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Byron Shire
March 8, 2021

Aquarius almost 40

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Melissa Hargraves

This Saturday marks 39 years since the world-renowned Aquarius Festival was held in Nimbin. Up to 10,000 people were attracted to the ten-day festival which celebrated alternative thinking and sustainable lifestyles. The festival was the continuation of a previous gathering held by the Australian Union of Students (AUS), which was originally designed to bring students of all the universities together.

Paul Joseph has just returned from the 40th anniversary of Australia’s Jesus Christ Superstar and is recognised by the National Library of Australia for his songs and involvement in the history of this region, particularly his action in preserving our rainforests.

Within weeks of finishing his part in the revolutionary theatre production in 1972, Paul moved to Mullumbimby where, soon after, he committed to assisting the development of the Aquarius Festival.

Festival director Graeme Dunstan ‘wanted to encourage students to see there were other options in the world, rather than the slippery slope that people normally went on after university,’ said Graeme.

At the time there were groups in Mullumbimby who were part of the Back to the Land movement and a wave of young people who had seen the folly of war and consumer society and wanted to return to living off the land. This attracted Graeme to the area and so the AUS decided to hold the festival in the country in order that the students could have this experience.

‘In the early 70s, land was cheap. Nimbin was a virtual ghost town after the cedar cutters, dairy and beef industries came through. Colin James, an architecture lecturer from Sydney University, came up with the idea to recycle a town, which appealed to all of us. A local policeman, who could not make the meeting with the town council, urged them not to miss this great opportunity.’

The Nimbin RSL club was bought for $500 and it became the Festival media and organisational centre. The town general store was bought for $1000 and it became the food co-op that worked on a trust basis. The Rainbow Cafe was bought for $1000 and Paul explains that ‘it gave us an incredible opportunity for the system to work as we could provide food for people. People worked in exchange for good meals.’

Surrounding landholders of Nimbin were then approached to rent their land for the duration of the festival. The majority did so willingly. The festival site covered three to four hundred acres. Architecture students built incredible structures for camping.

There wasn’t a lot of money around and certainly not enough from AUS to put on the festival. Paul was in a group of musicians who created the ‘Magic Caravan’ from Nimbin. They did shows in Lismore and Casino to raise money and awareness for the festival. This started establishing relationships before the festival, to explain to the local population what they were about. The takings would then go back and help feed other people who were contributing.

A ten-day festival with no program! Paul explained that ‘the principle for the festival was that nobody was a star, everybody is an artist. We wanted people to tap into their creativity and share that. Ten days gave people the time to experience living in the country and fair time for their presentation. It was an incredibly rich festival that wasn’t designed for consumption, but participation.’

The lifestyle interests were vast. There was a learning exchange where people offered to share knowledge on what is still considered progressive. Shelter building from bamboo and thatching showed people that they could find shelter from the weather easily. The event sounds like a human experiment and Paul affirmed that by saying ‘it was an amazing conglomeration of humanity purposefully set in a disorganised fashion to see how it would float… and it floated beautifully’.

At the time, Nimbin was the home of the World Champion Tug-o-War Team, who at the festival challenged any number of hippies that could fit onto the end of a rope. A very famous highwire walker, Philippe Petite (who walked across the Twin Towers of New York), got around the festival on a unicycle and as the challenge was in play, he jumped up onto the rope, trying to encourage the hippies to pull harder, but the champions retained the title!

Echo founder Nicholas Shand, Donnie McCormack, Paul Joseph and others from the Mullumbimby tribe formed a ‘Magic Circle’ and saw themselves as a model for those students who hadn’t had much experience living in the bush.

‘Society held a lot of fears that we would pollute, so we thought it was important to set models of how to live safely, comfortably and without causing harm to the environment. Our little community fed itself into the whole festival,’ Paul said.

Halfway through organising the festival, the Whitlam government came into power and suddenly the whole complexion of everything changed. A raft of legislation came through including the ending of conscription and withdrawal from Vietnam, free tertiary education, free healthcare, and the first movements toward Aboriginal land rights.

Not a lot has been said about the development of indigenous relations associated with the festival, so I asked Paul if we could share that with Echonetdaily.

‘It wasn’t until the late 60s that Aboriginals could vote. The Tent Embassy had just opened in 1972. We had heard that the festival area was men’s initiation ground and taboo for women. So we needed to investigate this. We found the last initiated Bundjalung man at that time and another initiated Bundjalung song man (who sang for the Queen in 54).

‘Whitlam put funding into Aboriginal Affairs and started the Australia Council for the Arts, who were interested in what we were doing. They provided buses for the transport of Aboriginals to the festival, which meant that around 800 Indigenous people from as far as NT and South Australia were in attendance. It was the first time that the Yirrkala dancers first toured.

‘What is most profound about this festival is that there was an official Welcome to Country the night before its opening, the first in this region. A true ceremony of opening up the country to friendliness, goodness and community. A turnaround from white invasion that involved destruction, here was something sacred.’

There is cynicism around the festival that writes off the good intentions, claiming drug abuse and overt sexuality associated with nudity. Paul quickly dispelled both. He commented that there was a small quantity of drugs but the majority of people were there for the experience, the sharing of knowledge and the appreciation of art. As for the nudity, he dissociated it from ‘orgies’ and the like. ‘People were seen for more than just sexual beings,’ Paul quipped.

Demographic studies have shown that there was a turnaround in the population of this area in 1973, so historically speaking the Aquarius Festival had a profound influence on this whole region. Paul continues, ‘the real influence was in flying the flag that attracted like-minded souls who are aware of the facts that we consume more than is sustainable; we allow poverty and hunger on our planet when we have plenty.’

‘The industrial revolution has separated families and stopped us being extended families and put survival down to dollars and not to heart. A lot of us have woken up to the fact that we need as much heart and happiness in our life as we need dollars.’

One year out from the 40th anniversary of the Aquarius Festival, I asked Paul if he could determine what this represents.

‘From a history of destruction, there has been a major turnaround in the cultural values of this region: they are much healthier for the future of this planet. Whilst we can attribute much to the festival, the true social experiment has been the investment of people’s lives in what they see as valuable. That carries on down generations. We can see what happens when people commit themselves to things outside the material drive, to make this a better world.’

Although Nimbin was the site for the Aquarius Festival in 1973, Paul suggests that ‘the 40th anniversary should be celebrated across the Rainbow Region, as there was nothing central about the original festival. Leading up to it, a dialogue could start amongst us asking what the values and spirit of our communities are and let’s together make the spirit of the Aquarius Festival real in our lives. If the dialogue starts now, the outcomes could be many and varied crossing the region.’

To enter into a ‘40th Anniversary of Aquarius Festival’ dialogue, connect with Paul at [email protected].

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  1. Man i came here to Byron in 1960 when i was 9 years old & carried on a long relationship with this area ever since.. I ran away from Byron under the threat of conscpiption for the Vietaman War in 1970.. I was back here for the Aquarius Fest & went straight back to Asia … I spent many years living all around the world, Finally came back to reside in Byron Shire in 1993.. & have been here ever since. & its so good to see how that small alternate cultural group of people & the Auquarius Fest changed this region forever in a very posiitve way, This area is a melting pot Musican & Artists of such great caliber & today when I drive in to Byron & see the multitude of cool people from so many different countries living here & digging our alternate life style, I truly feel blessed to have been a part of the magic . Denis Pierre Johnson…. Upper Coopers Creek


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