Nimbin Is Australian for 'Place of the High Hippies'

Visiting a smoking surfer's paradise, Australian edition.

Striking out of Coolangatta, over the Tweed River and into the New South Wales hinterlands, I was told I would meet a girl with a tattoo in Byron Bay. I was told the great spirits had conspired to bring us together.

As I ambled down the wrong side of a lonesome country road, the words of my new friend Russell Corowa reverberated in my head. A local aboriginal didgeridoo player and artist I’d been staying next to in Coolie, before I got on the road he’d enthralled me with the creation legends of his people. Between songs and stories, he told me to expect to meet a girl with a tattoo in Byron—that she would be waiting for me there. I was already headed that way to camp and surf for a few days. Even though I’ve been happily married for ten years, the mysticism of it all piqued my curiosity.

First, I had to get to Nimbin. Known by the indigenous Bundjalung people as the “Rainbow Region,” these days it’s Australia’s de facto counterculture capital. In the early ’70s, a crew of hippies got together at the until-then agricultural backwater, had a party, called it the Aquarius Festival, and like that, the seeds of radness were sewn.

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I’d heard about the town on my last trip to Australia and was intrigued. It sounded a lot like any one of the small communities that dot the Northern California coast where I grew up. Bolinas perhaps? When I was 15, I watched a topless woman in Bolinas ride a horse bareback while smoking a joint, which still seems really awesome. I needed to get to Nimbin.

Now, thanks in part to the guidance of Corowa, I was less than 30 miles away. The event that’s really kept Nimbin on the map in recent years is the annual MardiGrass festival. It doesn’t take a detective to figure out what goes on there. Held the first week of May, I was there two months early, but my guidebook regaled me with stories of ganja faeries, prohibition protests, the Nimbin Cannabis Cup, and the Hemp Olympix—which includes official events such as the Bong Throw’n’Yell, Joint Rolling, and the Grower’s Iron Person (where runners must first carry a 20kg [44lb] sack of fertilizer, then a bucket of water, and finally “the crop,” as a tribute to the difficulties faced by growers in the hills. The Harvest and Picker’s Balls keep the irie vibrations going into the night.

Before I could walk a half block, a 20-something kid with dreads asked me if I was looking for anything. Yes, please.

Pulling into town after about a two-hour drive from Coolangatta, on the radio Slim Dusty is singing about how “a bad day’s fishing beats a good day’s work every time.”

Slim Dusty is kind of like Australia’s Willie Nelson in the sense that he sings songs about the road, and I couldn’t agree with him more. Nimbin’s main street is lined with small, family-owned shops with groovy, hand-painted signage. It reminds me of Guerneville in Sonoma County—just without the redwood trees and wine snobs.

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Right there on the main drag is the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, a ”soft entry point for drug information,” the Nimbin HEMP Bar, that used to allow you to light up, but after a 2009 bust reopened as a coffee shop, and of course, the remains of the Nimbin Museum, which burned down in 2014. Before I could walk a half block, a 20-something kid with dreads asked me if I was looking for anything. Yes, please.

After procuring some herb, I spent the afternoon playing tourist. As you might expect from a place known as the Rainbow Region, spiritualism, crystals, and all that New Age stuff are popular. Again, this is Australia, not NorCal, right?

In the main courtyard a small group was manning a barbecue, tapping bongos, kicking hacky sack, and petting their dogs (adorned with thickly woven hemp collars, of course).

“You want some lunch, mate?” asked one of the guys as I looked for a seat in the shade.

“Sure, I’d love some,” I said, jealously eyeing the grill filled with sizzling sausage and steaming onions.

“How many you want?” he asked.

The guy did me up right. I got one sausage with all the fixings.

“No charge, mate. It’s our pleasure. We’re happy to have you.”

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Fuck Disneyland; Nimbin’s the happiest place on Earth. Hell, the community paper is called the Nimbin Good Times for crying out loud!

It was another 45 miles back out to the coast and my camp spot at Byron Bay. With my belly full and my pockets fat, I eventually decided to shove off and go looking for that girl with the tattoo.

Corowa must have gotten his signals crossed. She never materialized, but it’s all for the best. It would have been weird. I surfed my brains out at nearby Lennox Head and will definitely be making another run through Nimbin next time I’m Down Under.