Paris has its Eiffel Tower, London has Buckingham Palace and India boasts the Taj Mahal.
Until yesterday, Nimbin, Australia’s counter-culture heartland since the 1973 Aquarius Festival, had such an iconic place, albeit a much more humble affair.
The museum, established in 1992, was a curiously ramshackle joint with an old painted Kombi sticking out the front wall, followed by a kaleidoscope of artwork and memorabilia inside a labyrinth of rooms.
Tourists from around the world have taken a selfie at its entrance, and many would have purchased pot in the lane between the museum and the adjacent Rainbow Cafe.
Within its walls the museum told not only the story of the area’s alternative culture during and after the Aquarius Festival, it spoke of the present.
Curator Michael Balderstone, who is also president of the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, said its loss, along with the cafe, was ‘as if Nimbin has had its two front teeth knocked out’.
The Rainbow building, owned by the Tuntable Falls Community, has been a popular gathering place for decades, operating at times as a cannabis cafe, and providing a needle exchange service.
Cafe owner Jodee Tichborne said she had 20 people working at the cafe before the fire, describing it as ‘the heart’ of Nimbin.
And while the cafe served up food and entertainment, the neighbouring museum gave visitors the story of the hippies, pot, activism and the ongoing struggles of a conscious community.
Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell said the buildings and history lost were irreplaceable, adding that rebuilding would take time.
‘It’s going to be a really challenging time ahead, not least for the tourism industry in Nimbin,’ Cr Dowell told media.
‘The museum building was packed, it was like a rabbit warren to go into because there was so much in there. Much or most of the material in there were one-offs. The opportunity to replicate that is almost impossible.’
Mr Balderstone, who moved to the village in 1985, and opened the Nimbin Museum as a second-hand shop in the front room of the building, agreed.
‘We were idealistic hippies so we collected true stuff,’ he said.
‘Those were genuine Kombis in the museum, dragged out from under the lantana on communes.
‘One of those Kombis was the one Bob Hawke’s daughter (Rosslyn) lived in for a while, that famous one that made him shed a tear.
‘Even the stuff from the Bentley blockade was in there. There was memorabilia that is irreplaceable.
‘But it was the artwork that was big. Elspeth Jones and Barry Gerard! Really, it was their magic paintbrushes that made the place.
‘That was 20 years of painting and it was a never-ending project.’
Although still shocked, Mr Balderstone was able to see a funny side.
‘Always a hot spot’
‘I teased the cops saying they’d be happy Rainbow Lane’s been burnt out … it always was a hot spot.
‘We had a bit of a laugh.’
While the fire was suspected to have started behind the cafe, witnesses said it quickly jumped across the lane and began to consume the museum, and two adjoining shops-fronts, Tribal Magic and the smoking paraphernalia shop Bringabong.
Mr Balderstone said it was believed a homeless man sleeping out the back of the museum first raised the alarm
‘(He) was the one who first spotted the fire and ran to the police. There are always homeless people in Nimbin. The village is full of people that other people don’t want.’
Another to spot the fire early was Salty, vice president of the Nimbin Hemp Embassy across the road.
He woke at 4am to the sounds of ‘something electrical arcing, as if someone was welding, and the Rainbow Cafe was totally engulfed in fire’.
‘Then something fell over on to the Nimbin Museum and it just burnt to the ground. It’s burnt into Tribal Magic and Bringabong too,’ he said.
Local Max Pike was also among the first on the scene, fighting the blaze despite nursing an injury from a recent overseas trip.
‘The heart of Nimbin just burnt to the ground,’ Max posted later on Facebook.
‘I responded with a broken ankle expecting to be on traffic duty but there was only one hose on the scene so I bowled out another line.’
But in the end it took nine crews, 35 firefighters and a Hazmat crew to finally contain the blaze, with emergency services and Lismore council staff remaining at the site all day yesterday.
Mr Balderstone said the Rainbow Cafe was a huge loss to the village.
The beating heart
‘I don’t know if it’s the first building the hippies bought, but when they came here in 1973 for the Aquarius Festival it was the hub,’ Mr Balderstone said.
‘I remember my first visits to Nimbin. That was where you hung out, that was the food co-op, the music gigs, it was the heart of the place.
‘I’m so glad the community owns it and I would think they would rebuild something beautiful, something really classy.
‘But the big building that held the museum and the four shop fronts have a Sydney landlord, I’m not sure what he’ll think about it. He doesn’t really know Nimbin well at all.’
‘We’re all in shock a bit but the town will power on,’ he said.
‘The strength of this community is its people. People are what make this community, not stuff.
‘I’ve got no doubt about that because we’ll see it as a challenge, we’ll turn lemons into lemonade.’
With ideas already swirling about the village, Mr Balderstone said he would ‘love’ to see a medicinal marijuana dispensary on the site, with a ‘proper museum celebrating the alternative lifestyle’.
‘Nimbin and the alternative lifestyle culture deserve a proper museum, maybe not such an artwork that we made, but a decent museum,’ he said.
‘There’s heaps of stuff in the Mitchell Library in Sydney that didn’t quite get composted with the tipis and there’s still heaps of stuff in the hills.
‘Southern Cross University is holding heaps of stuff so maybe this is an opportunity to build a genuine museum because we get heaps of visitors who want to understand what happened here.’
Meanwhile, Peter Wise, president of the Nimbin Chamber of Commerce, described the fire as devastating.
‘All I can really say is the local fire brigade in Nimbin, and all the other brigades, did an amazing job and stopped the fire and saved the rest of the town. We can just be grateful for that, and also the police.
Others saw the fire differently, speaking anonymously to Echonetdaily about the rampant drug trade in the alley.
‘That’s major territory that’s been lost. Those boys on that block have to find and create a new block now,’ a source said.
‘They were made. It was the best spot for what they were doing so it will be interesting to see what goes on from here.
‘This fire may have scattered the roaches for now but they will keep on operating and they will be looking for another shadow.’
‘It was a big moon that one’.
One rumour swirling about after the fire was that threats had been made last week following a drug deal gone wrong.
‘Apparently some out-of-towners got a bad deal, which was happening constantly,’ the source said
‘There are so many tourists being ripped off by those little bastards but apparently these guys got a bad deal and then copped a flogging.
‘Apparently they took off saying “we’re coming back to burn your town down” … a week later half the town burns down’.
‘But then again it could have just been some idiot lighting a fire to keep warm and then the bush caught on fire.’
Richmond local area command crime manager, Detective Inspector Cameron Lindsay, said a 27-year-old Nimbin man provided a statement at Lismore police station yesterday morning and was released without being charged.
‘At this stage the fire is being treated as suspicious and the large scale and the amount of damage that has been done is something we will investigate,’ Inspector Lindsay said.
As stunned locals lamented their loss, or dreamed of the future potential of the site, fire investigators were waiting yesterday to access the site.
North east Rural Fire Service group officer Robbie Graham, who was the incident controller yesterday, said it would take some time for the site to be declared safe.
Mr Graham said firefighters would keep the fire site wetted down to prevent contaminants from spreading.
He said because of the age of the buildings, asbestos was an issue, so the clean up would take some time.
‘The RFS will be here all day monitoring the situation,’ he said.
Meanwhile, Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell posted a statement prepared by Lismore city council staff, outlining how the clean up of the fire would take place.
‘There is no imminent risk of structural safety issues with adjoining buildings, however, council staff will be working work with the relevant property owners and their insurers to ensure appropriate assessment are undertaken as soon as practically possible,’ the statement said.
‘The priority will be to ensure that the footpath at the front of the site is made accessible as soon as it is safe for that to occur.
‘An assessment will also be need to be made of the use of buildings immediately adjoining the affected sites, to ensure they are safe to occupy and continue trade or use for habitation.
‘While the primary focus of council staff will be to ensure public health and safety through the above actions, council staff will also be liaising with affected property and business owners to identify their immediate and medium term needs and how they may be able to be facilitated by council.
‘This could include looking at facilitating continuation of trading on alternate sites if required.’
Cr Dowell said any specific questions or community concerns should be directed to the council’s customer service centre on 1300 878387.
More stories about the Nimbin Fire
The new owners of the former Nimbin Museum site and associated shops will meet with staff at the Lismore City Council tomorrow.
The future of the iconic buildings burnt to the ground in Nimbin in August is still up in the air.
A fundraiser will be held this Saturday aimed at ‘Restoring the Heart’ of Nimbin. The fundraiser is the initiative of Matthew Raikes, who was born in Nimbin, where his mother Cathie McIntosh ran a youth refuge for nearly ten years.
Sydney businessman Richard Andary has ‘no plans’ for the site on which the Nimbin Museum and adjacent shops once stood before a fire last month.
Police have issued an appeal to anyone who may have seen ‘a number of people’ in Nimbin’s main street shortly before a fire broke out which gutted the Nimbin Museum, Rainbow Café and other buildings last week.
The clean-up of Nimbin as begun. Heavy machinery moved onto the site of last week’s fire this morning to begin the process of removing damaged awnings and other debris.
The millionaire owner of the building that housed the Nimbin Museum wants to restore it so that it is ‘better than before’.
Nimbin has been left reeling following a fire which destroyed the Nimbin Museum, Rainbow Cafe, and a number of other businesses yesterday morning. But in true hippie spirit, locals are already talking about what will rise from the ashes, as police investigate the cause of the blaze.
I came to Nimbin in the early 80s, a refugee from north Queensland where the police had taken to shooting hippies. Keen to try something new, I started working. The Rainbow Cafe had been empty for some months so my north Queensland family and I took over the lease.
Nimbin has lost some of its most iconic buildings including the Nimbin Museum and Rainbow Cafe in a fire that ripped through the heart of the village early this morning.