Pat Walsh was one of the original New Settlers, later labelled as hippies. In 1971 she pioneered a community in Burringbar, a couple of valleys north of Main Arm. This is her story of the Aquarius Festival.
One day in 1972 two men appeared in Burringbar looking for a site to hold a festival. It was to be a large, live-in, lifestyle celebration where people could also buy land and stay on after it had ended. They thought that ‘The Avenell’, a property near the village of Burringbar, might be just the very spot.
We greeted the idea with horror. We were country bumpkins by then, initiated into the existing Burringbar tribe by Jack Shackell, a born and bred local, who seemed as if he’d been waiting his whole life for us to appear. One thing that made us wary of the whole idea was that we’d already witnessed carloads of city visitors, on the hunt for magic mushrooms, trespassing over our neighbour’s paddocks. We were just as appalled as the farmers were. These invaders had no respect.
Months later we heard that the organisers had decided to ‘recycle’ the town of Nimbin. They put the idea to the old settlers at a town meeting. For sure a hippy invasion would boost the town’s finances but it would also introduce a more complex values clash, and the quiet, peaceful old town would never be the same. The townspeople thought, fought, talked and finally voted ‘yes’.
A friend, after checking out the festival preparations, came back and urged us to overcome our initial prejudices. So we ventured over to explore the scene. The preparations were fascinating to watch because they showed so well the way that people can divide into two groups – the ‘doers’ and the ‘cosmics’.
The ‘doers’, full of self-importance and urgency, rushed about with manic energy, calling meetings, making phone calls, exhausting themselves and losing their voices. ‘We’ve got to make it happen’ was their constant mantra.
The ‘cosmics’ lounged naked by the creeks all day, swimming and plaiting willow baskets, and then played music at night around the campfires. They were sensitive and slow, with no thought of organising anything. ‘It’ll just happen, man,’ was their mantra, as a joint was passed along.
We ‘old’ new settlers finally decided that the best way for us to join in the festival was to be a little bit apart from it. Nicky Shand, from Coopers Lane, and I found a secluded spot, enclosed by the creek, just over the road from the site, and arranged to rent it from the owner during the festival.
This place and our tribe became known as ‘The Magic Circle’. My ridgepole tent was built from upholsterer’s plastic and bamboo. Old carpet was the floor and sarongs were the walls. With cushions, dolls and candleholders installed my family soon had a cosy new abode. With pens for the chooks and Matilda our goat, a cubby house for the children and with friends all around, it was a home that, at the time, I liked better than my rented Upper Burringbar farmhouse.
When the festival started I rushed to learn how to use one of the cameras that Bush Video was handing out on loan. Looking for something to focus on, I found a French high-wire walker and juggler called Phillipe Petit. His festival house was in a tree, accessed only by rope. He got around on a unicycle and juggled flaming clubs while walking a wire stretched between the pub and the Tomato Sauce building. The audience would gasp when he pretended to slip and then sigh with relief when he was balanced again. ‘Why do you it?’ I asked.
‘Because when I am up there I am totally alive.’ he answered. ‘If someone can balance on two legs of a chair, then I want to balance on one.’
I didn’t know it then but he was planning a high-wire walk between the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
At the end of the festival, and in on the plan, I packed the kids in the car and followed Phillipe to Sydney to watch the pylon crossing. Having erected it with extreme secrecy in the dead of night he set off across the wire in the morning. He was still on the wire when the cops arrived and, unbelievably, they thought shaking his stay ropes would get him to come in. Lucky to make it back alive, he was arrested and fined, but headed all of the news bulletins. Ashton’s Circus happened to be in town and straightaway they paid his fine. In return Phillipe offered them a performance. Watching a blindfolded Phillipe, juggling firesticks while perched on an impossibly balanced chair on a high-wire above a hungry pack of lions, Doug Ashton wept with admiration.
Apart from Phillipe’s amazing performances I have two other enduring memories from that time at the festival. The first was of lying in bed one night, listening to the vivid music of funky African jazz pianist Dollar Brand, which carried all the way from the open air stage, and thinking ‘I could wish for no more than this, ever again’.
The other was of holding hands as part of a group of hundreds of people, winding our way through the festival fields like a rainbow serpent, and singing:
‘May the long-time, sun
Shine upon you,
All love, surround you,
And the pure light, within you
Guide your way home.’
It was more than a celebration of a lifestyle. It was a statement of hope that this spiritual energy would find its way home. It was a wish from many hearts and a song taken up by many voices.
The Nimbin Aquarius Festival had been an extraordinary event.
‘It was the vision, the organisation, and hard work that made it happen,’ boasted the doers.
‘It happened man, just like we said it would,’ agreed the cosmics.
• Pat (now Anjali) Walsh still lives happily on the north coast with her children and grandchildren close by. Unfortunately her videos of the festival have not survived.
• The full series of articles are collected here on one page for easy reference.