Australian governments send police to invade it.
Social scientists and social workers study it, trying to penetrate its convoluted counterculture core.
And yet, if you want to understand Nimbin, Australia, you have to first understand that it’s a village, tiny and isolated, dealing with 21st century complexities in a landscape that most resembles 19th century pastoral England.
Nimbin’s main street, where the annual Mardi Grass parade has been held for the last ten years, is about a quarter mile long. If you walk fast ? past the Oasis Caf?, hardware store, Hemp Museum, Hemp Bar, Hemp Embassy, Rainbow Caf?, Dealer’s Alley, grocer, park, hospital, police station ? it takes about eight minutes to stroll from one end of Nimbin to the other.
Thirty years ago, Nimbin was a dying cowtown just discovered by a tribe of gypsy eco-hippies.
As Australia industrialized, gained population, and saw its leaders sell the country to world trade conglomerates, disenchanted folks fled to Nimbin, bonding together as brothers and sisters in arms, uniting to fight logging, mining, and development, while also fighting against the drug war.
Today, Nimbin is still family, still radical. The village’s public space is home to Aboriginal street people, tattered teenagers, addicts, international tourists, cannabis activists, undercover police, rednecks, and space cadets.
It’s a colorful, seething hotbed of social change and anything-goes experimentation, mixing homespun democracy, obstinately opinionated people, and succulent Sativa.
Some Nimbinites are so dedicated to marijuana that they have created dramatic fictional personas, such as “The Hempress,” and “The Plantem,” who appear only at Nimbin Mardi Grass or staged events such as the Sydney Gay Mardi Gras or a travel tour around the country in a “peace bus” topped by a huge fake joint.
Nimbin is a popular stop on the tourist highway. Buses bring conservative Brisbane bumpkins and bemused gawkers from Japan, along with hordes of hip backpackers who cluster in the town’s many youth hostels or camp in the bush.
On a golden autumn afternoon just before the May Friday start of Mardi Grass, I watched a busload of Japanese tourists, cocooned in their land barge with its door tightly shut, pressing their cameras against its windows, taking picture after picture of young Zoe Kavasilas, dressed in a pot-leaf motif iridescent green dress, as she danced and played in front of her daddy’s Oasis Caf?.
Zoe lives with the knowledge that “bad guys” once came and arrested her father because of the plant whose leaves are emblazoned on her dress. Her older brother Nathan knows that his father, a ballsy Greek patriarch with a heart of gold, risks his freedom just for running an Amsterdam-style caf? that is a center of community art and awareness.
The tourists’ guide, lecturing like an ethnocentric jester at the front of the bus, says Nimbin is “home of the native hippie, a rare species of Australian that lives in a bush and survives on organic food and marijuana.”
Click-click, the Asians’ cameras whir. Flashes reflect back onto their faces from the window glass.
Zoe dances, oblivious.
A junkie flounces by, a sad half-smile on her face, as Zoe’s exuberance forces her to remember what it’s like to be healthy, free, innocent.
On the nearby Oasis Caf? patio, ten types of delicious coffee and cake are served. Andrew banters with the good-natured, very helpful manager of the Nimbin Tourist Connection. As joints are rolled and lit, the bus pulls away.
The little girl shimmies a while longer, then runs to hug her father.
Mardi Grass is Nimbin’s equivalent of an “autumn f?te.” Weekend activities reflect European traditions such as theater, dance, busking, poetry, oratory, and celebration in ways reminiscent of minstrel shows, Renaissance Faires, harvest parties, and other forms of nostalgic group expression.
The three-day event begins on a Friday in early May, when a convoy of Volkswagen “Kombis,” otherwise known as vans, leaves the fantastic beach town of Byron Bay for its uphill journey from the azure Pacific to the mystical mountainous “Rainbow Region” of which Nimbin is heart and soul.
A crowd of 400 people gather on the cliff-front car park in Byron that Friday, listening in rapt attention to Chibo, a tall, lanky European man who has become official mascot of the Kombi Convoy and the Mardi Grass Olympix.
“Mardi Grass is about peace, mother earth, and justice,” he says, wearing a bud-laden crown and a loincloth while Rainbow flags and pot banners wave overhead. “I was healed by the cannabis plant. I’ve seen the harm the drug war does to all of us.”
The crowd applauds enthusiastically as Chibo embarks on his token run up the street toward Nimbin, which is an hour away by car. Chibo wants to run all the way to Nimbin, but with crowds waiting for him and the Convoy in downtown Nimbin and many towns along the way, he must stop running and hitch a ride.
Some people travel around the world to attend Mardi Grass.
They look forward to seeing nimble Nimbin females wearing wings and bright green costumes: these girls are the “ganja fairies.”
This year’s fairies-to-be met in a dance studio before Mardi Grass, where they fashioned their costumes and the required “large green ganja leaf” that made their Sunday march through town a festive eye-candy parade.
Sports enthusiasts enjoy the Mardi Grass Olympix. The “finesse” portion of the Olympix features a two-category joint-rolling competition. Thousands of people gathered in rainy weather and mud at Peace Park to watch the “speed roll,” and “artistic roll” contests.
The same guy who won last year won this year, and in both categories, rolling one joint in 21 seconds, and another that looked like a ganja angel.
Slipping and sliding in what some people were calling “Muddy Grass,” competitors in the Olympix “Growers’ Ironperson” worked hard to win events that simulated the travails of Aussie “bush” growers.
Australian outdoor growers deal with severe conditions. The Ironperson mimics this by requiring competitors to carry heavy sacks of fertilizer and buckets of water through a tunnel of lantana vines built on the Olympix course.
Another Ironperson event involves heaving jars of bong water while yelling loudly.
One observer noted that bong water could be used as decoy scent to send drug-sniffing dogs on fruitless detour missions.
Between joint-making and athletics, visitors were entertained and enlightened by speeches from prominent cannabis activists, political theater (including the burning of a George W Bush effigy), and live music.
Approximately 10,000 people attended this year’s festival, which was created by an underfunded coalition of activists based in the Nimbin Hemp Embassy. Tireless volunteerism, crisis management and herculean flexibility are required of the brave souls who seek to organize and manage the event.
Added to the usual worries about crowd control, boozers, police dogs, and rain, the organizers this year had to worry about escalating liability insurance costs.
“It was touch and go,” commented Michael Balderstone, who is probably the most well-known Hemp Embassy honcho. “We were negotiating, brainstorming, arguing, and pulling things together right up to the last minute. In the end, we figured go ahead with it. All the people were going to come here anyway, so why not?”
Where’s the bud?
Nimbin is the Southern Hemisphere’s Amsterdam. Many visitors are more interested in finding quality marijuana and mushrooms than in visiting the town’s fascinating hemp museum, restaurants, and Mardi Grass venues.
Since the dawn of the “Aquarius” era thirty years ago, cannabis has been an integral sacrament, commercial product and social lubricant in Nimbin. The village’s rejuvenation was in part due to the high proportion of residents who grew marijuana.
Last year, marvelous marijuana was openly sold over the counter at several cafes and other
businesses. This year, these types of retail arrangements still existed, but confidentiality concerns prevent me from saying more than that.
In fact, soon after I arrived in town, I was accosted by people who blamed me for a Pot-TV show that my assailants believed had revealed the specific location of an indoor Nimbin grow room.
Although I had absolutely nothing to do with the show in question, I took their threats as fair warning to be ever more careful. You won’t find me telling you what cafes are selling bud in Nimbin, but be advised, marijuana is available over the counter. If you are savvy and hip, you’ll find sweet outdoor-grown Sativas and crystalline Indica nuggets typical of well-run indoor grow-ops.
You can also find potent local mushrooms, cannabis cookies, chocolates and brownies, along with powerful hallucinogens like DMT. The shrooms and cannafood are mentally manageable, but watch out for the DMT. It’s an orange-colored crystal concoction usually administered by smoking. One puff, and it roars into your psyche all at once like a hundred hits of acid, rendering you a technicolor zombie for half an hour, often followed by a day-long burn-out.
If you want to walk on the wild side, visit the “Dealers’ Alley,” an open-air drugs market located smack dab in full view of sidewalk pedestrians on the town’s main street. The graffiti-decorated alley is run by mostly teenaged, mostly male street dealers who trade ganja with each other and customers.
It’s not necessarily the safest place to buy weed: some of the boys have too much testosterone, and others are flat-out con artists, but generally, unless you point a camera at them or act like a cop, you can get in and out of the alley with the weed you wanted, without too much hassle.
The quality and price of alley weed is variable, but even the worst of it is likely to be somebody’s fledgling attempt at home growing, perhaps picked too early or improperly cured, but still fresh, tolerably potent, mostly organic and reasonably priced.
Prices spike during Mardi Grass, but even the highest prices will seem like a deal to most North Americans. The best Aussie outdoor goes for about $120 US per ounce; prices for potent indoor marijuana in Nimbin were as high as $180 US per ounce.
A Sydney resident came to Nimbin because a $180 chronic ounce in Nimbin costs $400 in most parts of Sydney, where police recently started a harassment campaign against the few pot cafes operating in Australia’s largest city.
Nimbin’s cannabis cafes have gone semi-underground, and for good reason: Andrew Kavasilas spent more than a year sweating charges and potential prison time arising from his alleged Dutch-style service at the Oasis Cafe.
As this article is being written in late summer, Andrew tells me his charges have been reduced and his sentence will likely be community service. What a relief! Still, pot retailers who work inside buildings instead of on the street are wisely unwilling to go public in this magazine or anywhere else!
Cup runneth over
The best grass in Nimbin is free. To get it, win a raffle that awards an invitation to the Nimbin Cannabis Cup.
Organized by a curly-haired wizard who comes from the land of feta, souvlaki and baklava, the Sunday night smokefest is held in a different location every year.
Clandestine taxi drivers weave and wind into mountains outside town, delivering Cuppies to a remote location where platters of fine food accompany platters of buds.
The cannabis competition is handled with simple elegance. Judges sample varieties of buds that look the dankest to them.
The numbered plate with the least amount of bud left on it at the end of a sampling session is usually the bud that wins first place. Rankings are also determined by a smokers’ poll.
Last year, nearly 60 varieties, most of them custom-grown from world-famous Marc Emery superseeds, competed in the Cup. This year, with a major grower unable to make it to the competition, there was only a couple of dozen sticky breeds up for the fabled Nimbin Cup.
When the smoke cleared, the same cultivator team that won last year’s Cup was standing tall and proud, accepting lavish praise for superb first-place Bubbleberry indoor organic, and their second place Bubbleberry-Bubblegum cross.
The victorious buds were sweet, gooey and well-cured, but I also enjoyed the third-place winner, “Troy’s Mango,” which indeed tasted like its namesake tropical fruit.
As new friends and toking partners discussed the Cup-winning flowers with the men who grew them, the magic of Nimbin Mardi Grass swept over the small gathering like a fine cannabinoid mist.
Later that evening, pot comedians graced the stage at the Oasis Caf?. Community members who had earlier told me Mardi Grass brought dangerous police scrutiny to Nimbin sat laughing next to professional pot growers, ornery opal miners, fierce-looking ferals, Aboriginal elders, and mind-altered visitors.
A green glowing pothaze perfumed the air, dishes clanked as Oasis heroes made steaming cups of coffee and chocolate, children chortled and played outside, the world of terrorists and power-mad police state politicians receded for a poignant moment.
“It came off pretty well after all, didn’t it, mate?” Andrew Kavasilas asked as he beamed with pride at a weekend well done. “Peace for pot, pot for peace. We’re making thunder down under.”
Byron Bay: beach bong babe blast!
Surf, play, party, meditate, get stoned, massaged, juiced and enlightened in Australia’s coastal puffer’s paradise.
My body is weightless.
My skeleton and connective tissue are unburdened by gravity.
Time slows down, stops.
My heartbeat measures moments that absorb my mind into universal energy flow.
All that New Age hocus-pocus I used to scoff at ? being and nothingness and oneness ? it suddenly makes sense.
I float in an Edenic womb, serene and saline.
A woman’s voice: “Time’s up.”
I return to earth, open the doors of my pod.
Showering under hot, fresh water, I gingerly exit the pod room. A cushioned massage table awaits. For 90 minutes, a diligent masseuse rehabilitates my entire musculoskeleton.
Lengthened and levitated, I leave Byron Bay’s Samadhi Flotation Tank Center and walk towards Main Beach.
A pot leaf in the window of Wallace’s Clothing store attracts my attention. Inside, owner Barry Wallace has devoted a significant portion of his store to hemp clothing. A tag on a well-crafted hemp shirt warns that “this clothing can not be smoked to achieve a psychoactive effect.”
“Marketing hemp is interesting,” explains Wallace, a pleasant middle-aged man. “Some buy it to make a political statement, others because it looks and feels nice.”
Wallace scowls when I ask about last year’s drug dog invasion in Byron Bay (CC#36, Harassment down under).
“It was disgusting, an embarrassment,” he says. “The dogs were sniffing up on community leaders, attorneys, doctors, artists, not just street people or hippies. A lot of people use marijuana. The British would not have been able to sail the world, or colonize Australia, if it wasn’t for hemp.”
I smell the odor of cannabis after I leave Wallace’s store. It makes me hungry and thirsty. No problem ? Byron has 50 gourmet restaurants, many of them surprisingly affordable.
Instead of eating a heavy meal, I stop at an organic juice bar and custom design a drink with sugar cane, lemon, ginger, carrot, watermelon, and a special potion containing “organic Ecstasy.”
I already felt high from the float tank. The drink makes me soar.
Inside a hardware store, I find a card game called Grass.
At Main Beach, sculptors make massive, candlelit sand castles. Behind them, studly guys and girls play cricket, soccer and lacrosse. In the Pacific Ocean, clear and blue like a pretty girl’s eyes, tropical fish and manta rays play with surfers and swimmers of all ages.
Most Aussies don’t yet suffer from American-style obesity. They’re tan and tall, fearless and fit, taming big waves that roll in hard and break big, waves that acquaint you with sand and coral.
It’s Australian late autumn, but the water is warm and the sun sizzles. As I swim toward the Cape Byron lighthouse perched on a green cliff above an azure surfing break, whales serenade me as the tapestry of beach unrolls.
Beautiful girls, unclothed and unworried, lounge amongst blonde boys and families. Parrots sail from tree to tree, singing. Tokers light bubblers, bongs and joints. Nobody worries about the pot or the girls’ sun-dappled breasts. It’s a sophisticated Euroscene, not a puritan one.
Byron draws tens of thousands of international backpackers to its hot hostels, triathlons, concerts, and dance clubs. There are more massage therapists, yoga gurus, and other types of healers here per capita than probably anywhere else in the world. You can surf all day and then get a massage from a beautiful strong babe in a hut overlooking the beach, for $15 US.
Cape Byron twists and turns, creating unique beachfronts with different wave patterns, sun exposure and startling scenery. Swim, walk, kayak, jog, or surf for miles around the Cape, to deserted, breathtaking Tallow Beach, then hike in the verdant splendor of Arakwal National Park.
Drive up the coast to Lake Ainsworth. It’s full of tea tree oil from trees lining its shores. Take a dip, feel your skin tingle.
Sit on the sandy ocean beach later, cannabified beyond belief, and count your blessings.
Sleep the sleep of angels, until one lands near you, a stunning green-eyed Aussie angel. She got high before she got high, leaping off nearby Lennox Head in her bright red hang-glider.
Nimbin and Byron Bay, Australia. Mardi Grass. Outdoor Sativa. Aussie angels. Worth the plane flight down under, no matter where you begin.