An unidentified photo from the archive. If anyone has information, see the contact details at the end of this article.
An unidentified photo from the archive. If anyone has information, see the contact details at the end of this article.

Aquarius: not all peace and love

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 and protest.”

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 business.”

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 new settlers.”

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 memorabilia.

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 grairv@yahoo.; or contact Rhonda Elllis on 6622 1202 or email

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