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Perceptions of Nimbin

By Graham Irvine - posted Wednesday, 14 July 2010

In some ways the village of Nimbin has come a long way since the 1973 Aquarius Festival which was the largest assembly of alternative thinkers Australia has ever seen. Even the nearby town of Lismore which, for decades, ignored or denigrated its potential is now embracing it in its tourist brochures. Lismore would be foolish not to do so as Nimbin is now the second most visited place in New South Wales after Byron Bay. However in the Council’s events calendar there is no mention of the hugely successful Mardi Grass Festival which attracts thousands of people to this village of some 750 souls. But how much of Nimbin’s change has entered the consciousness of the Australian print media and its readership?

Every so often these newspapers despatch a reporter and sometimes a photographer to do an “exclusive” on our little village. So what do they see and how do they report it? As a long-term resident I was curious to know their themes, their “spin”, their mistakes and their attitudes to what they saw. I decided to use the Factiva database to find newspaper feature articles as far back as possible and to conduct a content analysis of this data.

The methodology employed was quite simple, being based on the numbers of un/favourable characteristics ascribed to Nimbin, so as “to indicate the attitudes held by the writers, their readers or their common culture” (Krippendorf, Klaus, Content analysis) towards Nimbin. The papers sourced were a combination of metropolitans (The Australian, Adelaide Advertiser, The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Daily and Sunday Telegraph) and regional newspapers, (the Gold Coast Bulletin, Townsville Bulletin, Cairns Post) and one piece each from the Toronto Star and Chicago Tribune. All in all the database rendered 34 articles ranging from 1989 to 2010 which formed the basis for the subsequent analysis.


Unfortunately the Factiva database only begins in 1989 but fortunately a book chapter written by my colleague Rhonda Ellis and ex-colleague Fiona Martin devotes a few lines to the attitude of Lismore’s Northern Star towards Nimbin before and after the 1973 Nimbin Aquarius Festival. Their research indicates that:

“… in the last three months of 1972, the Northern Star carried only one ‘neutral’ mention of the area’s new arrivals. All other accounts related to ‘Indian hemp’ and narcotic drug charges, a protest outside the Lismore courthouse after a drug raid, and a piece entitled ‘Surfies asked to move on’ sourced from Victoria.

“In early 1973 this trend continued, although as the Aquarius Festival gained growing attention, most Star stories were positive and enthusiastic about the business opportunities for Nimbin. Only days after the festival started, however, an editorial raised concerns about health hazards and child welfare, complaining about the ‘scruffy’ newcomers, whose ‘primitive and permissive lifestyle’, it suggested, ‘the majority will reject’.

“Subsequent articles that week examined: unfounded rumours of a venereal disease outbreak at the festival and the details of drug charges laid against visitors; ugly scenes between police and festival-goers; vandalism of Nimbin by persons unknown; and protests about government funding of the festival.” (Martin, Fiona and Rhonda Ellis, Belonging in the Rainbow Region: Cultural Perspectives on the NSW North Coast).

In the same book, Wilson claims that even today, “there is still a tendency in popular discourse to spectacularise hippies and ferals as different, unruly and … threatening.”

Of the 34 articles analysed 18 were generally favourable in their reporting and attitude to Nimbin; ten unfavourable and six equivocal. The more right wing publications, for example the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and the Gold Coast Bulletin, tended to be more negative than the rest.

As expected, the most common theme was drugs, both hard and soft, and hippies. There was not a single article which did not mention drugs and very few which did not refer to hippies. The more sensationalist press overflowed with negative hyperbole on drugs, like, “dope-crazed hippies”, while another claimed, without a shred of evidence, that, “Today, the free-spirited hippie of the Nimbin fairytale is more likely to be a bikie whose clandestine laboratory pumps out hundreds and thousands of dollars worth of speed.

Said another, “the Aquarius Festival of 1973 [was] organised … as a victory celebration for the withdrawal of Australian support for the Vietnam War”. One wonders whether the scribes who made these allegations had imbibed too much of the local green herb.


Hippies were variously described as “unwashed” or “ageing” but more maliciously the “lost souls of the Whitlam experiment white trash” and Nimbin was “the hippie capital” or “the mecca of psychedelia”.

In the more favourable accounts Nimbin is still about “the counter-culture, peace and sustainability … [and] … occasionally of retirement villages for old hippies” whereas the more pejorative pieces spoke of “The dope capital’s foul face”; “How Nimbin’s dream [had] dissolved to a dark nightmare”; and how the “real hippies have fled to the hills”.

But the most troubling piece was this comment, which related to a world tour car rally in the Nimbin area in late 2009: “Hippies were respected [sic] to be different up to the weekend rally. Now they are the most hated variety on the whole coast. Watch out you ferals, wearing retro and having dreadlocks has never been so dangerous. The wildlife is safe, the hippies amongst it have just gone to number one come the hunting season.” (Chatroom: What you said about the rally protests”, Gold Coast Bulletin, September 8, 2009.)

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About the Author

Graham Irvine is a Sessional Lecturer in Law and Justice at Southern Cross University, Lismore, having practised as a solicitor in NSW and Queensland. His background includes radio journalism and documentary production for ABC Radio. He has lived on an intentional community outside Nimbin for 35 years.

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