25th March 2010
It was 1973 on the North Coast. Land was cheap, the weather was warm,
there were surfies in Byron Bay and hippies were dropping out from
Mullumbimby to Nimbin.
The 10-day Nimbin Aquarius Festival was in full swing 15,000
hippies from across Australia built experimental housing, listened to
music and ate free food in a natural amphitheatre under the moonlight.
When this alternative lifestyle festival ended, many of them never
left. These new settlers brought to the area with them their skills
and crafts and made new lives for themselves based on a combined
dream of freedom and a sustainable lifestyle: the North Coast Good Life.
Documenting the Aquarius Festival and what happened to the new
settlers in the years following has been a passion for Rhonda Ellis
and Graham Irvine. They are founding members of the Aquarian Archive
Inc and, as archive detectives, love nothing more than to ferret out
gems of information from people's collections to add to the stories
they already have.
"One of the reasons we started this collection was because other
historical societies don't recognise that alternative culture was
significant," Rhonda said. "Most of the collection is about lifestyle
The nationally significant collection is housed at Southern Cross
University and comprises many documents and photos from the period
when environment groups were campaigning to save the forests during
the 1990s. More lifestyle memorabilia from the 1970s till the year
2000 is continually being sought for inclusion.
Self-confessed hippie Paul Joseph was one of the organisers of the
Nimbin Aquarius Festival in 1973. He sees the migration of hippies to
the area as the catalyst which transformed our modern North Coast
community into its distinctive mix of alternative and rural culture.
Bringing with them their skills in architecture, women's health,
birthing and agricultural technology such as permaculture, their
interests made their mark on the local towns and businesses.
"What we [hippies] achieved was an important social and environmental
action which changed the nature of our society," Paul said. "We
shared our industries of arts and healing and transformed the region
to make it vibrant and sound environmentally, economically and
socially. The ideas we had and the lifestyles we were living have
become more mainstream now. Lismore has gone more hippie than you
could have ever imagined. Now there are worm farms for waste
management. The values of hippie-dom are really worth celebrating."
Thanks to these influences, in Lismore today, anyone can walk down
the streets, find a health food shop and buy roasted dandelion from a
barrel or tahini from a vat. You can be prescribed herbal medicines
over the counter at Traditional Medicinals and find masseurs,
acupuncturists and yoga classes whenever you want.
Graham Irvine remembers coming to Nimbin in 1973 to help prepare for
the festival. There were horses tied up at the pub on the main street.
"I remember it was like a ghost town," Graham said. "In 1973, Nimbin
was in a rural recession. Many shops were closed and it was the new
settlers who came to the Aquarius Festival who revitalised the area.
They opened up the village halls, which had been closed, and held
dances and cultural events there and gave the hardware shops a lot of
After the festival in Nimbin, many of the new settlers pooled their
resources and bought rural properties with intentions to build
communities on their land, however, they came up against opposition
from the local council.
"The new settlers then worked to successfully lobby the state
government to get building codes organised which facilitated group
living on rural land," Graham said. "In 1977, the Tuntable Falls
community became the first official Multiple Occupancy (MO) for the
With his Aquarian Archive detective hat on, Graham recently found the
original document from the council town planner in 1976 which
highlights the issues the council should deal with when planning for an MO.
The skills the new settlers gained in lobbying were put to use in
their fight to stop the destruction of old growth forests. They
fought for the environment and their lifestyle.
"In 1979, I went to my first tree protest," Rhonda said. "A call went
out on the grapevine that people were being arrested at Terania
Creek... We were willing to dig holes in the roads to stop police
vans getting in but there were lots of peace-loving hippies who
didn't want to do sabotage. I came to save the planet and I didn't
see how we were going to win unless we fought. It wasn't all peace,
love and the brown rice brigade."
Fighting for a common goal was an important way for these
environmentalists to form a community.
"Between the coastal hippies and the Nimbin hippies, we slept out in
the open together and we all really bonded," Rhonda said.
"The protest at Terania Forest protest was the first successful
Australian protest," Graham said. "People learned skills there which
they then took to blockades like Chaelundi. It was the beginning of
three decades of protests which moved from the North Coast around Australia."
Today, people are still attracted to the natural beauty of the North
Coast and its diverse alternative communities.
"People drop-out to get away from the city and back to nature,"
Rhonda said. "It is still occurring today. Every time there is a
crisis, more people come."
Rhonda believes that when more pressure is put on people living the
consumer lifestyle, people look for alternatives.
"There are more yuppies than hippies here now," Rhonda said. "Nearly
40 years ago, it cost $250 dollars to buy a share at Tuntable Falls.
Now you need to have a lot of money to buy and build on the North Coast."
While land on the North Coast may not be so cheap now, Byron still
has surfies and the hippies are still in the hills. The hippies have
just grown older, had children, started preschools, changed laws,
saved forests, started businesses and stopped wearing kaftans.
If anyone still has an original kaftan from this era, it will be
gladly received by the Aquarian Archive detectives. They are not only
looking for suitable memorabilia, they are also looking for other
people who would like to learn how to be hunters and collectors too.
"We would like to train others to be able to look at people's
collections and assess whether items are suitable for inclusion in
the archive," Graham said.
A walking stick made of natural wood with feathers dangling from the
end has already been donated to the archive. There are photos,
artworks, posters, diaries, song lyrics and music, audio recordings
and official documents, as well as editions of the Nimbin News.
Anything ingeniously handmade would be welcomed,from garments to
homemade tools or other artefacts.
"People can find all sorts of things in the shed or under
floorboards. What was going on every day was important don't
underestimate the small things you have, they can be an important
part of an archive collection," Graham said.
A hash-stash tin, a kaftan, cheese-making equipment and any photos or
Any budding archive detectives choosing to accept their assignment to
go where no archivist has gone before can contact Graham Irvine on
6689 1666 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or contact Rhonda Elllis on
6622 1202 or email email@example.com.