The Last Outpost

by Chris Ellis

In Search of Wacky Backy

I have recently found out where the rest of my year at medical school, who dropped out in the sixties, are living now. It is a little village up in the hills of New South Wales in Australia, called Nimbin. It is a tourist attraction because of marijuana. The government of Australia seems to have turned a convenient blind eye to its existence. To get there you catch a Quantas airlines direct flight from Johannesburg to Sydney. It only takes about twelve hours and you arrive nine hours ahead of yourself so you are already on a trip and have to catch up on yourself. You then have to get through the airport terminal building with sniffer dogs, who sniff the most embarrassing places, so hold your bag in front of your artillery. They are actually looking for food in your pockets. Next get used to everyone calling you “mate” or “no worries, mate”. Try not to let this get you down. The next step is to drive upcountry heading for the small town of Lismore, which is a two day drive. We decided to do some stopovers on our way up. Now driving in Australia is a slow business. Everyone is very law abiding and rightly so but it might be a tad testing for a Pietermaritzburg taxi driver. It is a bit like driving Miss Daisy. The advantage is you can take in the scenery driving past forests of eucalyptus and some areas that are like moonscapes after the great forest fires that sweep this area. Some of the blue gums, as we call them, have a disease called ‘die back” and are left stark and surreal without leaves as though they had been struck by lightning. These areas are intespersed with rolling hills and villages with very English names like Stroud and Gloucester. It is not all Wagga Wagga, Wollongong and Woolamalomoo. We stopped overnight on a small farm outside the country town of Armidale. There was a mob of kangaroos (the collective noun for kangaroos is a mob and very apt it is too) and one was chased by the farm dogs into a dam. It rather nonchalantly trod water and waited till the dogs stopped yapping and they disconsolately crept off. Did you even think, by the way, that kangaroos could even swim? If not, you can store it for one of those times when there is a lull in the conversation and casually say “oh, by the way , do you know that kangaroos can tread water rather well”. That night we went down to the New England Hotel (known locally as “The Newie”), which is a bit like the outback pub in Crocodile Dundee with some fairly gruesome locals. I was expecting the Man from Snowy River to tie his horse up on our bumper. As I got to the bar the barman was refusing to serve the women next to me for being intoxicated. It is against the law in New South Wales to serve someone who is intoxicated so I was therefore expecting him to ask most of the patrons to leave but he must have selected her on the grounds of her capacity to fall over between sentences. She finally drew from a small but incisive vocabulary to describe what she felt about him and the situation in general before weaving out into the street to be met by the Armidale City Brass Band, who mercifully drowned her out. On the menu was crocodile so, of course, I did the tourist thing and ordered it expecting it to be like a tough piece of biltong but was pleasantly surprised (as we restaurant critics say) with a soft meat tasting almost like chicken. Australian cooking is eclectic and adventurous and the family went for Blue-Eyed Cod (chosen over the green-eyed, which is the more envious variety). The salad dressing was made with extra virgin olive oil. Apparently it has to be extra virgin. Just virgin is not good enough. Critical analytic discussion over a bottle of Coonawarra Cab Sav concluded that the olives had been picked by virgins and they must have had to truck some extras in. Where they actually got the extras from was a matter of unresolved debate. The consensus was it was unlikely to have been Australia. Along with the fish, and this is something I had never seen before, came a piece of lemon wrapped in a little net, like little old ladies used to put on their heads at night. They are to stop the lemon juice squirting you when you squeeze them. I mean, really, how did one manage before. The next day we travelled from Armidale down through the New England National Park keeping an eye out for the fabled Giant Wombat of the Aborigines. We didn’t find it but when we got out for a picnic we did find some giant flies. I think they must have fed them on steroids. They come past your ears like helicopter gunships. So we descended through the Great Dividing Range to the village of Byron Bay on the coast and which is the most eastern point of mainland Australia. We stayed in a wooden clapboard Hemingwayesque cottage in the dunes with the sound of the surf gently murmurating in the background. In fact, at Snapper Rocks, which is just up the coast, it is rumoured that a chap surfed the longest wave in the world. Byron Bay is one of those Australia coastal villages where the inhabitants tend to go a bit native. Perhaps it is something in the sea air. The Beach Hotel, on the sea front, has to be cordoned off on public holidays as the chaps tend to jump off the bar roof. What is very relaxing, especially for us rather conservative Pietermaritzburg types, is that no one cares a stuff about what they look like. I went for an evening stroll and the chap walking in front of me was wearing shorts but I noticed that his knackers were hanging and swinging gently just below the bottom of his shorts. This, in Australian, is called ‘free balling”. And so the following day we pushed on into the interior in search of the wild Australian cabbage. From Byron Bay it took us about two hours and we suddenly came upon the village of Nimbin, which is hidden in the hills and really just has a main street somewhat similar to Pilgrims Rest. Walking along the pavement is quite an experience as most of the villagers look fairly wacked. There is a fair amount of tottering going on. It was not only the crows that were stoned. Every other person we met asked us if we would like some grass. I thought they must be very keen gardeners in Nimbin. The village has lots of arty crafty shops with some amazing blown glass work and clay dagga pipes of all sorts of designs. In the first week of May they even have a Mardi Gras parade for the liberation of marijuana. There are also great dread-locked chaps with bodies that are pierced in all directions and parked in the main street we found an old battered station wagon, which belonged to a very pleasant lady. She kept some “Christmas cake” under newspapers on the back seat and we had already been told by one of the shop owners that she was well known for her excellent baking. After a piece of her cake you would have no trouble in finding the great Australian Wombat. It was all very sixties and felt like a scene out of The Drifters. In fact, I think there must have been a haze hanging over the village because, as we drove out, the family in the back of the car, fell into spells of giggling and I could see the most amazing cloudscapes in the evening sky, which dissipated and then reappeared.

Copyright © 2005 - 2018 Chris Ellis.