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The Plan

The idea of an adventure to ‘Oz’ started as a casual conversation amongst friends about the country’s longest running cannabis law reform rally and festival, MardiGrass.

Like many wanderlusters, Australia had a solid position on my bucket list of international destinations. I knew this trip would happen at some point, but serious motivation came along when Nathan (said friend) offered the shotgun seat of a lifetime. While I had a bit of planning to take care of on my side, primarily logistics with work and frantic price shopping for my airline tickets, Nathan was busy on the other side of the Pacific — little did I know he was planning what would be the most epic, eye-opening trip I have ever experienced.

Nathan was clever in sharing the basics but not giving too much away. While I do appreciate surprises, I’m a planner at heart, especially when it comes to travel.

The Journey

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While a direct flight is 14 hours or so, flights hubbing in Fiji come in at about 18 hours

Initial planning and discussions happened months before the big day, yet it came in no time.
I opted for an 11:30 p.m. departure time from LAX. End-goal being to get some sleep before the plane change in Fiji. Thanks to natural ‘herbal’ remedies, I did get some shuteye on the 10 hr+ leg. After a second 4 hr leg, I was collecting my luggage in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, Australia.

I was texting Nathan updates along the way before eventually meeting him upon exiting customs. He had timed it perfectly for our mutual friends from PieceMaker to arrive from Asia and the states. We gathered up our things and headed to what would be our caravan of cars for the next several days.

The ‘Kombie’

I must preface that I grew up in the Bay Area of Northern California, home of the quintessential American hippie. I’m also a proud third-generation gearhead, so I value anything with an engine and wheels.

I knew Nathan had a classic V-dub, but I was floored to walk out and see this cobalt blue over white, two-tone classic bus. And don’t call it a bus in OZ, it’s a kombie.

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Nathan and I pose for a quick shot next to the 40-year-old restored VW Bus, aka ‘the kombie

Nathan’s 1975 kombie, complete with late-model fuel-injected V6 and modern sound system — wait, it hit me. I’ve been in Australia for less than an hour and I’m already living out the Men At Work song we all know so well. Need a refresher? “Traveling in a fried-out kombie on a hippie trail, head full of zombie.”

Day 1-2: Gold Coast

After loading up, we blazed a short distance down from Brisbane to Gold Coast, Queensland, the perfect ‘first stop’ for this 7-day adventure. We stayed in a high rise overlooking Surfers Paradise — an Aussie take on Huntington Beach, with the geographical feel much like that of Miami Beach.

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A shot from our 35th-floor balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Surfers Paradise

Upon check-in, Nathan tossed me a key to see the digs while he parked the kombie. After a short elevator ride, I found our room and walked into a breathtaking view of the cityscape. This was my first sight of the Pacific since landing. Our flat was a nice 3-bedroom/2-bath, complete with kitchen and wraparound deck.

Nathan stated upon arrival that we “would have a personal chef cooking nightly meals for the crew” which was by this time up to 12+. Again, another first for me. I’ve always been the unofficial cook for friends during my travels. I quickly got the hang of leaving such things as logistics and cooking duties to another. But first, that beach!

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A glimpse of the double-rainbow greeting us at the water’s edge

After dropping off our bags, we took a short walk to the water. Almost as if planned, we looked up upon arriving to the sand and saw a double rainbow in the distance greetings us. This would be one of many signs along this journey to solidify my feeling of just how special this country is.

Time for our first night’s meal with the crew. By this time, a few local friends joined us including a well-known underground rapper by the name of Fortay. Our meal consisted of local grain-fed beef and mashed potatoes, topped with a mushroom roux. The roux itself was the only element infused, and conservatively at that. This was a nice option for those who shy away from the edible side of cannabis. And I appreciate that, many of us are less fond of the long, often drawn out high that comes from ingesting cannabis oil or butters. In my travels, I’ve found that most cannabis consumers prefer the 1-2 hr window of elevation provided by vaping or smoking their herb instead.

Our meal was complete with a homemade strawberry cheesecake. Our Michelin-trained chef only infused the optional strawberry glazed topping. This made grabbing seconds far easier for the novice consumers of the group. The party continued into the night with an impromptu freestyle from Australian rapper Fortay, and endless conversation about the latest marijuana trends around the world.

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The busy city of Gold Coast. Queensland is home to 500k+ Aussies

Day 2 was spent checking out the city with the group. I’m always fascinated with seeing what life is like in other cultures. Although this is literally the other side of the world, much of what I saw was in sync with the U.S. Like Europe and Asia, the plague that is American fast food chains successfully penetrated Australia. Most predominant was McD’s (aka Mackers by locals), KFC, and Burger King (operated as Hungry Jack down under, a fun story to Google).

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Similar statues of a dingo and hare can be found along the Eastern Pacific coast of Australia

Thursday evening was a seafood-centric dinner, complete with crab, oysters, tiger shrimp, and whitefish. While the tarter sauce was THC-free, Cookie came through again with a nice infused tart dessert. Bedtime came a bit earlier this evening as we were to be up and out by 4:30 a.m. for the 107 km drive to Nimbin for MardiGrass.

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The surf culture is strong in Australia. These sit facing the Pacific in the heart of Surfer’s Paradise

The Nathans

A few weeks back I saw a cartoon with folks waiting for their loved ones at Sydney airport, holding up their welcome home signs. The joke of it was the number of guys named Barry and gals named Sheila. This cartoon played off popular names stereotype. I didn’t meet a single Barry or Sheila my whole trip. I did however get to know four Nathans very well.

Nathan White — Beyond being what I consider a friend for life, Nathan is a very savvy businessman. While his ‘day job’ is an international distributor of Magical Butter products, he is a sincere advocate for cannabis legalization in OZ. This was his 3rd year sponsoring MardiGrass. He also stepped up in helping the local organizers with planning this year’s event.

Nathan ‘Cookie’– Another Nathan amongst the crew eventually took on the nickname Cookie. Why? He was our Michelin-trained personal chef for the trip and one funny character.

Nathan ‘Bushy’ Busch — This Nathan is a good friend of Nathan White from up in the Rockhampton area. While this stout, broad-shouldered Australian Army veteran may look intimidating, I quickly recognized he is the most sincere, hard working individual you’ll ever know.

Nathan ‘Nate Dog’ from Sydney — While I didn’t catch his last name as he only joined the adventure for our time in Nimbin, he was great company. With that thick Sydney accent most Americans think all Aussies have, every story sounded like an adventure when spoke. “That’s not a knife, this is a knife.”

Day 3-5: Nimbin/MardiGrass

The morning’s fourth hour came quickly, but with the 17 hour time difference between Eastern Australia and our West Coast, it didn’t affect me as much as I thought. What was a short jaunt from Gold Coast into New South Wales, and eventually Nimbin, was stunning.

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The sun rising over the Pacific and farmlands of New South Wales

Although I typically wake up with the sun, like most people I am too busy getting dressed and ready to appreciate a sunrise. And nothing against awesome sunsets, but there’s just something magical about the sun rising, breathing warm life into a new day.

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The sun touching the treetops as it rises over the bush

I was trying to compare the topography of ‘the bush’ in Australia to lush lands of the states. The closest parallels I could find sit somewhere between the countryside of East Tennessee/North Georgia, and the lush greenery found in the Hawaiian islands.

The winding road leading into the little town of Nimbin (2011 census claims a population of 468) was as adventurous as it was mysterious. On our way in we came across a hippie couple hitching to town.

It turns out they were working at the hostel we would be staying at for the length of our stay. While she was originally from Houston Texas, he was a native New Zealander. They shared a story of having to fly back to New Zealand to re-up their visas to stay in OZ for the big celebration. She wouldn’t be the last American I met to give up our extreme capitalism and politics for a laidback life in Australia.

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One of several signs welcoming travelers to the sleepy town of Nimbin, New South Wales

After a quick “we made it” pic of the Nimbin sign, we cruised into the sleepy town to find final touches being placed about. It’s hard to explain the energy and vibe, straight away it felt welcoming.

Our stay would be at a hostel, less than a 10-minutes drive from town. This “high-end” hostel and backpacker camp sat on 300 acres of beautiful, unspoiled land. Admittedly, I had never stayed at a hostel in all my travels — I was in for a serious surprise.

The ‘Hostel’

What comes to mind when you hear the term hostel? Yeah, same here. Well, move beyond those potential predisposition thoughts of your crazy trip across Europe. While this hostel did fit the general context of a communal kitchen, bunk rooms, and shared restrooms, it had a retreat aspect to it as well.

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A snapshot of my bell tent in the foreground, with the rolling hills of Nimbin in the background

While a few of the crew were in bunks or shared tents, I lucked out with a freshly finished ‘bell’ tent and a priceless view. And as luck would have it, the hammock tree was just steps from my new ‘room’ for the next few days. I wasted no time in trying out said hammock chairs straight away.

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I enjoyed a quick break to take in the sights while swinging in one of several hammock chairs

MardiGrass

While most opted to stay close to camp, I was ready to explore under the nightsky. Luckily, a few new friends invited me to check out the big drum circle taking place in town square. After a brisk 20+ minute walk, we were amongst a sea of bohemians. I met friendly visitors from across Australia but also from central and Western Europe too.

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A local merchant shows me her handmade jewelry offerings

I took some time to venture out on my own and explore too. There were several merchants and such throughout town that had literally been taken over by the festival. And with cannabis still tightly regulated in New South Wales, the police presence was out in full-force. Most seemed nice, almost a ‘keep the piece’ type approach. With that, several folks were partaking in public consumption. While a little bit of the concentrate scene has made it down under, the clear majority of people still consume by means of fire. Another common thing is cutting joints with up to 35% loose tobacco. No thanks.

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There was no shortage of police presence throughout the 3-day event in Nimbin

 

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Onlookers take lessons in making gummies from Nathan and the Magical Butter team

Our second day at MardiGrass started out with breakfast at a local pastry shop. From there we went down to the vendor’s area. While Nathan and his team did their thing, the PieceMaker crew were across the lot vending their products to patrons.I took this time to catch up with a friend of the crew for a bite

As lunch arrived, I took this time to catch up with a friend of the crew for a bite ‘n pint at the local pub.

Nate Dog shared how he had worked in building up an extremely successful surf line of clothing with a mate. His partner wanted to go a different direction, so he bought Nathan out and drove the business into the ground only six months later. Nate Dog is now an entrepreneur waiting for the medical marijuana industry to move forward.

Time to get back to the festivities, the bong tossing competition was about to start! We made our way back down by the vendor area to an open field on a hill. While there were several hemp-themed events, this one sounded especially cool. And yes, the bongs were filled with water, but not flower.

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Onlookers watch as several teams participate in the ‘bong tossing’ portion of the competitions

The ‘protest’ portion of MardiGrass also took place on the second day of the festival. It consisted of a community march from the Hemp Embassy to the local police station at the far end of town. It was very peaceful and positively energized. MardiGrass has a cool program where volunteers wear ‘POLITE’ hats and shirts. These folks do a great job keeping everything civil and acting as mediators between the public and the coppers.

Saturday evening had a very different vibe. Beyond rapper Fortay and posse showing up, viral sensation The Bong Lord also arrived on the scene. Beyond smoking anything in sight, he finishes off bong sessions by drinking the filthy bong water. It was one thing to be told, but another to see firsthand. His antics landed him an appearance on “Tosh.0” in November of 2016.

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My quick pic with YouTube ‘cewebrity’ The Bonglord

Day 3 of MardiGrass included a big parade, complete with a plethora of kombies from as far as Melbourne and Darwin. I know my friends back in the auto industry would laugh at this, but you can always trust in me to find a car show during my travels.

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Onlookers take in the sights as 75+ kombies from all around make their way into town

 

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A few modern-day ‘Gen-Y’ hippies take a minute to pose with one of the epic kombies on-site

When considering the history of VW with ties to Hitler, it’s a bit ironic that Volkswagen is one of several iconic symbols tied to peace and the overall hippie movement of several generations. But after all, Volkswagen translates to ‘people’s car’.

While the kombie convoy made their way into town from the East, the walking parade began from the West. The walking portion of the parade started with an aboriginal song and burning of herb. This humbled us all as a reminder that this plant is #1 very sacred in so many cultures, and #2 a very complex plant with many elements still a mystery to man.

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Local native aborigines start the traditional march to center of town with song and smoke

Max Stone invited us to join the parade on behalf of the organizers and the Hemp Embassy. I was very much honored, and participated in style thanks to a very ostentatious wig provided by Nathan. This was the icing on the proverbial cake to one amazing experience into the cannabis culture of this country.

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Balancing the “world’s largest inflatable joint’ amongst other parade goers in downtown Nimbin

 

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The masses participate in the passing of the inflatable joints prior to the march

 

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The ‘Ganja Faeries’ make their way down the main street during the parade

The parade ended back on the competition field. Nathan and I posed for a quick snap before heading back up to join the rest of the crew. I had an interview to do with Max Stone, the leader of the coveted Hemp Embassy in Nimbin. And yes, if you’re wondering, that is a clever alias.

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Nathan White and I taking a moment for a pic post-parade

Thanks to an introduction by Nathan to the first licensed hemp grower in Australia, we awoke early Monday morning for a tour of a farm. While the rest of camp slept off their evening of fun, we were looking at a fully self-contained greenhouse. The operation was extremely impressive, one I shall save for another story in itself.

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I stand at 6-feet, to give you a better perspective in size of this hemp plant

After a quick bite and goodbye to half the crew, we hit the backroads with a destination of Sydney on the nav. By this time, we had already clocked 185 km (115 mi.) on the kombie. No A/C, no problem! We were in the middle of fall, so the weather never really got too cold or too hot on the journey.

The Long Haul

While the PieceMaker crew opted to hit Coffs Harbor for a few more days at the beach, we were on a deadline to get to Sydney by Tuesday morning. I had a few meetings scheduled with our friends at Dopamine, and Mediaweek. This 850km trek would prove as a true test to the restoration of the 40-year-old VW. I am happy to say we had a late-model Jeep Grand Cherokee as a chase vehicle close behind. Although with my experience around Chrysler products, I felt more comfortable in the kombie!

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Over 10hrs and tons of great scenery later, we rolled into Sydney. Our final stay would be at a 2.7-million-dollar Airbnb home minutes from Sydney Harbor. We did excellent time, and I won’t confirm or deny that Nathan’s hopped-up kombie hit a top-end speed of 170km (105 mph) on the straights. I can, however, share the look on folks faces as we passed them was nothing short of priceless.

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No rest after the ride as we had another good friend from Queensland that flew down to meet us in Sydney. With that, the now 6-man crew hit a local pub for a bite, pint, and game of snooker. While the guys were up for some shenanigans downtown, I was content with turning in at a reasonable time. I wanted to be rested for my meetings and interview in the am.

The Weed

All this time and we never delved into the weed. Like most countries, there’s a whole underground side to cannabis in Australia. On my trip, I saw everything from ditch weed to top-notch homegrown flower, and even oil and wax concentrates. Nimbin is the unofficial epicenter for outdoor grows. Think of it as Humboldt down under. And while the populous of the little town is in the hundreds, a few trusted sources say it’s closer to a three thousand with the transient growers and trimmers that migrate to the area.

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A Sydney local staying at the hostel lets me take a shot of his medical cannabis bag

On the flipside, I also met a nice guy we will call Arnie on my last evening in Sydney. One of the crew had mentioned this bloke as being an exquisite home grower. Upon meeting, he pulled out a little case. I instantly had a flashback of that sting pic when John DeLorean got busted (Google it). Keeping in mind that what sat before me on a coffee table was straight black market goods, he proceeded to pull out several baggies of ‘samples.’ He disclosed how his genetics were sourced from both the U.S., and Europe. This validated the assortment having included Pre-98 Bubba Kush and Cookies. I will say the quality was there, across the board. And he very much knew his stuff in the growing arena.

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A friend holds up one of the higher quality buds we came across in Nimbin

Others in the group shared that much of what Australia smokes comes from Asia. They are transported in tightly packed, vacuum-sealed bags. Note to self, we are extremely lucky with respect to the ganja we’ve had access to for decades in North America. Beyond the lack of being visually appealing, the smell and texture of this ‘weed’ was very unimpressive.

The street value of decent weed is equivalent of top shelf weed to us Westerners. This means folks are paying $60 Aussie dollars for an ⅛ of mediocre herb. Even with the current exchange rate of .77 cents to the U.S. dollar, that comes out to $46 for an ⅛ of something most folks from my generation only smoked in school.  

Day 6-7: Sydney

This journey started in one capital city and would finish in another. I feel most Americans know very little about this beautiful country. Even for me, when someone said Australia I pictured the opera house at Sydney harbor along with a young Mel Gibson as Mad Max in the desolate outback.

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My token traveler shot with the iconic Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the distance

There’s just so much more to see. The coastline rivals only that of our West Coast, and the Bush was as lush and alive as the rainforests of South America. Even their cities feel like an extension to what we know when compared to most other major metros around the world.

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Looking back on the skyline from the Sydney Opera House

After a wonderful breakfast along the bay, we set off for my first meeting of the day — a sit-down with James Manning, the Editor of Mediaweek. James has a stellar reputation and long-running career in editorial. We discussed the industry, as well as what Weedmaps and Marijuana.com have in the works.

From there, we took a short walk to have lunch with our friends from Dopamine. They are one of our international publisher partners. Upon finishing our fish & chips, we cruised up a block to their loft-style office to talk shop. Topic at hand: the current state of cannabis in OZ.

We then invited Sam and team to join us for our final evening of infused food and good company. We had another special honorary guest attending the feast too, DJ Izm. Terek, better known as DJ Izm, is the deejay for the highly successful Sydney-based rap trio Bliss & Eso. It was his birthday, so Nathan wanted to throw a special party for this medical cannabis advocate.

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The crew’s final night together topped off with celebrating DJ Izm’s birthday from Bliss n Esso

After yet another phenomenally infused meal, we finished off the evening with singing to Tarek and digging into — yes you guessed it — a perfectly infused handmade birthday cake. What a way to finish an action packed 7-day adventure down the Eastern coast of this fantastic country. Will I be back? Most definitely. It has already been confirmed that MardiGrass will be an annual event for us.