Nimbin’s city centre is two blocks, with the Town Hall, the Hemp Embassy Headquarters, a handful of brightly painted cafes, the cop shop, public toilets, the local pub, the Nimbin Museum, and that’s about it. Yet Nimbin is host to one of the largest pot-culture events in the world.
Nimbin hemp history
Nimbin became a haven for hippiedom in 1973, when student radicals decided the town would make an ideal site for their counterculture lifestyle event, called the Aquarius Festival. They convinced the locals they would “recycle the town”. Ever since then, Nimbin has maintained a tradition of pot-tolerance and youthful idealism.
During the 80s, the scene in Nimbin quietened down as hippies went underground to avoid persecution. Yet in 1988 Nimbin began to once again become a visible centre for promoting an end to the drug war. A free-thinker named Bob Hopkins rallied together others who felt the same way, including Michael Balderstone, who continues to be involved with the Mardi Grass.
By 1993 these brave souls had founded the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, firing off press releases and organizing drug-peace rallies and demonstrations. They put on the first Nimbin Mardi Grass that year and about 1000 people showed up to party for pot freedom. The next year the crowd sized doubled, and the year after it almost doubled again, finally peaking at about 10,000 people.
In 1997 the Hemp Embassy crew decided to get more progressive in their protests. There was a helicopter blockade, where some of the local crew managed to chain themselves to the police choppers used to scout for pot patches.
With this rich tradition of civil disobedience and fun firmly entrenched into Nimbin culture, this year’s Mardi Grass was a fabulous festival. With over 10,000 people in attendance on the final day, this was the largest cannabis event I had ever attended.
The Mardi Grass
The opening ceremonies included the traditional “Comby Parade” (Comby being slang for VW vans), with 2 dozen of the brightly painted vehicles making their way down Nimbin’s only main street, preceeded by the torch-bearing icon of freedom.
The climax of the three days was the great Mardi Grass Parade, where many of the freaky pot-people in attendance donned crazy costumes and made their way down the main drag to Peace Park, where there was speeches and dancing and merriment, despite the rain which hit hard and fast at Parade’s end.
The Parade Marshal and Mardi Grass mascot was “The Plantem”, who surveyed the crowd from astride the mighty joint, about twenty feet long, which he bravely rode throughout the parade.
The Hemp Olympix
Of all the various events, my favourite was the ongoing Hemp Olympix. I liked the crowd involvement; anyone could enter, and large crowds watched the competitions and cheered on their favourites.
The Hemp Olympix included four events: the bong toss, joint rolling for speed and for design, and the Grower’s Ironperson. Preliminary heats were held during the first two days, with the final showdowns scheduled for the afternoon of the last day.
The bong toss is a variation on the ancient Australian sport of gumboot tossing. The Scots toss cabers, the Aussies toss gumboots, while stoner Aussies apparently toss bongs. Pretty simple, furthest toss wins.
The Grower’s Ironperson involved lugging 50kg bags of soil up a hill and then performing various grow-related feats of fitness.
The joint-rolling for design was the contest that fascinated me the most. Contestants had roughly ten minutes to roll up their fake pot into the most crowd-pleasing and smokable shape, using only rolling papers and cardboard filters.
The finalists were a representative sample of world-wide cannabis culture: a Scot, a Brit, two Aussies, and an Italian. One of the Aussies almost took the top prize with his amazing joint that split into two, then rejoined, then split into three lightable ends. It looked great, but failed the final test when the poor guy just could not get it lit.
The joint that took top marks was rolled by the Italian, and had a Dutch tulip at each end, being smoked in the middle. It combined esthetics with functionality and took the most applause, winning him the grand prize medallion and great honour.
Nimbin Cannabis Cup
I was whisked away from the speed-rolling finals to join the lucky few who were to judge the Nimbin Cannabis Cup at a secret location. There had been a raffle among regular attendees for the privilege of being a judge, but of course world-class celebrities like myself and Mr Peron needed no tickets.
There were 17 varieties of marijuana available, about 5 grams of each on a plate with its number and no other information. The samples had all been provided by various growers, who stood to win nothing more than a home-made medal and anonymous glory.
The judges were invited to sniff and prod each of the samples on the table, and then to make a preliminary judgement of their top three picks, before smoking. It was amusing to see the crowd of salivating samplers making a polite crush as the small table became surrounded by squished pot-examiners.
After the preliminary judgements had been duly recorded, it was time to begin the sampling. Order was encouraged, and judges were supposed to sample only their top picks, then choose their favourite of the three. Most people began by sampling their top three, then moved on to experiment with the many other intriguing varieties on the table.
It wasn’t really possible to fully judge the high of each variety, as we spent only two hours in the judging room doing our thing. So the contest was more truly a judging of which bud had the best look, the nicest smell, the tastiest flavour, and the smoothest smoke. Not bad criteria to judge pot by, but not quite as exact as if each judge had had a day to sample each variety.
Nevertheless, there was general consensus that the #9 (later identified as 4 Ways Nimbin Natural) was the top bud, although Dennis and I both voted for #7 (Bitching Bud) as top and #9 as second. Yet both clearly dominated the field, with the #11 (Kacta Blast) coming in a distant third.
Both the Nimbin Natural and the Bitching Bud were grown hydroponically, although the info cards for each claimed that they had been grown with respect, “without growth hormone or anti-fungal sprays.” Both were very fruity, tasty buds, and neither had any pop or sizzle despite their hydroponic heritage.
I’d say that the top 5 varieties entered in this cup were “World Class” buds, in that they were comparable to the quality of pot grown in BC, Amsterdam, or anywhere else. In comparison, most of the pot I was offered during the festival was on the low-potency of the loose and leafy outdoor scale.
This was the seventh annual Nimbin festival, and it was blessed with a full moon and an amazing double rainbow, which merged into one massive, glowing spectrum of light which circled the town and shimmered in the air above for hours. These auspicious signs confirmed the feeling which had been growing inside of me since I arrived in Nimbin. These people were on the verge of something grand, and were about to start experiencing some positive change as the fruit of their labour.
While I was in Australia the papers were covering the impending Drug Summit (see sidebar) and all sorts of drug policy reform talk was in the air. Interestingly, the issue of medical marijuana had not penetrated into the movement or the drug debate the way it has in North America, although inviting Dennis Peron as the guest of honor was clearly an attempt to change that.
Nimbin is a special town that has become Australia’s greatest sanctuary for drug-peace and tolerance. It has become a mecca for pot-people, who make the annual Mardi Grass pilgrimmage to recreate their own freedom, and to remember what it’s like to be able to smoke their sacred herb without fear of arrest or persecution.
Mardi Grass 99 was a fabulous party and a great cannabis celebration! Congratulations to the Nimbin Hemp Embassy and all of those who made it happen. See you next year!
I spent some time hanging out with the crew behind The Aquarian Age, Nimbin’s local newspaper. They were preparing to launch an all-pot magazine, still trying to decide on a name but gung-ho on the concept and execution. It was their talented photographic team which took all the uncredited photos of the Mardi Grass.