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Nimbin before and after: local voices on how the 1973 Aquarius Festival changed a town forever


Sharlene King
3 May 2019

Nimbin Before and After Aquarius

A scene at the first Aquarius Festival, Nimbin, 1973. Flickr/Harry Watson Smith, CC BY-SA


Jeanti St Clair, Southern Cross University

In the north-east corner of Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales is a small former dairying and banana farming community. Today, however, that village is unrecognisable.

Nimbin is now widely acknowledged as Australia’s counter-cultural capital, a sister city to both Woodstock in New York State and Freetown Christiania in Denmark.

Among Nimbin’s tourist attractions today are its Hemp Embassy and the annual Mardi Grass festival in early May, which argues for the legislation of marijuana for personal and medicinal use.

The village’s transformation from a rural farming community to its present form can be traced to 1973, when Nimbin became the unlikely host of the Aquarius Festival – a counter-culture arts and music gathering presented by the radical Australian Union of Students.

A scene from the first Aquarius Festival in Nimbin, 1973. Flickr/harryws20/Harry Watson Smith, CC BY

Why is Nimbin the way it is?

These social and political origins of the commodified hippie culture on display today in Nimbin have become less apparent to visitors and more recent migrants to the region.

Visitors, especially those arriving on bus tours, tend to shop, buy coffee and leave again. To counter this, the Nimbin Tourism Office commissioned me in 2016 to produce an app-based audio walk to promote a deeper engagement for tourists with the town and help answer the question: why is Nimbin the way it is?

Here’s a snippet:

Local voices on how the 1973 Aquarius Festival changed Nimbin forever. Jeanti St Clair, CC BY2.44 MB (download)

The audio walk, an adapted version of which features on today’s episode of Essays On Air, was published onto the GPS-enabled mobile phone app Soundtrails. Soundtrails is owned by The Story Project, an Australian organisation focusing on oral history-based audio walks and they’ve published more than a dozen such walks in regional Australia.

A scene from the first Aquarius Festival in Nimbin, 1973. Flickr/Harry Watson Smith/harryws20, CC BY

Anyone with a smartphone can access it by downloading the app and the Nimbin audio walk and following the route through the village’s streets and parklands. Headphones provide the best experience.

The stories I share with you today are excerpts from the Nimbin Soundtrail and are drawn from consultations and interviews with more than 60 Nimbin residents, Aquarius Festival participants and Indigenous elders.

Here, I’ve tried to reconnect the past and the present to make clear how Nimbin became the counter-cultural capital that it is. And the caveat is that many of the events in this documentary walk happened more than 40 years ago. I’ve recognised that memories have merged with other retellings that evolved over the years and the definitive truth is perhaps unavailable. Any version of Nimbin’s counter-culture will be an incomplete history.

The nine months it took me to gather these stories and make some sense of how they fitted together were rewarding.

And while there are some who might dispute the accounts of what happened in these stories, others agree that it’s a fair record of Nimbin contemporary history. And if you are ever in the area, I invite you to take a day out, visit and listen to the stories in town.

A crowd at the Nimbin Hotel during the first Aquarius Festival, Nimbin, 1973. Flickr/Harry Watson Smith, CC BY

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Additional audio

Recording and editing by Jeanti St Clair from Southern Cross University.

Selections of original music from the Nimbin Soundtrail by Neil Pike.

Excerpt from Deke Naptar’s Culture, Culture from Necroscopix (1970-1981), Free Music Archive

Fair Use Excerpts: Nimbin Mardi Grass 2018 parade ABC, Vietnam Lottery, 1965 Pathé Australians Against War 1966 ABC, This Day Tonight, anti-Vietnam War Moratoriam, 1970 Gough Whitlam policy

Jeanti St Clair would like to again thank Lismore City Council and Nimbin Tourism for commissioning the Nimbin Soundtrail, and all the many contributors to the audio walk.


Lead image from Flickr/harryws20/Harry Watson Smith/, published under Creative Commons.The Conversation

Jeanti St Clair, Lecturer in Journalism, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.