
Want proof of the inexplicable magic surrounding the place? Take my casual stroll inside a local coffee shop for example. I walked into a room filled with humans I had never seen or spoken to and sat down at a table. A lovely blond smiling woman walked up to me, a complete stranger, and said “I’ll play you some Beatles.”
The song she plucked out on stage with her well-used acoustic guitar? “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”
Some things you just can’t explain. And it’s nice not to have to try.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Pacific Insiders page.