Credit to ABC Radio National Blue print for Living:
Hippie baby boomer idealism or increasingly relevant form of living? Annie Hastwell heads to a NSW commune set up in the heady 1970s to see how it has lasted 40 years, and why off the grid communities could re-emerge across Australia.
It began in 1973, the year of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival and an age when rebellion was in the air.
Often described as Australia’s version of Woodstock, the counterculture festival celebrated sustainability and an alternate way of living.
A new generation was flexing its muscles and anything seemed possible, especially a way of life different to the safe suburbs of post-war Australia.
‘Something really important happened at the Aquarius Festival,’ says social historian Bill Metcalf, who has devoted his academic career to studying local and international communes.
‘These disparate groups from around the country found themselves part of a movement.’
The festival spawned a rush of idealistic commune settlements. Thousands of young people jumped in their Kombis and headed for the lush valleys of the north coast of New South Wales to set up their own versions of utopia.
The rush proved short-lived, with most of the communities falling apart fairly quickly due to lack of planning and resources, or simply personality clashes.
‘There was a great deal of naïveté with a lot of the groups in the early days,’ says Metcalf.
‘There was a belief that somehow social problems would resolve themselves by people just coming together and loving each other. Of course, they didn’t.’
Some, however, took things more seriously.
In 1976, Jack O’Reilly and his friends bought 196 hectares of bush south of Ballina in northern New South Wales. The site came with its challenges.
Massive trees needed to be cleared before any building could take place and access was only possible via a steep, nerve-racking road.
The site had poor quality soil, and the local building inspector was ready to tell the group that what they were doing was illegal: rural planning laws at the time were designed around conventional farming, where only one dwelling per 100 hectares was permitted.
O’Reilly and his group formed a cooperative, fought hard to get the planning permission and regulation changes they needed, cut down trees and milled their own timber.
Forty years on, The Ridge, as it’s known, is still there, with 12 off-grid houses, most built from local stone and timber, scattered through the bush. There is a central meeting place and several shared gardens.
Recently, a large group came together to celebrate four decades of the community.
Membership is fluid, and people have come and gone, but the overarching organisation of The Ridge has ensured its survival.
‘We’ve had no serious disagreements, [just] lots of heated meetings,’ says O’Reilly.
He says having a cooperative structure in which every member has an equal share and an equal vote has helped keep things workable.
Bill Metcalf agrees that communities that have stood the test of time, have done so through a serendipitous mix of a few rules, natural leadership and some control over who can join.
‘Groups have to maintain boundaries, but they must be permeable, so you always need to have some mechanism to make sure people coming in share certain beliefs and passions.
‘Otherwise, you’re trying to form a community out of people who randomly met and the chances of that succeeding are very, very small.’
At The Ridge, potential new members are invited to a trial living period. If they decide it is for them, they have to be voted in by at least 80 per cent of the community.
Communes like The Ridge have paved the way for others to try communal living set ups, and since the heady ’70s, several hundred have quietly sprung up all over Australia.
They range from strict and insular religious communities to eco-village-style spiritually aware groups, to ‘groups that are together because they are just together’.
Most are in northern New South Wales, but other hotspots include Margaret River, the Adelaide Hills and Gippsland.
There’s a common agricultural thread between those places, and Metcalf says it’s no coincidence that communes tend to be located in dairy country.
‘Dairy was the perfect industry to create land suitable for these groups, because the land had been stripped and it was hilly with good rainfall.’
The timing was fortunate. As dairy collapsed after the 1960s, such land became affordable for the communally minded.
But these days heading for the hills and setting up an alternative lifestyle is even easier.
‘It’s no longer a weird thing for local planning authorities, because they’re used to these groups now, and where there are a number of them in one area they provide support for each other,’ says Metcalf.
In the Maleny area in Queensland, alternative communities have even set up their own credit union.
Keeping a new generation around as the original occupants age is the next challenge, though.
‘The kids grew up left the place and it seemed that we wouldn’t have a continuity of generations, that we’d all die old in wheelchairs up here,’ says Jack O’Reilly.
The problem seems to have solved itself. Jack’s two sons have returned along with new, younger members, and now The Ridge rings with the sound of small children and new building projects.
So in an age that is both eco-aware and digitally connected, are such communities on the rise?
Bill Metcalf believes they are, and predicts the biggest increase will be with senior co-housing in both urban and rural areas, as older Australians seek cheaper, more fulfilling lifestyles.
‘People my age, baby boomers, do not want to be institutionalised.’