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December 9, 2021

Aquarius and Beyond: the relevance of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival

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Nimbin Aquarius Festival, 1973. Photo Chris Meagher.

Harsha Prabhu

The Nimbin Aquarius Festival of 1973 marked a watershed in Australian popular history. 

It was a heady time. Europe had witnessed the flowering of May ’68, when students and workers almost overthrew the French and German governments; the US gave us Woodstock, where youth tried to storm the barricades with music and mind-altering drugs; communist movements of one sort or the other swept countries in Asia. In Australia we had Whitlam, the withdrawal from Vietnam, the welfare state. And the Nimbin Aquarius Festival, which the Whitlam government bankrolled to the tune of $50,000.

It was an investment that would have far-reaching dividends. For one, the Aquarius Festival seeded the alternative movement of North Eastern New South Wales. And gave a name to this region: the Rainbow Region.

The ripple effect of the Aquarius Festival was profound

The battles to save the rainforests of Terania, Nightcap, the Franklin River protest, can all be traced to activists spawned by Aquarius. So too the focus on sustainable systems of farming, of energy from nature, of community living and sharing resources, of making do with less, of walking lightly on the earth. Of, in today’s jargon, lowering the carbon footprint.

Long-time Byron local and former US pro surfer and journalist Rusty Miller, who was at the Aquarius Festival in 1973, says: ‘Internationally many surfers were already at this time very immersed, literally and philosophically, into the way of nature. Surfers were a natural complement and mix into what people called the “counter” or “alternative” culture here.’

So what’s the Aquarian score card 45 years on? 

While alternative communities and MO’s continue to thrive in the hills around Nimbin and Byron, elsewhere the picture is not so rosy.

In Byron Bay, yesterday’s hippies and long-haired surfers have morphed into today’s Greenies. From the periphery, the ‘alternative’ culture has moved squarely to the centre – at least as a goal to aspire to – and ‘sustainability’ has become a buzz-word much loved by politicians and policy makers of all hues.

However, behind the advertising lies the stark reality: from a hippie hot spot, Byron’s become a developer’s paradise and a renter’s nightmare. And Nimbin struggles with being ghettoised by the spurious war-on-drugs.

Nimbin is fighting back, with the Nimbin Mardi Grass in early May, a protest-cum-celebration aimed at comprehensive drug law reform, a gathering very much in the spirit of Aquarius. Byron, despite grassroots community campaigns to buck the trend, remains hostage to gentrification, a prisoner of its own success.

Meanwhile, rising seas caused by melting polar icecaps, imperiled by global warming and climate change, exacerbated by our unending reliance on fossil fuels, threaten, impartially, both Byron and Bangladesh.

Cities from Delhi to Beijing are already smog-bound, while fossil fools like Adani wait to despoil the Great Barrier Reef and worsen the pollution.

And, even while our oceans are poisoned by radioactivity spewing from Fukushima, the Australian government is busy exporting uranium to India, a country that has a nuclear weapons program. It’s like a scenario from MAD Magazine.

47 years after Whitlam pulled Australia out of the Vietnam debacle (Whitlam was repaid by a CIA-inspired constitutional coup), US marines are back with boots on the ground in Darwin and US war games imperil peace everywhere.

It’s Groundhog Day on steroids.

And dare I mention the endless wars, the rise of narrow nationalisms, the republic of hate via divide and rule created by the military-industrial-complex (MIC) that rules our world today.

Hang on, did I say MIC? Wasn’t MIC part of every stoner hippie rave?

Stoned or not, perhaps the hippies were right after all.

In his introduction to Rainbow Dreaming, a book on the Aquarius legacy, David Lovejoy, author and publisher of The Byron Shire Echo, says: ‘If we are to make ourselves a viable future it will look a lot more like the Aquarius Festival than the vision of polluted landscapes, global corporate domination and police state oppression offered by conventional politics.’

In the words of Aquarius ’73 Festival Director, Graeme Dunstan: ‘In Nimbin we gathered to ask “What are we for?” and “What future do we want to create for ourselves?” ‘

These questions are even more relevant today than when they were first articulated in 1973.

The dreams dreamt at Aquarius still remain to be realised; and the Nimbin Aquarius Festival remains a never-ending-festival, a work-in-progress. And, despite notable successes like the people’s movement to stop Coal Seam Gas wells in Bentley and the ongoing Stop Adani campaign, there’s much work to be done.

In the meantime, to steal the Aquarian anthem, sung by tourbadour Paul Joseph, now passed on, one misty morning in Nimbin in May at the dawn of Aquarius, may the long time sun shine upon us all. The words are from an Irish prayer. We’re going to need the luck – and the gumption and wit – of the Irish to see this one through.

The 45th Anniversary of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival will be celebrated at the Channon Market, on Sunday 13th May. See the program, or check out the Facebook events page at: https://www.facebook.com/events/367116823801891/

Rainbow Dreaming can be viewed at www.rainbowdreaming.org

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