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Travel

Nimbin, Australia: The town where Woodstock went to stay

In the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, all roads led to Woodstock. Upon that culminating Fastlane of peace, love and drug-induced epiphanies was a literal vehicle—a technicolour bus called Furthur / Further. That bus contained some of the finest beat writers of a generation capturing culture on a whim. As one of the backseat riders, Tom Wolfe once wrote: “The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.”

On the road, this hightailing bus saw sights far stranger than stories, and ratified the old mantra: There is nought so strange as folk. Some of the most stupefying of these spectacles befell them at the famous Kool-Aid gatherings whereby the bus would stop in some far-flung camping site and pour out revellers some acid concoction while they soaked in the sweet rock ‘n’ roll sounds of bands like the Grateful Dead. 

The biggest of these bashes was, in a way, Woodstock Festival in 1969. It was the swansong of the counterculture movement. As Joni Mitchell once said, “You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”

In Nimbin, Australia, you could be fooled into thinking that the bus never stopped, and the slide never set in. And you could also be fooled into thinking that perhaps the slide was for the best after all. Yeah, Nimbin, is a funny old town, and it certainly ratifies the old mantra that there is nought so strange as folk.

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On the northern tip of New South Wales, this crooked town is like a movie set in the 1960s ran out of money and had to make do with giving an old western movie set a quick facelift. If you were colour-blind and had lost your sense of smell, then at certain angles you could be fooled into thinking John Wayne could ride through the mountains and throw down his saddle in this rugged little sun-baked spot. However, trudge a little closer into the smoky haze ahead and you’ll find a freaky corner of counterculture. 

What is this place? What kind of creature bore it? And more importantly, what is its purpose? This is not Greenwich Village – some bohemian offshoot of a wider functioning civilization – it is an isolated oddity that has you question, where are the plumbers of this town, where do you go if you need to buy grout, do they sell it out of the back of a hemp shop, and how come it is located in the stringent state of NSW where previously Tequila was even outlawed after midnight. 

But you’d be wrong to call it a social experiment or some sort of freaky societal misfire. This town was a liberating beacon well before the shop windows proudly boasted paraphernalia like a student house. In 1973, the Aquarius Festival flocked to the old logging spot and a hippy lifestyle basked the village. Once more it would be wrong to think of this as purely pipedream thinking and daisy chains. The festival was the first event to seek the permission of the Traditional Owners of the land. 

This pioneering move still has reverberations to this day as Australia continues to push towards reconciliation measures. This was counterculture in the most perfunctory sense—much like Furthur, this was actionable change at the wheel. The festival ended, but many of the freethinkers remained in the village and Nimbin as we now know it took root. 

So, how exactly do we now know it? Well, in a state where the sale of cannabis is prohibited, the shoulder shrug with which it is sold openly in Nimbin is pretty much a paradigm of the place. Doof parties are prevalent, defined as: “A type of outdoor dance party generally held in a remote country area, or outside a large city in surrounding bush or rainforest.” Zombified backpackers staggering aimlessly in search of the bus are also prevalent. 

However, there is an inevitable Achilles heel to the place too: people taking it all too seriously, and the sense that there are some creepy folks in the welter escaping some obfuscated past. But even in utopia, you have to take the rough with the smooth and the general sense of this odd old town is that its heart is in the right place and the curious kaleidoscope of jungle set Amsterdam takes care of the rest. 

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