14 April 2014

Nimbin's marijuana and alternative culture

Up in the mountains in the middle of the forest and around 2h drive from Byron Bay one can find the curious and eccentric town of Nimbin. 

One of many Nimbin's many self-expressions
To Australians Nimbin is the local version of Amsterdam, a celebration of the hemp and marijuana culture and a social experiment in communal living, sharing, spiritual healing and permaculture.

To the untrained inexperienced eye Nimbin is a weird and funny place full of people who look like they got stuck in the 60s and are permanently high.

Curiosity took me there on a rainy Byron Bay day when the beach and sunny activities were out of the question.

Google maps showed us the way estimating it would take us 2h to get there but of the alternative routes we picked the wrong one. It was indeed the most scenic one but with the constant zigzagging it took much longer. 

The journey was long but beautiful. At first we cruised through farm land with beautiful views of the valleys, the cows grazing and the greenery. As soon as we started to climb the mountain the road changed into thick forestry with large tree branches swinging over the road, nature overtaking and overflowing.

For the mountain part, the road is flanked by fallen leaves and has no middle line. There were very few cars on the entire journey and it felt like a quiet countryside Sunday. On the way back we took an alternative route which shortened the travel time by an hour almost.

Route from Byron Bay - the farming area

When we arrived in Nimbin we quickly realised how small the town is. The area of interest is walked within 5min. There are a grand total of two strees where most stores, bas, restaurants and houses are. The rest is just nature's eden.


Probably because it was a Sunday the day seemed to be going by more slowly than usual. The streets were calm and almost empty and several stores were closing down or already had at 4pm when we arrived. It felt like life was on a different rhythm in Nimbin. 

The town was dotted with sleepy old rasta men sitting on street benches, a goat making its usual noise echoing throughout the town, a few people playing instruments and more tourists than locals.

Nimbin's Museum
More paintings and displays at Nimbin's Museum

We wanted to grab a bite to eat or chill for a little while before heading back but there wasn't any place where we could do either. Even the grocery stores were selling specialised items almost all of which were not very appealing to the general public (carob pieces instead of chocolate bars anyone?). 

What Nimbin is all about, some of the stores' signage

We wandered around for a bit and ventured into the Nimbin Museum which is open to the public for a small donation of AUD2. It was a peculiar place that related the history of Nimbin and it was filled with marijuana memorabilia. The story is hard to follow as there is no logic to it and the Museum is full off videos, quotes, images, paintings, graffiti, objects, collages... which make it difficult to get what the point of the place is.

A closer look and read about Nimbin's background reveals that the town declined after the 60s recession only to find a resurrection with the Aquarium Festival held in 1973 which attracted all sorts of hippies and alternative thinkers. Nimbin was the last location to host the festival organised by the Australian Student Union. It was described as Australia's Woodstock and considered the birthplace of the hippie culture in Australia.

Nimbin is Australia's "save haven" for marijuana smokers. It is not that marijuana is legally allowed and there have been enough raids and police intervention to make that clear. However, the police isn't constantly on the look out and the reality is that marijuana and its derivatives (cakes, cookies, ready made joints) are visibly available across town. 

The town changed after the festival. Many festival goers decided to stay there permanently and the town became a hippie gathering with a few people purchasing plot of land for communal living and multiple occupancy spaces.

Not long after the hippies were joined by the wealthier people living in the coastal areas who were looking for a change of scenery and searching for a cooler climate. 

The town is also well known for its Mardi Gras ccelebration in May when thousands come into town for a fun-fuelled hemp-themed festival which lobbies for the end to the marijuana prohibition in Australia. The festival happens since 1993 and they have not managed to convince many. The festival pokes fun at well known events with activities such as a Prohibition Protest Rally and Parade with the Ganja Faeries, the Nimbin Cannabis Cup, the Hemp Olympix, which includes the Bong "Throw'n'Yell", Joint Rolling, and the Grower's Iron Person event

Nightcap National Park
Besides the curiosity of seeing the town, wandering the streets and walking through the few unique (for lack of a better word) hemp stores the area has a few other notable places of interest worth the trip.

The Nightcap National Park has a few walking and trekking tracks worth the visit. On our way down we stopped by and checked out the views from the lookout platform which overlooks the valley and the Minyon Waterfall, a 100m plunge, when there is water, in our visit, the waterfall was dry. The park is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gondwana Rainforests of Australia and it is on the edge of an old volcano extinct for many centuries. In some parts the ridges raise to almost 1000m making the area very prone to rainfall. We somehow had the opposite experience: escaping Byron Bay's rain we found dry weather in the higher ground.

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