Freak Bros


Byron Bay’s Great Northern Hotel is situated just a bare couple of miles from mainland Australia’s most easterly point.  The obvious paradox in the name is matched by the fact that the Great Northern is not even a hotel. In-keeping (no pun intended) with old-time licensing laws that restricted the sale of alcohol only to hotels, the Great Northern is one of many thousand Aussie bars that still call themselves hotels.

I pulled a battered stool up to the old timber bar and ordered a bottle of Coopers. The organic beer leaves residue at the bottom of the bottle and it’s a tradition that you must roll the bottle backwards and forwards over the bar. I had just opened the screw-top bottle – with that satisfying tsshhhhhhhh! – when a man who was sat just along the bar started up conversation, with typically easy-going Aussie camaraderie.

“Stayin’ in town or are yus just passing through...?” Bruce (name changed to protect the – allegedly – guilty) had lived quite a life. He was a board-shaper and aging beachboy but according to his stories he had been at times a successful pro surfer (at the height of his brief fame having vanquished Nat Young and the great Mark Richards), a minor dealer of dubious substances and a mafia hitman. Dispite Bruce’s talkativeness, the full facts of this part of his life were not forthcoming in the limited amount of digging I was able to do during the course of a single Coopers. He alluded briefly to friends whose professional lives formed the basis for the popular Aussie mafia series Underbelly...then he formed the two fingers of his left hand into a pistol shape and winked knowingly. I supposed that mafia hitmen were trained to be men of few words.

Hearing that we were just passing through Byron, Bruce expressed his condolences. Byron Bay is a seriously addictive place and few people who visit feel that their stay is sufficiently long. Some, like Bruce, never leave. However, on learning that our next stop was the legendary Nimbin Bruce brightened markedly. “Oooooh, you’ll lurrrrve Nimbin. Oh yeah! You’ll like Nimbin...a LOT!” He added another knowing wink but refused to give me even a hint as to just what it was that I would like so much about Nimbin. Bruce was a man who was able to imply entire oracles of information without ever telling you anything. “ definitely wanna go to Nimbin!”  

Only a handful of people had ever heard of this little declining dairy village when, in 1973, the Aquarius Festival was held there. After the event the village’s ‘headcount’ suddenly quadrupled when many of the students, hippies, bohemians and random eccentrics refused to go home and founded communes in the pretty valleys.

It was raining hard when we drove into town but through the steamy windscreen I could see the garishly painted signs on the front of venerable old stores: Happy High Herbs, MardiGrass, Hemp Embassy, Cannabis is illegal in New South Wales but in Nimbin the hippy culture is alive and well and pot is sold freely in the alleyways and smoked openly in some of the cafes. There are periodic crackdowns and in 2008 a police sweep put many of the dealers out of business. But on an average day the village ‘High Street’ is like a slice of Amsterdam slipped into a gritty Dodge City backdrop. At times there might be too many day-tripping tourists and over-excited teenage backpackers but it’s a refreshing place and freedom of thought and counter-culture are still a big part of Nimbin. In the patio at the back of the Rainbow Café a blackboard was chalked up with such legends as ‘Jesus wore hemp’ and ‘Freedom of choice: I’d rather sell pot than be a cop.’

The Hemp Embassy (Help End Marijuana Prohibition) is where you go to ‘get the dope on’ cannabis awareness and also sells a crazy range of hemp related fashion goodies and everything in the way of paraphernalia (but the actual dope is not available here). Most tempting is a book of every Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic-strip ever done (but priced at 60 dollars it’s for bread-heads only). The Hemp Embassy also promotes the annual Nimbin MardiGrass, which takes place every April and features events such as the Hemp Olympix, the Pickers Ball, joint-rolling contests and the dance of the Ganja Faeries.

Nimbin Museum is full of bright colours, dubious artwork and hippy propaganda. It’s a fascinating place to walk around and occasionally shows old documentaries on the hippy days here. A disgruntled Nimbin farmer’s wife faces the camera and complains about the influx of naked, free-loving youngsters: “Well,” she tells the interviewer, “they seem happy...but really they’re all on drugs. The freely admit that. Maybe that’s why they are happy...”

She was very straight, very solemn. An upstanding pillar of the community...she was definitely not happy. Nimbin these days is worth its weight in gold for ‘freak value’...but twenty minutes down the road you find the pretty little town of Mullumbimby – ‘Australia’s Biggest Little Town.’ As I got my caffeine fix outside the ‘japunumop’ cafe (read it upside down and it makes sense) it occurred to me that Mullumbimby probably has the sort of sleepy charm that Nimbin had when the hippies first fell in love with it.