Origins of the Nimbin Mardi Grass


Nimbin is unique. Once a sacred initiation site for the Bundjalung tribe, it was  originally "settled" by white Europeans in the very late 19th Century. Basically  that means we clear-felled as much of the forest as we possibly could, fenced it off from  the local Kooris and proceeded to wipe out any of them that objected to being uprooted,  brain-washed and totally cut off from their traditional lands and way of life. It's a  familiar story.

Within a couple of decades the white guys had pretty much run out of trees and so they  started looking around for a NEW way to turn a buck. Sticking a whole bunch of  heavy-footed European cows on the recently cleared slopes seemed like a good idea at the  time, and so within ANOTHER few decades the once pristine forests surrounding this area  had been transformed into an expanse of denuded, eroding cow pastures. Meanwhile the arse  was busily dropping out of the international market for Australian meat and dairy produce.  Ho-hum...

By 1973, Nimbin was almost a ghost town. Luckily for the local real estate agents, a bunch  of long haired student radicals from the Australian Union of Students arrived seeking a  site for a national student counter culture life style event called the Aquarius Festival.  They had taken a left turn at Mullumbimby, chose Nimbin promising the village residents  that Aquarius would "recycle the town".

Cut to 1993 - the same deserted dairy town has been transformed. The building and shop  fronts are a garish yet somehow compelling collage of full blown psychedelia and  traditional Bundjalung art. There's more cafes, craft shops and backpackers than you can  wave a traveller's cheque at and the stinky sweet smell of ganja is positively enveloping  the street. This definitely AINT Byron Bay.

Down the centre of the main drag of this tiny, tripped out tourist town, there's a huge  throng of people, laughing, drumming, chanting, DANCING towards the local cop shop. Dozens  of them are helping to carry a huge smoking joint with "Let It Grow!" painted in  4 foot high letters on the side. Others are holding banners and placards calling for  change - an end to drug prohibition, the legalisation of cannabis, an end to the drug war.

Many are openly smoking pot as they drum,  sing and rhumba their way towards the suddenly vacant-looking police station. One dude is  on stilts, wearing a huge cardboard helicopter he's made in mockery of the annual pot  raids that Nimbin has suffered for more than a decade. Paradoxically, not one person looks  angry.

What the fuck is happening here?

Why, it's the first annual "Let It Grow!" Mardi Grass Fiesta and drug law reform  rally. A thousand local "alternatives" (the politically correct way to say  "hippies") finally spitting the dummy, coming out of the closet and in true 60s  in-your-face street theatre style pointing out to the jaded apathetic mainstream that the  drug wars just aren't working.

That night on the national news the Australian general public was faced with the bizarre  spectacle of a bunch of aging hippies, their off-spring and an ever-growing army of young  and old recruits joyously breaking the cannabis laws en masse and demanding a change to  the drug laws. Not only has the war on drugs left a deep and unpleasant impression on our  idyllic, lotus-munching existence (the hippies seemed to be saying) but these days it's  seriously fucking with YOUR way of life as well.

Ever since the '73 Aquarius Festival, Nimbin has had a strong tradition of civil  disobedience of the drug laws. The cops tried to bust someone for pot in the middle of the  festival, but were quickly (and peacefully) overpowered by the crowd and the  "criminal" disappeared into the seething hairy melee. This was nothing new at  the time. The same kind of spontaneous rebellion had happened at the Sunbury rock festival  the year before, and was of course a regular ingredient in the Vietnam protest movement of  the sixties and early seventies.

By the late 80s however, people's willingness to take these kind of measures had markedly  diminished... even in a place as supposedly pot-soaked as Nimbin. The U.S.-driven  "War On Drugs" was in full swing. In the cities, the psychedelic, sacramental  dealing circles of the sixties had long ago been replaced by more commercial, well-oiled  interests. Smack was available everywhere in Australia. Hope was extremely unfashionable.

Those in Nimbin still clinging to their hippy ideals were pretty much trying to keep their  heads down... at least as far as drugs were concerned.Regular invasive police helicopter  raids were just a fact of life. The general wisdom seemed to be that showing an interest  in drug law reform was as suicidal as walking into a police station smoking a joint.

Despite this generalised paranoia, a few brave souls were consistently stirring the pot.

Beginning in 1988, a series of public demonstrations, press releases and politically  motivated events kept emanating from Nimbin, all of them hammering the same basic point ...  the drug laws are a miserable, socially destructive failure. At first, these words of  wisdom only seemed to be coming from one person, Bob Hopkins, a Nimbinite who conducted a  vigorous and extremely effective one-man campaign against the drug laws. Gradually other  folk began to get involved. Michael Balderstone (the owner of the local "hippy"  museum) and David Heilpern (a lawyer and activist who later became a magistrate) were  among the early ones.

By 1993, a small but dedicated bunch of folk had coalesced around the name "The  Nimbin HEMP Embassy". Their press releases and activities had consistently kept the  issue of drug law reform in the spotlight of the local media and more and more people were  coming out in support of what they had to say. The time seemed right for a larger display  of local public feelings. Hey presto, the first annual Let It Grow! Mardi Grass and Drug  Law Reform Rally was born.

The first Mardi Grass attracted a crowd of about 1000 people and much publicity. The day  went off without a hitch. It was a huge success. By the next year, many more local people  were openly supportive of the event. That year, the Mardi Grass rally was preceded by a  conference and seminar which attracted politicians, academics and health professionals  from all over Australia. In a tradition that has continued to this day, the crowd doubled  over the previous year's numbers... 2000 people paraded through Nimbin calling for an end  to the madness, prejudice and social chaos that masquerades as drug prohibition. 

That year (1994) also saw the beginnings of many events that have since become intrinsic  to the Mardi Grass. The HEMP Olympix had it's inaugural year, as did the Kombi Konvoy and  the Cannabis Cup. The now-legendary HEMP Olympix comprised pothead contests around joint  rolling, bong throwing and, for the more physically-minded, a Growers Ironperson  competition. For this contestants pitted themselves against the odds in outlandish tests  of strength such as crawling through lantana tunnels dragging large bags of fertiliser.

The Kombi Konvoy opened the 94 Mardi Grass and has done ever since. A procession of  variously decorated Kombi vans winds its way from nearby Lismore, arriving at dusk in the  crowded lantern-lit streets of Nimbin. Led by the Olympix torch-bearer, the Kombis  eventually park in a circle and the crowd forms for the opening ceremony.

Thus begins a weekend of song, dance, speeches, workshops, poems, pot art exhibitions,  hemp trade and fashion shows, drug law and drug health information exchanges, seed swaps,  magick, myth and joyous, stoned civil disobedience and political demonstration. Finally on  the last day, a lucky few settle down for the Cannabis Cup.

Based (very loosely) on the Amsterdam event of the same name, the Nimbin Cannabis Cup is a  nice mellow wrap-up to the heightened chaos of the previous few days. A rather broad  selection of the best local buds is tasted, toked and tested by a smattering of  card-carrying "expert" judges, eventually choosing a winner. If you don't make  it as a judge however it doesn't really matter. Just like in Amsterdam, there's so much  good pot everywhere that anyone that does make it to judge status is usually too stoned to  tell anyway.

The Mardi Grass has grown stronger and larger every year and the Nimbin HEMP Embassy has  continued to stay at the forefront of drug law reform activism worldwide. Several large  scale smoke-ins and demonstrations have been held outside police stations and courthouses,  political candidates have been run (and polled quite highly), a television ad campaign was  run requesting people to dial-in to a safe number and report any cases of police  harassment or corruption. All this plus maintaining a high-profile drug education outlet  in Nimbin's main drag.

One of the more interesting actions was the helicopter blockade in January 1997. Finally  sick of the annual hippy-bashing helicopter raids that the police had been mounting every  year, the HEMP crew and friends decided to do something about it. With a little ingenuity,  they found out where the chopper squad was staying and where they'd parked the chopper for  the night. Early the next morning, the cops awoke and opened their motel room door only to  be greeted by the rather unnerving sight of one or two hippies chained underneath their  wagons, a whole bunch of hippies waving and laughing at 'em from across the carpark and a  veritable swathe of camera-toting press all clicking and whirring and taking notes right  next to those goddamn hippies.

Needless to say the hippies had a very articulate and convincing press release ready about  the waste of public money inherent in sending a bunch of gung-ho cops on double-pay in a  very expensive helicopter to circle and swoop above the local communes and come back with  a pathetic payload of what could only be described as personal stash. Meanwhile on the  other side of Lismore another couple of Hempsters were slowing things down by chaining  themselves to the chopper. The press loved this story, and the cops? Well, the cops just  shook their heads, got in their little, blue wagon and went away. To this day, the  helicopter squad has not returned to Nimbin.

All of these events lend colour and strength to the Mardi Grass. Last year's was a huge  success and this year promises even more. As time goes on and the crowd grows, it's  interesting to watch the demographic changing. These days, the old-school hippies are well  and truly out-numbered by the whole array of society's archetypes. Many of these are just  as counter or sub cultural as the hippies (punks, ferals etc). The vast number of them  however are just plain, ordinary suburban working people. Many of them are there with  their kids. Not all of them smoke pot, but they all know someone who does and they all  agree that it's time for the drug laws to change.

It's ironic but somehow typical that the drug law reform movement should find it's most  vocal and public face in a place like Nimbin. The Mardi Grass gives voice to frustrations  and problems that are vexing the whole of mainstream society, but most people aren't quite  brave enough to express this to their neighbours. In the anonymity of a  "freak-fest" like Mardi Grass, many people are quite prepared to stand up and be  counted. This is vitally important as a first step, but it's only when there's a Mardi  Grass happening in every town and when every pot smoker puts their hand up that the laws  will change. It's too easy for the mainstream to ignore protest when it just happens in  Nimbin.

So come this year to Mardi Grass, but remember that it's a drug law reform rally and not  just a pot party. We're there to make some points not just to get out of it, and remember  to take some of the magick, idealism and commitment home with you when you go, there's  enough to spare.

Neil Pike