The very much anticipated documentary film ‘Bellingen The Promised Land’ will be officially launched this Friday 11th December at Bellingen Mem Hall. We have all heard stories about the ‘Hippie Invasion’ that occurred in Bellingen in the seventies, but until now visual evidence of those days has been a scarcity.
Fortunately for all of us, photographer and journalist Peter Geddes (above left) was there, quietly recording the hippie years on Super 8 Kodachrome movie film. In fact, Peter was possibly Bellingen’s very first hippie, settling here in 1972 with his then wife and five Canadian-born children. “We were exploring the east coast of Australia looking for rural land to settle and raise our five children. We were awed by the natural beauty of the Bellinger Valley but also aware of how rundown the infrastructure looked,” says Peter.
Peter managed to film hundreds of hours of that period, documenting the years of transition, which brought with it a lot of change and understandable turmoil, but ultimately shaped the Bellingen Shire of today. He and film-editor Peter ‘Pumpkin’ Gailey (above right), have spent the past two years turning these film archives into a visual celebration of these crucial years in the history of our region.
On the eve of the launch we interviewed Peter Geddes, whose personal story is as interesting as the documentary itself….
Peter, what were you doing before you decided to resettle to the Bellinger Valley?
My wife, Joan and I were both born in Melbourne. We enjoyed a ship-board romance sailing to Europe in 1960 before jet air travel. We married in London’s Ealing Registry office and six months later voyaged through icebergs to Canada where I worked as a journalist and photographer.
We had three daughters and were then surprised by twins. That became the catalyst for us leaving Toronto and moving to Lasqueti Island on Canada’s west coast where my tax return said occupation ‘Beachcomber’. No electricity, shops or neighbours. A clothes washing machine with a petrol motor and lots of nappies. We lived on oysters, salmon, wild sheep and the occasional deer while we toilet-trained five infants. We grew cherries and lots of apple trees. We bought little. A 44-gallon drum of petrol a couple of times a year for our boat, chainsaw, and water pump, kero for our lamps and cement bags of powdered milk for guess who. The biggest kid boasted basic new clothes.
A couple of years later we moved to Alta Lake north of Vancouver where I managed the ski shop at Whistler Mountain. In summer I had a dream job following the 120-car ore trains cautiously descending the mountains to ensure they didn’t set fire to the valuable forests. Returning on my little motor vehicle on the single rail track through wilderness I could expect deer, bears and a mountain lion on occasion. I liked the railway and stayed through two winters patrolling the tracks for avalanches. Finally I decided it was too cold and dangerous even though it was the best pay I’d ever had. After 13 years away mild winters and Australian sunshine beckoned.
Not long after you and your family “discovered” Bellingen, you opened ‘The Good Food Shop’ in Hyde Street. Had you had any previous retail experience? How did the townsfolk of Bellingen receive this new venture?
Our experience of living off the land on the island made the opportunity of buying a shop with residence in Bellingen seem a sound investment. That was despite the condemned sign on the front door and a dog sleeping on the road outside. We decided to call it ‘The Good Food Shop’ and sell everything we personally required. The shop was like owning a huge pantry.
We enrolled our five kids with Gordon Trist at the Bellingen primary school where they became known as the ‘American Kids’. When they needed white shoe cleaner for sports day, we bought a carton of it. Athol Preston supplied more bananas than we could sell initially, so my wife Joan began making banana cakes and that evolved into a tea room with light meals available all day.
There were only a couple of Hippies in Bellingen when we opened on April Fools Day 1973, but the townsfolk were very good to us. Our shop, directly opposite the Federal Hotel, had been a milk bar with pinball machines and derelict fittings. The late Ces Hammond generously gave us cedar counters, and vintage glass showcases. He bought half a loaf of Williamson’s white-sliced bread from us daily for his lunch. Hammond’s did not sell half loaves.
We were hungry enough to do almost anything. We encouraged local vegie growers like Mrs Carter in North Bellingen and tapped into Brierfield macadamia nuts that were being used to feed pigs. We sold tins and tins of honey supplied by Nev. Warwick from Mylestom. We started selling paintings from Ted Hillyer’s art classes, and local crocheting and knitting. We had a notice board that had more news than the local paper.
Can you describe those early days of life for you in Bellingen?
The shop opened at 7am with the shire road crew coming in for fags and bottles of Coke. Gumbaynggirr Elder Uncle Tom Kelly was part of the road crew, and he would give me a shy wave from outside. Then the noisy kids would arrive to play the pinball machines. We got rid of the pinnies pretty quick to my kids disappointment.
By 8:30 am I’d displayed our fruit and vegies for sale and it was time for the Broom Salute. I had a proper 12-string millet broom from Young & Macraes hardware to sweep our footpath. Don Kilborne the draper had already sold me the Bellingen workies uniform of Stubbies and navy singlet and we’d sweep in harmony as we exchanged greetings. Bill Leonard from the Canberra Cafe, my other neighbour would join us, and across the street Tom from Hammonds grocery would shout an hello. Directly opposite at the pub they didn’t use a broom, but a high pressure hose. We didn’t talk much. I’m not sure if a car even went by while we performed the Broom Salute.
It was a quiet town in those days. Definitely when I went to the bank before it closed at 3pm it was not uncommon for Hyde St to be deserted. Not a single vehicle moving or parked.
Mrs Bill Chapman was a regular customer. She’d choose a huge Queensland Blue pumpkin and ask if I could cut her a small piece for Bill’s lunch. “Make sure it doesn’t have a bone,” she’d say. Mrs Lavender was very particular about which lettuce I offered, and Mrs Raymond liked me to deliver. Customers chatted with one another forgetting my presence. I heard many personal medical problems and a few scandalous misdeeds. “Did you know. . .?”
After Nimbin’s Aquarius festival we started seeing more Hippies in Bellingen and most of them made friends with our established customers and our business picked up.
How did you happen to have so much film footage of life in Bellingen in the 70’s?
There are surprisingly few pictures of the Hippy days in Bellingen which predate digital and internet and mobile phones. Local newspapers weren’t recording the phenomenon and we had no 2bbb. I wanted to record it. Super 8 Kodachrome movie film was the entry level at $10 a three-minute roll. I shot sparingly. It never occurred to me that those wonderful days would ever end.
How important was the ‘hippie’ influx to the fabric of Bellingen? How have these arrivals in the 70’s shaped the Bellingen of today?
The Hippies came at a crucial time in Bellingen’s history. Britain had joined the Common Market and lost interest in our small dairy farmers. They were going broke and selling 100-acre farms with homes and outbuildings for $10,000. The Hippies rejoiced at the chance to acquire affordable land and banded together to form communities like Shamballa at Boggy Creek.
Where dairy farming had been work, work, work seven days a week, the New Settlers had other skills and brought a new lifestyle to the district with a lot more leisure, music, artistic endeavour and fun. The word got around and more retirees and wealthy people were attracted to the area. There were some tough moments during transition, but the influx was probably crucial to the survival of the town. Look around now, and enjoy the happy ending. I called it ‘Beautiful Bellingen’ then, and now I paraphrase Micklo Jarrett and say that it “always was and always will be.”