Tim and I step onto an empty, rainbow-hued school bus. Empty, aside from a scrawny South African who welcomes us warmly and turns up the volume on his Bob Marley-centric soundtrack.
The bus fills quickly with twenty-something backpackers. If I hadn’t come across many of my fellow North American travellers so far on my journey through Australia, here is where we would come together. The bus chugs along through the center and then the outskirts of Byron Bay—Australia’s east-coast town for surfers and hippies in New South Wales.
“One rest stop before we continue to Nimbin,” Our guide informs us as we come to a stop on the gravel. “Feel free to grab some alcoholic beverages for the ride.”
It’s 10 am, and as much as this is a “vacation,” no one seems keen on the suggestion. After a bathroom break and a coffee refill, we’re back on the bus and headed to Nimbin. We pass lush forest and rocky cliffs along the way and come to a stop just outside of the town.
“I am just going to remind you of a few things before we head into town. First of all, marijuana is illegal in Australia.”
The thing is, people go to Nimbin for the cookies: ten-dollar cookies that you should probably sample in a comfortable place.
“But, if you do decide to partake, here are a few suggestions: one-half of a cookie and then wait for an hour at least. If you are feeling good, you can try a bit more.”
He proceeded to give us a rundown of the day, interspersed with a cautionary tale of an Irishman who tried three cookies and became convinced that his legs no longer worked.
I’ve heard mixed reviews of Nimbin. Some see it as a teeny colourful town that has been revitalized by pot tourism and police who turn a blind eye. Others, as a place that has become victim to this type of tourism—people wander the streets approaching young backpackers in order to make their living.
Now, as I look down the short street where I will spend my entire time in the town of 350 people, I’m not sure where I fall. It’s intimidating, to be constantly solicited with offers of cookies and other such goods. It seems everyone around is in the business. We are hesitant about who to buy from, though our bus companions seem to have no qualms. We wander into a head shop and find a middle-aged woman standing behind the counter. She seems like friendly, approachable, and mom-like.
She offers us cookies and Tim, the ever-vigilant allergy sufferer, is sure to ask the ingredients.
“It’s all organic and homemade—standard ingredients, no nuts. Ten dollars each.”
We get three and try to find a quiet place to sample the purchase. Though it’s everywhere, I’m still paranoid. It’s too obvious—if you are seen eating a cookie, everyone knows what it is. And, even though it’s expected here, I’m still far too sober to do it out in the open. So, we crack a cookie in half and head into a park to scarf it down quickly. It’s not the most appetizing thing, but I never expected it to be.
After another hour, we find ourselves back on the bus. We’re heading through the hills of New South Wales, to a picnic spot where our host barbecues and we go for a short hike. By now, I’m lightheaded and feeling a whole lot less real. It feels like we’ve been dropped in a maze. A short hike becomes a muddled path of forks in the road and my mind isn’t set on properly reading maps. Luckily, a couple behind us points us in the right direction when we go astray, and we make it back to the barbecue in time for lunch.
Before heading back to Byron Bay, there is one more stop—in Nightcap National Park. We’re lead to an overhanging lookout, to gaze upon the rainforest far below. Unfortunately, my fear of heights seemed to grow as the effect of the cookie began to kick in. I keep my distance from the edge. Looking back to our guide, his smirk indicates that my reaction is on point.
Back on the bus, everyone sits in silence. The soundtrack plays reggae and ska, with some folksy songs thrown into the mix. I gaze out the window as my mind gradually clears, knowing that my current intense appreciation for long drives and open windows would be shared by the other passengers.
The first on board, and the last to be dropped off, Tim and I bid goodbye to our driver and the now-empty bus. Maybe the day wasn’t an epic adventure, but it was something different. I knew it would always stick in my mind, the day we rode in a rainbow-painted school bus and ate cookies in Nimbin.
Have you ever done a tour like this? Are you interested? Here’s some info on the tour we took from Byron Bay.