The Age of Aquarius lives on in the forests and villages of the Rainbow Region, writes Craig Tansley.
A man with a long, grey beard is wrapped in satin sheets (washing day, perhaps?) and tapping his bare feet to a bluegrass cover of the Doors' Roadhouse Blues. As the song comes to an abrupt but necessary early end, the singer apologises. "Really sorry 'bout that," he says. "Wasn't that terrible?"
I nod, but I'm the only critic here on the back deck of The Channon Tavern on this tepid summer evening as the smell of jasmine mixes with the unmistakable waft of pot. Below us Terania Creek meanders past; like this crowd, it seems incapable of hurrying. The amateur outfit from the hills - with mandolins and banjos as uncontrollable as rabid dogs - launches into a barely passable blues ditty and the crowd applauds. The forests are close by and the people who live in them don't venture out much, so this is an occasion to rejoice, not criticise.
The band takes a break and I make my way, past poker machines and sweaty farmers watching the greyhound races on TV, to ask the man at the meal counter for a recommendation. "How would I know, mate?" he replies. "I don't know ya, so how would I know what you like? You might be a bloody vegetarian and I'd recommend the steak ... I don't bloody know."
This is the Rainbow Region, that part of far north-eastern NSW colonised by the flower-power generation, starting at Nimbin and working its way east to Byron Bay. In these parts you can buy "moo poo" in a bag for two dollars as easily as you can pick up Rainbow tomatoes, Nimbin candles, bongo drums, firesticks or tarot cards. Here you can have your aura cleansed while you wait for your wheels to be aligned.
Surely this is one of the few places on Earth where farmers and hippies co-exist so harmoniously. On one of the world's best-preserved volcanic rims are some of the country's most picturesque villages - places such as The Channon, Dunoon, Rosebank and Eltham, overshadowed by the proximity and celebrity of Nimbin.
Nimbin became one of the world's biggest hippie centres in 1973 when it hosted the Aquarius Festival. A lot of folk who ventured north from Sydney and Melbourne for the festival never caught the train home.
But the peace train departed Nimbin a long time ago. (As one old local told me, "Hippies never wanted to hang out around bitumen anyway and we sure don't want to be circus freaks for tourists to shoot with their cameras.") Nimbin has become a parody of itself - more a film set for the busloads of backpackers who come here every day from Byron Bay to confirm that, yes, you might be offered marijuana in Nimbin.
The Age of Aquarius lives on in the hamlets that surround Nimbin and in the forests that make this region one of the state's best-preserved subtropical rainforest environments.
You can start the journey in Lismore, or drive west from Byron Bay, or fly to Coolangatta and wind your way south through the Tweed Valley Way. It's worth giving the region at least two days of your time; though the area is sprinkled with only the tiniest of villages, each hamlet is unique. Dunoon, for example, surrounded by endless rows of macadamia-nut plantations, is the gateway to Rocky Creek Dam and has the best picnic spots in the region.
Then there's Eltham, a historic railway village in a lush valley. The Eltham Valley Pantry has become the region's foodie hot spot - a restored farmhouse cafe on a working pecan and coffee plantation where you can sit on a breezy verandah eating the best pecan pie in Australia.
There's Bexhill, with its unique Open Air Cathedral, the only place I've seen where you worship on pews under the stars. Ten minutes' drive north-east is the village of Clunes, with its handsome Federation-era houses. And there are the towns of Goonengerry and Federal, now known for their resident musicians, such as Tex Perkins, who lives in the forest nearby.
Or there's Rosebank, home to the first coffee plantation in the area. Drive through Rosebank to Minyon Falls on the eastern edge of Nightcap National Park and look down the 100-metre drop of the falls into a valley of bangalow palms.
A visit must include The Channon craft market, one of the biggest in regional NSW and held every second Sunday of the month. For more than 30 years the market has stuck to its original philosophy ("make it, bake it or grow it") and while you'll see as many Porsche four-wheel-drives as Kombis parked outside, it still looks and smells like I remember it did here as a child.
Incense wafts through the summer haze, past shops selling rainbows and crystals that enhance orgasm, past dreadlocks in hemp pants mixing with short-back-and-sides in boat shoes and polo shirts, past buskers plucking mandolins and banjos, past bare-chested forest people dancing without inhibition. There's firestick twirling and tarot reading - there's always tarot reading. The markets can attract as many as 10,000 people in a day. Who knows where they come from but they disperse just as quickly, leaving the forests and the hamlets at peace again.
From The Channon, drive 20 minutes north along a winding dirt road to the Rainbow Region's proudest achievement. Protestors Falls is named after the hardy souls who chained themselves to trees and lay in front of bulldozers, refusing to allow the area to be logged in the late '70s. The area was declared a national park in 1983. More than 8000 hectares now comprise the World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park.
Perhaps it's the knowledge that everything I can see could have been levelled that makes this 700-metre walk through a forest of bangalow palms from the Terania Creek picnic area my favourite in the region. There's scarcely a trickle of water dropping from the falls but the surrounding huge black and brown rock face dwarfs us. There are 20 people here today but no one makes a sound; we just stare in awe.
I head back past Terania Creek. Near Corndale I pass a provincial scene of country estates and perfectly tended gardens, so different from the wild, unkempt forest we just walked through.
It's in this less-trodden region of the Far North Coast that farmers, hippies, healers, artists, mechanics and students live and work, while just a few kilometres west another backpacker bus stops in Nimbin for a photo opportunity. This leaves the Rainbow Region for the rest of us to enjoy.
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Tourism NSW.
Virgin Blue and Qantas fly daily to Ballina or Coolangatta from Sydney, or fly to Lismore with Rex Airlines. From Ballina, drive to Lismore along the Bruxner Highway. From Lismore, drive north-east to Clunes then take the turnoff to Corndale and The Channon. From Coolangatta, take the Tweed Valley Way to Nimbin, then to The Channon; alternatively, drive south along the Pacific Highway from Coolangatta to Bangalow and take the turnoff to Clunes.
Stay in eight hectares of forest with your own waterfall at Eternity Springs Art Farm, 483 Tuntable Creek Road, The Channon. Book a self-contained cabin for $180 a night or a farm-stay room for $120 a night. Phone 6688 6385; see eternitysprings.com.