Nimbin at a glance.
In the hills behind Byron lies the sleepy little town of Nimbin, where hash resin replaces the sleep in the locals eyes.
It takes a bit over an hour to get there from Mullumbimby and tour buses run from all around the Rainbow region to help tourists avoid the troubles a random drug test might cause. We’ve driven there twice, (That’s where these photos were taken.) the second time was for research, I swear. (It’s been decades since I messed with my brain chemistry.) I believe everyone should visit it just once, if only to see where all the hippies have gone.
Nimbin has been unjustly described as a sad and run down hippy theme park, but it’s really only like that on weekends and once a year during festival time when a whole bunch of tourists get bussed in. Our first trip was on a Sunday and the place was flush with grass tourists (more about that later.) The second trip was on a Tuesday and the locals were in the majority. I love watching people, as a writer it’s sort of stock trade, and looking a little deeper you’ll see a colourful pageant of characters. It is everything you’d expect and so much more from a town built on a reputation as the dope capital of Australia.
The town centre consists of one main street at the top of a hill, lined with an eclectic mix of shops and cafes with air that is intermittently filled with herbaceous odours. The town supports a single pub, the Nimbin Hotel, but most people don’t come to Nimbin to drink. Upon arrival most people follow the marijuana smoke to the Hemp embassy. It strangely reminded me of an old National Parks’ office in Blackheath, but instead of Maps and permits, the place was awash with information and souvenirs. More about our walk through the town later.
With bookshops, crafty nooks and magical mystery stores, it’s a nice stroll. Be aware that on weekends you may be offered grass every few metres you walk in the street, but the stores are a refuge if you find that hard to take. On a weekday the town conducts its trademark market in a very different way (more about that later).
The coffee shops are all nice, with plenty on offer for every dietary challenge, of which I have a couple and the food is quite good. A circuit of the shops will take about an hour or so with browsing, though if you partake of the local product your whole street experience may take longer and be a little different to ours.
A couple of hours in Nimbin, (or Where have all the hippies gone?)
Now a little background. Our first visit to Nimbin was a bit of a culture shock for my wife, who unlike me, grew up in the country and did not share my childhood misadventures. She’s not naive, but isn’t really a fan of such in you face reefer madness. I grew up in Sydney and there was a time in the early ’80s where I tried to single-handedly restart the hippy movement, leaving home and tie-dying my clothes. Even though I spent a number of years under a cloud of pot smoke, I’d never made it North to Nimbin, having pretty much blown away my early ’20s sitting on a couch with a bong attached to my face. I’d come to my senses by 23, but the people I knew then left a lasting impact on me. Their love of thought and creativity and science helped germinate the growing seed of the writer that I am now. So in some sense I came to Nimbin as sort of adolescent ancestry research.
After several minutes of searching, we finally found a parking spot and left the car for a wander around the shops. There were so many people it was hard to take everything in. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the throng of a thousand tourists from all over the world filled the air and not a cop in sight. Two kids, ten seconds apart, rode past calling out, “Anyone want grass?” I must confess 18 year old me was screaming, They deliver! But as a sensible man in my 50’s I declined those and all the ensuing offers.
As I mentioned, this was all a bit much for my wife, so we found refuge in the great little second hand book exchange down the hill. Sharing an old timber building with the community centre, the guy behind the counter is only too happy to talk about any number of subjects and the books range from Shakespearean classics to sci-fi and fantasy, right through to alien abductions and crystal healing guides. This gave me my first inkling of the Nimbin behind the tourist hype. These were the books swapped by locals and as such is a reflection of the cosmopolitan range of the local characters.
We didn’t stay too long the first time, running a gauntlet of backpackers and dealers as we did a whirlwind, self guided tour of the place. We left, and though I’d gleaned a little bit of the towns true nature, I sensed I’d seen something like “a movie based on a true story.”
Two years later I’ve written a novel, (as yet unpublished) and Nimbin plays into the story, so I convinced my wife to return to Pot World so I can take photos for reference. Bravely she agrees, which is probably a good indicator of her love for me.
We arrived about 9.30 am on a Tuesday and as the wife was an invalid at the time, I dropped her at a cafe and went to park the car in the dirt carpark behind the shops. Now Nimbin on a Tuesday was very different to the weekend insanity we’d previously experience and I quickly found a park just near the cop in his paddywagon who had positioned himself in just the right place to keep an eye on the market square. The market square takes up the place the Rainbow cafe and museum had been before they burned down in 2014. Now it is a vacant lot that joins the carpark and the main street. The space is filled with the kind of wooden picnic tables found on every back patio in the 70’s and the kind of gazebos you buy for fifty bucks at Kmart. As I leave the car and walk up the sloped market square, I notice scales and plastic baggies on a scattering of the tables.Virtually nobody is in sight but for one tattooed old dude sitting and smoking a cigarette whilst drinking a cup of tea. He’s eyeballing the cop forty metres away who’s eyeballing back like a uniformed reflection in a magic mirror. The scene has a kind of tension that is hard to describe, like a Mexican standoff between a purebred pit bull and a mongrel. To be honest I wasn’t sure who was which. On the street at the entrance is a long version of the picnic tables with an umbrella shading a half a dozen blokes oozing that indefinable body language that screams dealer.
I join my wife across the road at a lovely hippy/hipster cafe, where a cappuccino and a chocolate slice await me, along with the wife who is drinking a peppermint tea. This part of Nimbin, at the police station end of the street, is very much more her speed, and I sensed she found this a much nicer experience than our first visit. After the coffee, we went for a walk around the shops at a much more leisurely pace than we had on the previous trip. We spent time in the health food market, the jewellery stores and the odd assortment of shops that defy description without giving an inventory of their eclectic wares. I went back to the Hemp Embassy; only this time it wasn’t filled with a dozen accents asking about where to score, and purchasing drug paraphernalia. The accents are mostly Australian, and there’s time to talk to the people behind the counter who are very literate as to the grey legality of weed. The Hemp Embassy is a wealth of information about both cannabis and the material uses of hemp. It’s become the sort of hub in Australia for getting the word out about the herb superb, the law and why the war on this particular drug is a losing battle.
While there is the dark shadow of harder drugs, this is frowned upon by the older residents, who see it as a betrayal of the original ideals of the place. It is impossible to extricate the legalise movement from the town. The MardiGrass festival is their attempt to display that ideal, but as I’ve not been to it, I can’t say how successful a bunch of stoners are at presenting a coherent argument for marijaua reform. For an more insight into the festival see a video from inside. click here.
After a couple of hours we’d seen all we wanted to see and the number of tourists had grown to a couple of hundred. I’d taken all the photos I needed, so I went to fetch the car, and it was then I experienced another glimpse of the weekend, theme park vibe.
As I approached the long picnic table at the entrance to the market square, the police van, which presumably had gotten sick of the patient game of don’t blink, came up the street. Like a shark they slowly glided by the half dozen oozy dudes who also had not moved in the last couple of hours. As the fuzz slid out of sight; the aforementioned dudes stood up in unison and like a well rehearse comedy act, sprang into action. Along with them, and seemingly from nowhere, a mix of twenty or thirty people, locals and backpackers appeared. Having received whatever equates to the Bat Signal in Nimbin, they converged on the market entrance. Caught up in the instant crowd, I shuffle meekly to the gate, where a tall guy in jeans and a t-shirt repeats the standard, “Do you want to score?” to the first couple of people as they enter.
Two backpacker girls with a Germanic accent ask him stuntedly, “Edibles?”
“You mean brownies and cookies and shit?”
They nod enthusiastically and he points them to the right place.
I mutter, “Just going to the car,” but the spotty teenager behind me can be heard as I step past the gatekeeper. “Half oz?”
Before I’ve taken ten steps, grass is being retrieved from stash points around the market and deals are being done in a frantic rush. It seems the police may return at anytime and I don’t doubt that the grass will vanish leaving only scales and baggies when they do. It’s then I pass the old guy again who’d been eyeballing the cop earlier. He’s replaced his ciggie with a pipe and gives me a smile. I can’t help wondering how long he’s been doing this dance with the law.
Without the grass, Nimbin would be a ghost town, so while the police disrupt business frequently, they seem well aware that stopping it all together would be a death knell for the region. There’s a truce here between both sides in the war on drugs.
Were it only that all wars were quite this civil.
I retrieved the car and the wife and we left Nimbin to its own version of photo-chemical smog. Not planning on returning any time soon but I’m kindof glad I gave Nimbin a second chance.
Our journey was from Brunswick Heads, a seaside gem on the New South Wales north coast, heading in a vaguely west direction that meanders past places with unlikely names like Mooball and Blue Knob. From Byron Bay it’s more or less due west and from Mullumbimby, it’s all pretty much the same route as we did, North then west then south skirting Mt Jerusalem and Nightcap National Parks. All of these routes are pretty, but the Mullum/ Brunswick routes offer a lot more to see. The route is well marked and it would be pretty hard to miss.
If you check it out sometime, why not comment and we can compare notes.
Peace love and mung beans people.