Motorists driving north to the Gold Coast and Brisbane in 1970 were greeted by a view from the St Helena lookout of something new and different: the first sighting of the ocean on the misnamed Pacific Highway, and a unique vista of rolling green and grassy hills devoid of the usual scrub. To urban dwellers the fertile dairy country, cleared ‘from boundary to boundary’, looked very prosperous. For local landowners at that time the reality was quite different.
A grand piece of nineteenth century social engineering, The Closer Settlement Acts, was finally playing out. Government had designed the legislation partly to rid the cities of a potentially disruptive underclass, and also to encourage the poor to ‘select’ small farm blocks in the country. It was ‘Sydney or the Bush’.
Clearing the land
A condition for gaining free title to your selection was that you had to clear the land. The first generation of white settlers did exactly that. They chopped down ‘The Big Scrub’, exported the best timber as railway sleepers, built their homesteads and turned the Richmond and Tweed valleys into a patchwork of small dairy farms. Unlike in other parts of Australia the ‘Dad and Dave’ model of small family farms was quite successful in the well watered northern rivers. The northeastern corner of NSW became the most densely populated rural area in Australia.
The unmechanised dairy farms required a lot of manual labour to hand milk the cows, to keep the weeds at bay and to plant and pick the small crops that had flourished after the railway had been connected to Sydney in 1931. A multitude of Dads and Mums produced large families of Daves and Mabels who were allowed to leave school early to help out on the farm.
This bucolic prosperity continued until the sixties when small cropping and bananas began to face increasing competition from the larger, more efficient and flat farms of north Queensland. The timber was long gone. Then the United Kingdom joined the European Common Market. Suddenly there was no tariff protected market to take the higher cost butter that had been the area’s main export. The north coast economy collapsed.
Federal MP Doug Anthony told his constituents to ‘Get big or get out’. Many holdings were amalgamated. The young and the casual labourers drifted to the cities. This left lots of empty farmhouses, workers’ barracks, packing sheds, cow bails and lots of boarded up shops in the towns and villages. Eden had been partially deserted. The stage was ready to accommodate a new wave of settlers – the hippies.
The new wave
They came from the baby-boomer generation. Raised in comfortable middle class families, they rejected their parents’ bourgeois values, which had dominated the Menzies years. They identified with Jack Kerouac and Holden Caulfield. Their muses were Bob Dylan and John Lennon. They opposed conscription, the Vietnam war and US imperialism. They explored eastern mysticism and experimented with psychedelic drugs. This was the self-styled counterculture of the sixties. Many were uptight about what they regarded as the stresses and pollutions of the cities and, armed with the Whole Earth Catalog, they hoped that a simpler life of self-sustainability could be found in the country. I think we’ve been through this movie before.
But where in the country? Heading north to the warmth seemed logical, but Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland was not appealing. Byron Bay, just short of the border, had been for some time a way stop on the surfies’ quest for an endless summer; but they came only for the waves, not to settle.
Up Main Arm
It’s uncertain just who was the very first hippie to discover the hinterlands of the far north coast, but ‘Nerada’, at the very top of Upper Main Arm, established by Jimmy Nutter and the Ruebens early in 1971, was probably the earliest ‘commune’. They were soon followed by Colin Scattergood, first at the Finn Village and then at ‘Kohinur’ and the McIlwraiths at the ‘Yellow House’. The Shands brought the Paddington Push to Coopers Lane. This new migration was made possible by the wide selection of properties, particularly the steeper backblocks, which were for sale cheaply, and by the many empty farmhouses that could be rented for three or four dollars a week.
The word was out. Before long, Main Arm was taken up and the new arrivals spread out into Wilsons Creek, The Pocket, Crabbes Creek, Burringbar and Stokers Siding. By the middle of 1972 the monthly ‘Moondances’ at the old Coopers Lane Hall were attracting crowds of hundreds to bop to the music of Donny McCormick and Ian Walsh.
All the while the locals were surprisingly accepting and welcoming of these strange new arrivals. Eyebrows may have been raised at the stories of naked hippies in the swimming holes and the seeming lack of any traditional work ethic but more important was the windfall rent money, the cash on the counters of the local hardware stores for building materials, the one-teacher schools kept open by the influx of hippie kids and the opportunities to retire to the coast after the sale of uneconomic farms. This wave of pioneers had a bit in the way of savings, inheritances and outside work but, just as importantly, they introduced a new and lucrative cash crop – marijuana. The economic decline had ended.
It was into this mutually beneficial social and economic pond that, in September 1972 Australian Student Union organisers Graeme Dunstan and Johnny Allen came to toss a rock. They were looking for a site to hold the biennial Intervarsity Arts Festival.
Their reception in Main Arm was cold and not only from Colin Scattergood. It wasn’t the idea of a festival that most of the Main Arm community rejected – after all many had been to the original Ourimbah Festival – it was that it wasn’t wanted right here in our backyard. Main Arm had become notorious enough.
Some fool had dubbed the local product ‘Mullumbimby Madness’ and now wide-eyed Sydney high school kids were fetching up, hoping to find welcoming communes overflowing with free dope and hippie chicks. Trainloads of undergraduates on some kind of countercultural sabbatical, well, who needed it?
Dunstan and Allen did have another possible contact on the north coast. They went in search of Jill Thompson, who had been the director of the University Arts Festival in Newcastle six years previously. Calling in at the Good Earth Café in Bangalow, the region’s first macrobiotic restaurant, they didn’t find her but met the owner, Bob Chard, a fellow Novocastrian, who offered to help them in their quest to find some land on which to hold their festival. He took them to Nimbin, then an almost ghost town, which hadn’t as yet been colonised by the hippies.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
• This article is the first of a series that Echonetdaily and the Byron Echo will run in the lead-up to the 40th anniversary of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival. Details of a commemoration organised by Southern Cross University, to be held on May 23 and 24 at the Nimbin Town Hall, are at http://sassevents.scu.edu.au/aquarius.
In addition, local activist Harsha Prabhu is seeking funding to publish a book about the Aquarius 40th anniversary – see http://pozible.com/rainbow.
Echo founder Nicholas Shand was one of those Main Arm residents who met with Dunstan and Allen and rejected the idea of the Aquarius Festival spoiling their paradise. However, with the festival safely located in Nimbin, Nicholas became one of the many organisers spending weeks before the festival making preparations. Echo co-founder David Lovejoy said that his own recollection of the actual event was too hazy to be relied upon.
Tomorrow, Echonetdaily editor Chris Dobney recounts his own vivid if somewhat fragmented memories of the event.
• The full series of articles are collected here on one page for easy reference.