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Byron Shire
March 5, 2021

Aquarius through the eyes of the festival psych

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One of the structures at the 1973 Aquarius Festival, Image from Harry Watson Smith’s Flickr stream: www.flickr.com/photos/harryws.

By Dr Harry Freeman, as told to Graham Askey

‘Memory is not false in the sense that it is wilfully bad, but it is excitingly corrupt in its inclination to make a proper story of the past.’ – Jenni Diski

In 1971 Dr Harry Freeman was a third year registrar psychiatrist, working at Broughton Hall, a large psychiatric hospital in Sydney. Being young and so a bit of a rebel, he was a part of the ‘Anti-Psychiatry’ movement, popularised at that time by radical Scottish psychiatrist Ronnie Laing. So much so that he had written up a whole issue on the topic in the University of NSW’s student rag Tharunka, then edited by Graeme Dunstan. Some time during the hatching of the 1973 Aquarius Festival Graeme realised that his festival might need a ‘resident’, so he called for the doctor. The following are Harry’s corrupted case notes from that time.

Bring your own doctors

Late in 1972, dressed to impress in sandals, jeans, and a scruffy Gandhi shirt, I walked into the office of Brian Mahaffey, manager of the Lismore Base Hospital, sat down and told him I wanted the defunct Nimbin hospital to be reopened as an emergency department for the duration of our festival. Brian jumped straight up and said, ‘Yes – just bring your own doctors’.

I thought that was unexpectedly brave of him, but on the way out it came to me! The image of ‘Wavy Gravy’ warning the Woodstock peace and love multitudes that – ‘the brown acid that is circulating around us isn’t too good’. Brian must have seen the movie too, so he expected waves of freaked-out hippies on bad trips. Rather than overcrowding his own hospital, he wisely figured that it’d be better to keep them far away in Nimbin with their own shrinks to take care of them.

Just before Christmas that year, accompanied by my sister and Bill Garner (Helen’s hubby) I paid my first visit to Nimbin. The only businesses still going were the post office, Barney Stewart’s produce store, Daisy’s milk bar, two petrol stations, the newsagents and a part-time hairdresser. The town was so quiet that all of the law issues could be handled by a weekly, Saturday morning, visit from solicitor Doug Page (son of Country Party founder, Earl) and order could be maintained by just one cop, Constable Bob Marsh. He had so little to do he had time to moonlight as a knacker in the then disused buttery (now thriving as the Bush Factory).

Tired and worn out after a long day doing the main drag we decided that there was nothing for it but to head for the pub in the hope of a bite to eat, a bottle of wine and a good lie down. ‘Sorry we don’t do food. Plonk – not much call for that around here, mate. Rooms – haven’t been used in donkeys.’ We city slickers weren’t having any of that, so eventually the publican’s wife served us some sandwiches in the ladies’ lounge, a dusty bottle of brown muscat was found and we were ushered upstairs to some derelict bedrooms with saggy beds. Just for one night you must understand.

No takers

Five months later, come the festival, I was set up, along with fellow medicos, Dr John Geake and Dr Igor Petroff, in the newly reopened Nimbin Hospital and ready to cope with anything the city dope scene, on a country holiday, could throw at me. No one came. We had no consultations. Alice must have left the brown pills behind.

So with nothing to do I headed off on my red Honda step-through to find the festival. Someone else didn’t have much to do either because police officer Bob, remember Bob, immediately arrested me for riding without a helmet, but being the good cop that he was, he let me off with a warning and I didn’t have to go to court in the morning.

The best of it

Some other memories I have of the festival, those which I can still bring to mind are:

Feeling that the peace and love image of the festival was going to die before it had hardly been born when a gung-ho raid by the police in the camp site provoked a riot and one of their guns went missing.

Being blown away listening to musician Dollar Brand playing on the town’s ancient upright piano. He found all the right notes on an instrument that didn’t have any.

Meeting deputy federal Opposition leader, Doug Anthony, decked out in the full tropical rig of a light blue safari suit, short trousers, and long white socks. Just the thing for downtown Murwillumbah, but among the ‘kaftan and beads’ Aquarius crowd he stood out so much that I can’t recall what his wife Margo was wearing. They had just rocked up, without any security or minders, to the festival, just for a look see. Pollies were braver in those days.

However my fondest reminiscence, the one that really brings forth the feelings of fun and camaraderie that I’m certain I experienced at Aquarius, is of standing in the main street of Nimbin one night with hundreds of other people and chanting:

Hare gumboot, hare gumboot, hare hare, hare hare.


After the festival ended Dr Freeman went to see Barney Stewart, also the town’s real estate agent. With six of his friends he purchased a communal property of 210 acres out on Crofton Road for $9,000. The ever versatile Barney coined them a name and even painted the sign for them – ‘Paradise Valley’.

Dr Harry did a locum at the Lismore Base Hospital just after the 74 floods and moved up to the north coast permanently in 1975. He still practises anti-psychiatry at the Base. Despite the lack of bad trips during the festival the Nimbin Hospital has remained open to this day. The noteless upright piano is no more. Margo Anthony, herself a concert pianist, generously played at many fundraisers to help replace it. Harry will be playing the new grand piano with the reformed Blue Skies Dance Orchestra at the 40th Anniversary Aquarius Masquerade Ball in the Nimbin Town Hall on Saturday May 25.


This article is the latest in an ongoing series of articles run in The Byron Echo and Echonetdaily in the lead-up to the 40th anniversary of the Aquarius Festival. For festival program see http://sassevents.scu.edu.au/aquarius.

• The full series of articles are collected here on one page for easy reference.

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