WARNING: This story discusses drug use and cults and may trigger some readers. If you need support, you can call the National Alcohol and Other Drugs Hotline on 1800 250 015, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
THURSDAY: “People say we are a cult,” the man said, stopping suddenly. “We aren’t a cult; we are a group of people living with love for each other and love for God. Look around, does this look like a cult to you?”
It was dusk – I was following a strange man I had just met on a spiral staircase. He was old but not ancient, and had a long, silver beard that resembled wisdom. Under dim candlelight I passed a crucifix on the wall with words below that read: “Eternity is a long, long time.”
I looked out over the indoor balcony to the café below. It felt like a scene from The Lord Of The Rings: whimsical flute music played in the background and the air was tinged with incense.
Religious artworks hung on the walls of the wooden interior, and the central fireplace glowed with a halo. The staff, all dressed in monochrome, worked with their heads down, not talking to anyone.
I had just arrived in Katoomba in the heart of the Blue Mountains. In the coming days I was to investigate a cult, visit the hippies of Nimbin, write a story and, I hoped, escape without joining either.
First stop was The Yellow Deli; an odd little place down the end of Katoomba Street that is run by a religious group called The Twelve Tribes. On this particular evening it was busy, and I had to wait a moment before I was seated at a small wooden table in the corner.
“What can I get you?” a waitress asked. “Just a cappuccino,” I replied, before asking what the café was all about.
“We’re sort of like a community. We all live together,” she said, and walked off. I noticed a picture of trees on the wall, and another bible passage.
For a while I sat there looking lost, trying to figure out who was in charge; then the old man with the silver beard came walking down the spiral staircase. We made eye contact and he approached.
He said his name was David, and after a minute of small talk he asked me how I’d found the place. He also asked about my life, my family. Before long I was invited to follow him up the spiral staircase for a tour.
Founded in Tennessee by former high school teacher Eugene Elbert Spriggs, known as “Yoneq”, The Twelve Tribes (named after the Twelve Tribes of Israel) arose out of the “Jesus People Revolution” in the early ’70s.
The group has grown to around 3000 members worldwide, with communities in the US, Australia (Katoomba), Latin America, Canada, Japan and Europe, all of which own and operate a café in the Yellow Deli chain.
According to a prophecy that guides the group, before the Messiah returns, the Twelve Tribes of Israel must arise on Earth and must number 144,000. That figure, it is believed, will be made up of children who are born into the community – and who do not sin.
To keep them from the “Evil One”, children are disciplined with the “wisdom of the rod”. Yoneq writes: “A child, especially in early childhood, will not willingly submit. So you have to make the child submit. You have to break his will so he can willingly submit.”
Unsurprisingly, The Twelve Tribes are the subject of constant scrutiny. Among the most serious allegations – denied by the group – are systemic child abuse and child labour. Some former members have written books about their time in the cult, while others have given media interviews.
Former leader Chen Czarnecki was among those who went public. His allegations included a lack of medical care for members and the unreported burial of stillborn babies.
“All this media just makes me laugh,” David said. “I mean, the police raided our property, and they (the media) covered that, of course. But when the police came back and said they couldn’t find anything… it’s not worth publication.”
In August last year, Czarnecki, 64, was killed in a house fire near Kyogle in northern New South Wales. A 17-year-old boy was charged with his murder.
After five hours of talking, I’m invited to stay the night and shown to a room. It was a confined space, like a coffin, with wooden floorboards and a crucifix hanging above the bed chamber. An old light globe, dangling from the ceiling, drowned the room in a dull yellow hue, and I tried my best to avoid my eyes glaring back at me from the mirror in the corner.
It was getting late; most people were in bed by now, but you could still hear the odd footstep outside the door. The footsteps stopped, finally, and the lights went out, but still I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake staring at the ceiling, listening to the slow-moving arms of the clock, trying not to think.
I fell in and out of dreams until 4am. They would be awake soon but I had a long drive ahead of me to Nimbin in the northern New South Wales hinterland, and the road was calling. So I got up, crept across the creaking floorboards and down the spiral staircase, and fled into the morning.
The road to Nimbin (Photo: Layton Holley)
FRIDAY: It was mid-afternoon when I turned off the highway and began my ascent into the mountains. The rain came down, and it was magical.
Yes, I thought, as I cruised through the forest, up the winding roads and down the swooping valleys – Free Bird playing on the radio, cigarette out the window and a cool breeze in my hair – ‘the rain belongs here’.
Rolling into the mountain village, it felt like going back in time: painted rainbows and cannabis leaves adorned many of the shops, and flowers, drawn with chalk, decorated the road.
There was a bearded man dressed like a monk (who looked like he’d been living in a cave), playing a guitar and singing sounds into a microphone, and a barefoot woman (his audience) spinning around with her arms in the air and her face to the sky.
A few shops down I saw Jesus, or a man who looked like Jesus, smoking a joint and holding court with his disciples, who were sitting on the ground before him.
Roadblocks were being set up, and there were police officers walking around. I found a park and asked an old bloke what was going on. “Mardi Grass is tomorrow,” he said. “I thought they usually have that in March?” I asked.
“No, not that [Mardi Gras],” he replied. “it’s a big weed festival.”
Nimbin’s annual Mardi Grass is held, according to its website, “to protest the drug laws, educate people on the various uses of cannabis (medicinal, industrial, recreational and spiritual) and to celebrate the culture that has grown here over the last 47 years”.
After last year’s festival was cancelled because of COVID-19, the stoners and hippies of Australia were out in force, filling the mountain air with cries of protest, celebration and smoke.
SATURDAY: I woke up in a haze about 9am and learnt that a Subaru Forester may be a reliable car, but it is not a comfortable bed.
The beers of the night before may have given it more padding, but they didn’t save me from waking up hungover with a sore back, remembering that I fell asleep on a vacant street that’s now teeming with stoners, walking like zombies, dressed as butterflies, peering into my car.
I got out, poured a bottle of water on my head, changed into my costume, lit a cigarette and walked towards the show. My costume comprised Dark John Lennon glasses perched on the tip of my nose and a denim vest complementing a cool tie-dye T-shirt that I’d bought the night before, which stated “I’M GAY FOR WEED”.
I wore joggers, as white as muddy snow, not for looks but for comfort – and pants. I hadn’t shaved in five days.
At the summit of the village in the Oasis Café, I saw “Jet”, who I’d met in the pub the night before. He was slouched in a beanbag and smoking a joint out of a Gatsby cigarette holder. “Hey mate, what are you doing? Isn’t the party further on?” I asked.
He looked at me like I had 10 heads. “Oh yeah,” he then drooled, “the fuckin’ police told me that I had to move on 100 metres from the pub. This is about 100 metres, isn’t it?”
“Sure, why not. Why’d you get moved on?”
“They took my can of Coke and smelt the rum,” he answered “I’m also pretty drunk.” (It was 10am.)
The village was now packed with hippies, and a thick cloud of smoke hung over it like a dense fog. If you see someone sitting on the benches outside the Hemp Embassy, I’d been told, it means they’re selling weed. Sure enough, as I walked past the Embassy a short, pot-bellied man asked me if I needed any.
“I’m Dolly Parton, baby,” he laughed. “I’m here from nine to five.”
I headed down to Sativa Stadium to watch the Hemp Olympics. It was the Billy-Toss finals, and a crowd of people had gathered on the hill to watch.
The rules of Billy-Toss are simply enough. An “athlete” is handed a billy (bong), “punches a cone”, then after a short run-up launches the billy into the air while screaming. Whoever throws it furthest, while remaining inside the designated lines, wins.
It might sound easy, but factor in the cloud of smoke drifting down the hill and the crowd howling in the wind that blew sideways across the course, and it’s not so easy.
The first two contestants, Jethro and Nancy, both attacked the task with the ferocity of a tiger and the screech of a dying sheep. But their passion proved their downfall, as their bongs were blown across the lines.
The crown went to Jo, who remained calm and collected, directing her throw with more prudence. “I’ve been training for this all year,” she told the crowd afterwards, adding: “I’ll be back next year to defend my title.”
It was around noon when I headed up to the pub for a drink. I squeezed my way to the front of the bar and ordered. The place was packed; the old dogs were shooting pool in the corner, the beat of Rebel Yell resounded from the speakers, and my challenge now was to navigate my way across the dance floor and out onto the balcony without spilling my beer. Mission unsuccessful.
It was a wide-open balcony that looked out over an emerald canopy towards the distant mountains. Though you could hardly see them through the fog of smoke. I wanted to sit down, light a cigarette and do some writing, but all the tables were full.
There was a spare seat at the end of the balcony next to a man dressed in black, so I walked along and sat down, rolled a cigarette and met Alan Curry.
“Do you mind if I roll one, mate?” he asked in his hoarse northern English accent.
Allen, it turned out, had left England when he was 17 to pursue the life of a vagabond. He had seen Australia 10 times over, rambled around Europe for five years in a Kombi and travelled across America, North and South, on a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
He currently lives in an old school bus with his dog, Lucy. “I’ve got nothin’, mate,” he said. “I’ve got no material possessions except for my bus at the moment. But when I’m done with that, I’ll sell it and move on to the next.
“It’s true; it’s lonely. And you have to be comfortable with yourself because you’re living with nobody else. But when I get lonely, I just get out of my bus and walk through nature.”
He looked out towards the approaching storm clouds. “That, that right there,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. When I’m in nature, I’m happy.”
As I listened to Allen’s adventures, a romantic sensation swelled within me: at once I wanted to ditch the modern world and pursue the free and blissful life of a wanderer. But that dream was fleeting. For the wanderer’s life is a solitary one, and I’m not convinced I could, like Allen, tread the course of life alone.
I left the pub and walked down to the Oasis Café to see if Jet was still there. He wasn’t, but I ordered a coffee and sat down anyway. There was no music playing, but a woman dressed as a pirate was dancing as if to the beat of some primal bongo drum: pulsating with sudden, irregular movements. Across the room, a sloth was passed out on a beanbag and somebody’s grandmother was “ripping a bong”.
I sat down with my coffee. Suddenly, a weathered creature appeared dressed in full camouflage and sat directly in front of me, not a metre away, staring straight into my eyes without blinking or saying a word.
I said something. He remained silent. I sat there trying to ignore him, crippled by anxiety, when he mumbled something unintelligible and pointed to what I was smoking. I was about to get up and walk away when, without warning, he got up and took off down the street in a full sprint.
It was late afternoon when I left the Oasis Café. Returning to the Sativa Stadium, I heard a distant voice over a microphone declare: “So, are we actually seeing cases of coronavirus, or are we seeing cases of influenza diagnosed as coronavirus? These are the questions, I don’t know the answer, nobody knows the answer.”
Curious, I turned, searching for the voice, and was confronted by a six-metre-tall elephant with four arms, holding a fruit bowl, two maracas and a ukulele. An audience was gathered round, listening to, or perhaps praying to, the elephant.
As I walked closer, I saw that the voice wasn’t coming from the elephant at all, but from a small woman dressed as a witch doctor.
“Throughout the year,” the witch doctor picked up, “the overall mortality rate for the United States went down, and I have the graphs.” (She showed no graphs.)
“Since they started vaccinating, the mortality rate is up like this.” She raised her hand to the sky. “It has shot straight up! And it’s not just the United States, it is some European countries as well.”
A long and tedious argument between the witch doctor and a disgruntled old man ensued. I wearily turned away.
Later that night I sat at a table on the pub balcony with Jet, who had taken 10 tabs of LSD. A short, shabby man with a wild beard and blonde dreadlocks, he resembled a scruffy labradoodle.
“Why don’t I start my story from right now, and work my way backwards?” he suggested. “You could do that,” I answered, “however, I’d prefer if you didn’t.”
Jet began drinking at the age of 10, having smoked his first joint when he was seven. You can guess the rest of the story. He’s now 36, homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and living – like many others in Nimbin – off charity.
SUNDAY: I woke up late and hungover. It was time to get out of town. Driving through the forest, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror: I hadn’t showered since Thursday and I looked like a sweaty swamp creature.
I drove through the mountains in silence, half dead, half caffeinated. Then, up ahead, I saw the police. I pulled over.
A few minutes later, I was hundreds of dollars poorer and banned from driving for 48 hours. I was in the middle of nowhere, with a phone that was out of charge.
I abandoned the Subaru, my home for the past three days, and started walking. I was 16 kilometres from Lismore, the nearest town. I walked for hours on the sticky asphalt road as the hellishly hot sun beat down. All around me was silence. I felt wretched.
As the sun began to sink and the clouds above me glowed violet and pink, I turned off the road and climbed a steep hill so I could eyeball the sunset in all its glory.
Now it was dark. Back on the road, I started waving down cars. None stopped. Finally, a white pickup truck pulled over. The driver, a young Nimbin guy on his way to meet friends in Lismore, quickly guessed my plight. “Hop in,” he said.
I hadn’t found God or freedom, but I’d found the cult and the hippies – and I’d found a ride.
— Layton Holley