~ DESTINATION THREE: BUNDAGEN, NSW ~
Proof that hippie communities can evolve beyond simple ideological experiments
Back at our campsite that shares the same beach as Bundagen’s intentional community, I can continue to enjoy the natural haven that is this part of the New South Wales coastline. About 20 minutes drive south of Coffs Harbour and close to the eclectic town of Bellingen which is back-dropped by a stunning Dorrigo National Park, this sub-tropical zone is our first real taste of the more northerly climes of Australia – wetter, more humid, more lush. It is an excellent climate for organic farming, straddling Mediterranean and tropical, and features lush rainforest, picturesque mountains, achingly-beautiful surf beaches and small, inviting towns. Heidi and I felt a lot of external loves and soul-filling elements clicking together here right off the bat.
For 35 years, Bundagen Cooperative has been an off-grid settlement to a group of folks looking to connect more with nature and other like-minded souls in a beautiful part of Australia. Over 110 people – spanning three generations – live and work here, growing organic veggies, meditating, playing and experiencing life mostly off the mainstream treadmill. Theirs is not a utopia, but rather what they aptly describe as “a microcosm of the macrocosm, with all the dramas of the wider world played out on our small stage.” One person we met said that it was originally a ‘social experiment’ to experience the limitations of such a community.
This community began in an appropriately activist manner: in the late 70’s, happy hippie folk used the farm land for environmentally joyful pursuits and were friendly with the local farmer who owned it. In 1981, the property came available for sale and Japanese interests swooped in with designs on redeveloping the land into a resort and golf course. The farmer sided with the concerned hippies and chose to sell the land to them which the group managed to do via their “alternative networks”. Hooray! This wily rogue of determined environmentalists defeated the big developers and have since cared very well for the land, even having part of it deemed a protected national park (Bongil Bongil).
We were originally drawn to this community as it sounded like a nice balance of alternative, sustainable, meditative/spiritual and mature. Having spent two weeks there as WWOOFers with our hosts Jo and Giri (pictured), I think that our initial hopes and assumptions were largely bang-on. From a visual perspective, Bundagen is a beautiful spot; we largely spent our time in one of 12 villages within the community – Bananas village (it was named as it was a former banana plantation, not because the people are crazy and wild like I first thought 😛 ) – and it is green, tropical and well-kept. Cars are “officially” limited in the village and the “roads” are greenways between houses (and one gorgeous path that takes you to an exquisite private stretch of beach).
In our village, all of the homes are unique with many being hand-built creations using many types of natural materials, plus some caravans, old buses and other interesting structures thrown into the mix. There are no fences which seems obvious in a place that is supposed to promote community and openness, but experiencing it still feels very different than our mainstream suburbs where there are divisions all over the place: bitumen roads and footpaths, council-maintained areas, boundary fences and walls, chain-link in public areas, speed and traffic signs and so on. In my opinion, this is still and has always been one of the defining factors of living in community: you live together, trust each other and provide safe, harmonious and attractive common spaces that generally don’t require division or external policing. Going back into these conformist settings once you’ve been in a community like this immediately makes me feel uncomfortable. Mainstream society is largely not natural.
Other than visual appeal, the sustainable aspect is immediately obvious as well. The whole community is off-grid, so most villages have in-home composting toilets (plus a village shared loo), all water is rainwater harvested and electricity is solar. The off-grid stuff is done so well and effortlessly that you hardly notice it such that it is so well-integrated into the operation of the community. Until very recently, shared resources like a communal kitchen were still used, but an ageing population with a bit more saved income has resulted in more members building in-home conveniences and the village kitchen was torn down. There is, however, talk of building a new one, at least for a community hall to meet at. Other resources are still shared however, like tools and equipment, common machinery for maintaining roadways and lawns, and so on.
One of the biggest parts of this community (and of course the intent of all communities) is the relational part, and having spoken to numerous people about it, it seems that 95% of it is all good. Many of the folks we met had been there a long time and that in itself is indicative that members enjoy living there. It was fantastic to see so many healthy-looking 50 and 60-something folks, busy but smiling, and with tons of interesting wisdom to offer. However, of all the people we met, not one didn’t mention the challenges of conflict within a tight-knit community like Bundagen. In fact, not only do they mention their struggles with conflict resolution on their webpage, but we had numerous conversations about it, and witnessed it firsthand.
Conflict resolution and internal politics are things that we have heard about in every community so it is clear to us that it a good system needs to be established early on. Members indicate that this didn’t really happen in Bundagen and this is their only real issue. Clearly they have made it work on some level to last this long, but the potential for fallout came into full illumination with a community member who was causing a rift between villages and individuals for many years. As good stewards of communal-living principles, the community-at-large have employed ongoing attempts at personal support over time, but sterner measures were being discussed. By all counts, this is unusual but it seems like something that has gone on far longer than is needed as the community didn’t have a comprehensive plan on to come down hard on frequent offenders. A further downside that we experienced was gossip, not just from this but from other things, which I suspect could cause other rifts if left unchecked.
Having come here on the heels of our Bruderhof experience was interesting; I am always hesitant to compare communities as they are apples and oranges, but being that they are so different makes it enticing to compare. The stand-out thing about a community like this is the organic nature of everything, which has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, Bundagen is lush, natural and beautiful with countless birds, monitor lizards, possums and bush turkeys in your garden (and the occasional python living in your rafters!); easygoing smiling folks from different walks of life doing creative and inspirational things with their diverse dwellings, clothing and interests; music/sing-along nights, working bees, clothing-optional bathing at the beach (apparently in the early days, even member meetings were in the nude!), wild organic gardens behind many homes, yoga/meditation sessions run by members; and a relaxed way of organising, administering and “being”. The downside, comparatively, might be what Bruderhof excelled at: structure and order, balanced education, blended multi-generational groups onsite, community unity (with gossip largely “outlawed”) and a central drive (Jesus) that affected every person; all this the kind of stuff that won’t happen without some forethought. Now, I know Bundagen residents would probably argue that some of those things are exactly what they don’t want, and I would personally choose a more organic lifestyle over a heavily constructed one, but there are levels of structure that Bundagen might consider virtues to employ, especially in light of their self-assessment on conflict resolution. And that’s not to say that Bundagen was lacking in a spiritual core; I think most people there felt some affinity with the Spirit, the land or both, they simply didn’t all subscribe to the exact same programme.
One thing that is obvious about community living is the great sense of unity in times of need: during our visit, a friend of our hosts passed away, and the community rushed to help with preparations, personal support and finances. Folks rallied together to give moral support with the troublesome community-member I mentioned above. When a couple of WOOFers last year got stuck in a rip in the surf, a coordinated rescue was quickly set up and the couple would have likely died had it not been for the whole community jumping into action. Of course, emergencies aren’t the norm, and you can see the day-to-day stuff like neighbours dropping in regularly, village get-togethers plus information and skills sharing. It is clearly more dynamic and functional than a typical urban suburb. This generosity of time and spirit extended to temporary folk like us, as everyone had time for a chat with relaxed exchanges and no ulterior agenda.
We ultimately spent most of our time with our hosts Jo and Giri, who fed us well (food & plenty of wine!) and kept us laughing with entertaining evening chats. They let us stay in their backyard caravan (pictured above) which was cozy and open so we could hear the birds singing and the rain fall (which it did a lot of in our last week there). Giri had us help with constructing an artistic stone wall and other manual labour, and Jo was interested in our skilled labour so we helped her with a logo and website for her business. We enjoyed their hand-crafted open-plan mud-brick home which really took advantage of the lush surrounds, and was only a 5 minute walk from the warm ocean where we often started or ended our day with a swim. The sense of peace and serenity that the location and lifestyle offered to the folks in Bananas village was quite memorable, and I could easily see why it would be enticing to live there for decades – despite the occasional conflict – as so many had done. Membership is closed at Bundagen as they are full, which also really says something about the place. Definitely a little slice of heaven!
As usual, have a look at Heidi’s take on Bundagen on her blog, Miss Roo’s Adventures.