Nimbin - The Cannabis Cult

Trip Start Feb 05, 2012
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Holiday Village Backpackers

Flag of Australia  , New South Wales,
Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The village of Nimbin is an hour and a half's drive west of Bryon Bay. Snuggled in the hinterland and composed entirely of a few criss-crossing streets, it is a detached little place; Yet is a throbbing hot-spot on the backpacking trail down the coast. This is for the simple reason that the whole settlement sprung from a commune of cannabis connoisseurs. Years ago this group of like-minded individuals pitched up and built a community that embraced their passions. Today it remains, hiding in the wilderness like a cult. The drug capital of Australia.

We'd opted for a day trip to Nimbin on the suggestively titled 'Happy Bus’ (the cheapest journey we could find at $25). However, the bus’s name did not lend itself to the journey. It was an ancient, decaying contraption that lost in the fight with the potholed roads along the route. There were no seatbelts and we couldn’t shut the windows. Consequently the journey was passed being bounced around at the back of the bus with springs poking us in the bums, rain leaking in on our necks and scowls wiped across our faces. Yes, ‘The Harrowing Bus’ would have been a more appropriate name for it.

To make matters worse, our guide was an uninspiring, pot-bellied punk rocker with a weakness for heavy metal (which roared out the speakers at us for the entire duration of our journey). It was one of our fellow passengers who provided the bulk of commentary for the tour – a gaunt middle-aged woman dressed in an Eminem t-shirt and clearly cuckoo. Her random interjections were odd but amusing and we all agreed that a trip is always spiced up by a bit of an odd-ball.

The bus stopped first at Killin Falls – a pleasant enough waterfall, that none of us had ever heard of. The group stood watching it for ten minutes while the punk tried to gauge how long he could milk it for. The day was clearly being dragged out to try and make it seem worth the $25 bus fare.

After another hour aboard The Harrowing Bus, (and a pointless pre-noon stop at a pub), the punk pulled up at the side of the road, sparked up a cigarette and waved vaguely in the direction of some distant mountains. We had arrived at Nimbin Rocks – a sacred aboriginal burial site. The rocks actually made for a very impressive view - They stood tall and mighty on top of the mountain, piercing the surrounding grey rain clouds. It would have been nice to hear some official background and insight on them, but the punk seemed far too engrossed in his cigarette and we retreated back onto the bus when the Eminem fan took over the commentary again.

Before finally pulling into the village, the rocker put on his best earnest face and gave us a cautionary brief on what to expect. Nimbin is home to an assorted collection of eccentrics and misfits. Apparently we were going to be targeted by these locals and some might try out a hard sell on us. Although, if we did want to purchase any of the merchandise on offer, we should watch out for the recently installed security cameras on the main street and ensure all transactions are conducted down a side alleyway.

It was certainly different to previous safety briefings we’d had on our trip. Although from what I’d heard about the village it was actually an exaggeration. There had been police raids in the past, but these seemed to be more about appearance than enforcement. It is custom for the authorities to largely turn a blind eye to Nimbin’s affairs, whether covert or brazen.

The punk was right about one thing though. From the second we stepped off the bus, the local dealers swarmed upon us like a cloud of locusts. The most surprising aspect of it all was the variety of shapes and sizes they came in. A toothless heroin junkie mumbled at us through a blank stare whilst a chubby grandmother in a bright green kaftan advertised her cookies through a lullaby-like cry. The village was abuzz with unique and surprising sales-pitches.  

All the action takes place on Nimbin’s main (and arguably only proper) street. Squat buildings straight from a Western sit either side of the wide-set road. Locals are littered outside them, in various states of stupor. These buildings are adorned with colour, artwork and iconography. Indeed, iconography plays a huge part in Nimbin’s identity. The Ganja Leaf is glorified with the dedication a disciple shows the crucifix.

Cannabis puns transform popular brands names; displaying with playful irony Nimbin’s counter-culture status. Surf brand Billabong becomes Bring-a-bong – a brightly coloured shop stocking a range of smoking utensils. While you can enjoy a coffee in Starbuds. Cannabis, not Christianity, is an idealized way of life.

Nimbin has previously been compared to Amsterdam, but I felt it lacked Dam’s beauty and class. Here, it’s almost as if Byron Bay’s principles have been taken to their logical extreme. Byron has a balance, Nimbin has too much. One of the problems is there really isn’t a lot to do. Stoners are known for their ability to remain amused regardless of stimulation - so accordingly once we’d peeked into all the interiors of the brightly painted shops, we were at a bit of a loose end.

Another problem that blights the village is the generally lazy predispositions of stoners. There doesn’t seem to be much upkeep at all. Features in the village that you can imagine were once attractive have fallen into disarray. I guess the reasoning is something like ‘Why tidy up when you can have another joint?’

The rain didn’t help the village in this respect either. In Canberra, the rain had revealed the secret scent of the place and bathed the city in freshness. Here the rain brought out the skulking smells of grit and dirt.

Nimbin Primary School is a brightly coloured, expressionist building but the rain tainted this aswell making it look sadly bleak. This in turn made me wonder how wise in practice it was to bring up children in a place like Nimbin.

We spotted a sign for a psychic and went to investigate, largely just to get out of the rain. The psychic was a red-haired resident of Nimbin, whom conducted readings from her own bedsit. We’d been inside for all of twenty seconds when we realized that Nimbin’s problems with idleness and mess were both exemplified here. The place smelt of cat urine and general filth and we had to sit on the floor amongst piles of dirty looking objects. It was an OCD sufferer's worst nightmare.

The psychic herself was a seasoned fraud. She talked for half an hour about absolutely nothing; flipping over playing cards and shaking a necklace, repeating general phrases and trying to tell us things that were likely to apply to any young travellers: 'You're on a journey...A journey of ups, downs, change'. She’d been talking for about half an hour when she made Caz choose a destiny card from her outstretched palm. Caz looked at it confused and after some encouragement from the psychic to share it with the group, repeated in skeptical tones ‘I am a loving caretaker of my body and mind.’ By this point, for certain members of the group who had succumbed to the charms of the cookies, the whole thing stared to seem quite comical. Order and solemnity collapsed into a fit of giggles. The psychic looked quite put out that her craft was the subject of such hilarity and brought the reading to a speedy halt. Although not before extracting 30 from both Francesca and Caz for the privilege of listening to her wisdom.

After leaving the flat we popped into one of the delicious food outlets that line Nimbin high street. Everything on the menu was flavoursome and hefty and while we waited for our food I noticed a sign cellotaped onto a jar of juicy looking cookies. It warned ‘PLEASE DO NOT HELP YOURSELF!’ We had a little joke between ourselves; wondering how many red eyed and dry mouthed visitors had exercised such self-service before the owners had cottoned on that such a sign might be required.

When we piled back on the bus we were told that the Eminem fan had disappeared and would not be joining us on the journey back - swallowed up by Nimbin and probably off her head in a ditch somewhere. We had a good laugh and prepped ourselves for the journey home, waving goodbye to Nimbin’s colourful streets and even more colourful residents

I would definitely recommend a trip to Nimbin. It is a unique and fascinating place and I imagine it is completely transformed by the sun. But maybe not a trip on The Happy Bus.
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