Nimbin, NSW

12-23 May 1973

Graeme Dunstan, Johnny Allen, Benny Zable
(Australian Union of Students)



Discussions of Sunbury often make high-flying claims about its significance to youth culture and the emerging counter-culture of the early 1970s, but the Nimbin Aquarius Festival of 1973 undoubtedly had a bigger and more lasting impact than any of the commercial rock festivals of the period, even though it was relatively small compared to Sunbury. This is because Aquarius was a broadly-based conceptual event, held to explore and celebrate alternative lifestyles, and because it mixed music with other arts and crafts, rather than simply presenting an extended concert festival where patrons sat around drinking beer, smoking dope and watching bands. The decision to hold the Aquarius festival in the northern NSW village of Nimbin has also had a major effect on the subsequent history of that region.

Nimbin is located in the beautiful and lush temperate rainforest region of north-eastern New South Wales, 30km south of Lismore. The beautiful Nightcap Range, immediately north of the village, is a World Heritage-listed National Park. Nimbin was first settled in 1882, but the rainforests in the area had been extensively exploited for timber from the 1840s onwards. The cleared land was later turned into pasture and dairying was the area's main industry until Norco, the regional diary processing cooperative, closed its butter factory in 1950. This combined with the loss of primary produce exports after Britain joined the EEC in the Sixties and the reduction of tariffs in the Seventies, which devastated Australia's primary sector. from the Fifties to the Seventies about 300 local dairy farms closed and the local population dwindled.

Today, around 10,000 live in the area, but by the early '70s Nimbin itself was virtually a ghost town. The revitalisation of the area began with the arrival in late 1972 of a group of student union organisers who were looking for a site for a major counter-cultural lifestyle festival. Apart from its idyllic location, a major attraction of Nimbin for the festival's main organisers, Graeme Dunstan, Johnny Allen and Benny Zable, was the fact that they would be able to "recycle" the many vacant buildings in and around the town. Many of the local buildings were decorated with murals; several of these were painted by renowned visionary artist Vernon Treweeke, who was the subject of a 'comeback' exhibition at Penrith Regional Gallery in 2003, held in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs by noted Melbourne photographer David Porter (aka "Jaques L'Affrique").

Several of the people behind Aquaruis '73 had been involved in and inspired by the Aquarius Festival of University Arts, organised by the Australian Union of Students and held at ANU in Canberra in 1971. Aquarius co-director Graeme Dunstan was an alumnus of Duntroon Military College and a graduate of the University of NSW. Graeme became the President of the UNSW Labor Club in 1966 and was active in organising the beginnings of the anti Vietnam war and anti-conscription movement on that campus. He organised the LBJ Welcome Committee which stopped US President Lyndon B. Johnson's motorcade in Liverpool Street, Sydney -- Graeme was actually one of those under LBJ's car when Premier Askin gave his infamous order to "run over the bastards".  In 1967 Graeme was elected President of the UNSW Student's Union and co-editor of Tharunka with Mark Lyons. In 1970 he was Director of Student Publications for the UNSW Students Union when Wendy Bacon and her Tharunka co-editors used the magazine to challenge the censorship laws. In 1971 Dunstan again became co-editor of Tharunka with Rob Andrews and Michael Lucetti.

In May 1973 students, artists, musicians and other young people from all over Australia gathered in Nimbin for the Festival, which ran for ten days from 12 May to 23 May. During this time, festival-goers (estimates range from 5,000 to 10,000) took part in workshops and discussions, swam and walked around in the nude, smoked dope, listened to music, and talked about new social experiments. Most were students from the major campuses in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne.

Available information on the music presented at the festival is sketchy, but among the musicians known to have been involved in the Festival were:

At the end of the festival, a meeting was held to discuss an on-going commitment to the spirit of the festival. This resulted in the "May Manifesto" which contained many of the ideals and principles still espoused by the Nimbin community. It spoke of a "concentration of arts and artists", "survival on earth", "self sufficiency" on a "tribal basis", "living in harmony with the natural environment ", "participation rather than consumer entertainment", "no pre-arranged program of events" and "re-discovering the meaning that agricultural fairs once had for country people".

The Festival and the May Manifesto eventually led to the formation of the well-known Tuntable Falls Community, still the largest commune in the area. As well as those who stayed on after the festival, others attracted to an alternative lifestyle eventually moved to the area, either buying land, joining existing communes or forming new ones. Other communes and cooperatives subsequently formed in the immediate vicinity of Nimbin or in adjacent valleys -- Billen Cliffs, Moondani, Blue Springs, Bodhi Farm, and Siddha Farm -- and from the mid-Seventies onwards, Nimbin became increasingly identified as a centre for the counterculture and the environmental and sustainable lifestyle movements in Australia.

For better or worse, recreational drugs became a focus of public attention. In the years after the Festival, Nimbin became a haven for those seeking to establish alternative lifestyles or simply wanting to "drop out"; they brought marijuana and LSD into the area, and many of those who settled there began growing dope, which thrived in the hot, humid north coast climate. The presence of seasonal native hallucinogenic mushrooms in the fields and forests of the north coast was an added attraction, and the use of these drugs became an integral part of the Nimbin community experience.

The area became famous for the ready availability of dope, thanks to the residents' easy-going attitude to its cultivation and use. It was sold and used openly on the streets of the town, and visiting buyers often did not even leaving their cars when 'scoring'. The Aquarian renewal of the village, its gentle pace, and the lush beauty of the Nimbin area made it a tourist attraction, but the presence of abundant dope and regular passing trade also acted as a magnet to others with little or no interest in the social concerns of the Aquarius veterans.

From the late Seventies onwards Nimbin's social problems increased as curious tourists, transients and drug dealers flocked to the area. In the late '70s heroin began to appear in large quantities in throughout NSW for the first time, and by the early '80s it had largely replaced marijuana as the main street drug. As a result, drug-related crime and violence became a growing problem. This change was largely driven by alliances forged between organised crime (e.g the so-called "Grriffith Mafia') and corrupt elements of the NSW Police. Acting in league with major drug syndicates, detectives and uniformed police acted concertedly to restrict the cannabis supply by busting dope growers, dealers and smokers, while covertly promoting heroin use and dependency by protecting importers and dealers and actively participating in importation and dealing.

In 2000, several Nimbin cafes and businesses began selling fixed-price marijuana as part of a community attempt to reduce the dealing problem. Street dealing noticeably subsided but the move predictably angered dealers and bricks were hurled through the windows of the Rainbow Cafe, the Hemp Embassy, a gift-shop and campaign centre for legalisation activists. Police eventually closed the experiment down with a highly publicised raids and arrests. 

Since 1993 Nimbin has been the venue for the "MardiGrass", an annual protest/festival held in early May. The event originated with a protest staged in 1993 in the wake of a major undercover police blitz on the area -- police surperivisng the protest were pelted with eggs, tomatoes and toilet paper and not surprisingly the demonstration attracted wide publicity. Motivated by the injustice and negative consequences for the Nimbin community of cannabis being illegal, Bob Hopkins called for an organised and peaceful May Day Cannabis Law Reform Rally to march up the main street of Nimbin. He dubbed the event MardiGrass, linking it to the civil rights agenda behind the annual Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney. 

The original event drew 1000 people, and has been held every year since then, attracting ever larger crowds and expanding into a cultural event that echoes the original Aquarius Festival. While much of the mainstream media coverage predictably focusses on arrests and scattered incidents of street violence, the MardiGrass has grown steadily each year and become an established part of the local calendar. Lismore Council has tacitly recognised it by approving the MardiGrass Development Application (even though they refrain from mentioning it in their tourist information) and in 2008 Lismore police Area Command praised the efforts of organisers, although this was not reported in the mainstream media.

References / Links

Graeme Dunstan
Echoes of Aquarius

The Aquarius Foundation Inc.

Graeme Dunstan CV

Michael Hannan
Musical Practices and Cultural Identity in the Village of Nimbin

Nimbin Aquarius Festival

Nimbin Info

Nimbin Online

Nimbin MardiGrass

YouTube - Nimbin Aquarius Festival 1973
silent home movies from the Festival