After travelling the world during the 1970s, Swiss-born Max Hemmerle and soulmate Janet put down roots on a 148 hectare property behind Barrington, which they share with other tenants-in-common. Here, thirty years ago, they built a compact, octagonal mud brick home, which today is still standing surrounded by a productive, biodynamic garden and orchard. Max, at 60, is a student of the world – a voracious reader who speaks several languages and a keen kayaker who spends the odd day ‘here and there’ as a casual teacher. The dream of an alternative communal lifestyle is alive and well.
You’ve lived in several communities. What was the motivation for going alternative?
My parents divorced when I was five, and the then very religious / fascist welfare system put my sister and me into foster care and later a children’s home. Not much love, but very strict rules with heaps of punishments like turning the compost heap, gardening, cleaning, churning butter for ages or peeling potatoes – all things I am good at now. But the idea of an alternate lifestyle really came from my experience in Paris in 1968, where I first learnt of Karl Marx, socialism and the horrible outcomes of colonialism and capitalism in third world countries.
On my first pilgrimage to India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, I was amazed at how clever some of those people were, doing everything by hand, and how happy they were with so little. I compared that with life in Switzerland, where just about everybody bought the latest everything on buy now pay later schemes and didn’t get any happier.
> You met Janet there. What was it like living in Afghanistan?
I absolutely loved it! I arrived at the border in my painted 2CV Citroen around sunset – a desert place with the Hindu Kush Mountains in the distance. I was in the middle of 1001 nights with proud, turbaned men riding on little donkeys and only the odd shimmer of electric lights, wonderful bazaars – and life was so cheap there.
They still had a king, and life went on peacefully. I had no problem respecting their different way of life and the ever present Islam. It was fascinating, and the hospitality amazing. I spent most of the six months in villages in very basic tea houses, eating the food they ate: freshly baked, flat bread, mutton stew and some fruits and a lot of green tea.
People who now are most likely resisting the invasion of the Allied forces were very decent and intelligent people and were interested in our hippy way of life.
Afghanistan was certainly an amazing experience, and I am very proud of having seen that country from every angle as a very tolerant and interested young man. I sometimes think that I ought to go over there and be a peace maker, because from what I saw and experienced, they were a wonderful people.
> How do you feel about what’s happening there now?
I feel extremely sad and disappointed with the warring approach of the western alliance and the American President, who really had no idea whatsoever about any culture that differed slightly from the town he grew up in. I feel very sad indeed.
> You’ve lived in several parts of the world. How did you come to settle here?
I had never thought of even going to Australia, as it had very bad press in Europe at the time with its White Australia policy and its treatment of indigenous people, where everything was cut down or shot at. The only thing I knew about it was that there were lots of sharks, snakes and spiders – and I saw photographs of huge mining machinery.
However, when we got here in 1973, I met some of the Nimbin festival organisers and went there, and the price and quality of available land and the many alternative people made me think again.
We decided to move on from Nimbin, and while looking at a real estate window in the Gloucester area, one of the agents came out and was a bit shocked about my appearance with long hair and beard, but told us about the property we’re on now – so we made an offer. We then quickly drummed up some friends who expressed interest, and we bought it for $20,000.
Once I saw the hills and forests around this area, I felt that this would be a nice enough place to invest my efforts to build a Utopian lifestyle, as it was far enough away from the temptations of western civilisation.
> You’ve built a wonderful home. What challenges did you face as an alternative owner builder?
It was backbreaking work, but very rewarding too. Every day I could see some progress, and that kept me going. Mud is a wonderful medium to work with. It came from right where I built the house, didn’t need to be transported from anywhere and cost literally nothing. I did it the hard way, mixing the mud with water in an old trailer.
> What made you decide on an octagon?
I’d read that all natural living beings live in round places in Black Elk’s book and it somehow struck a chord in me, because of the very square way of life in Europe, where money became the sole determinant of everything.
> What has made your community here so successful, when many others haven’t survived?
I think the secret is not to have any expectation of others but to stand by with good intentions and offer advice when asked for. We all helped each other wherever possible.
The children spent a lot of time together and became like an extended family, and we shared many a meal and party together. There have been differences, but we got over them, which in itself is a worthwhile experience and teaches us humanity over and over again.
> What is the future for alternative living in our global society?
I can see that most young people today seem to blame our generation for the mess the world is in, but there are still plenty of others who develop deep love and feelings for the world and a more responsible way of life, who care about the environment and look for values beyond materialism.
Globalisation does not have to be all bad. We can all learn from each other and overcome prejudice, feelings of superiority, religious fanaticism and turn it into tolerance and true understanding to make the world a safer and better place and share the resources fairly.
Let’s face it … even the most powerful and greedy people in the world sooner or later will have to realise that when all the plants, animals, fish and the water and the air have been poisoned … we can’t eat money!
Dream on … once a Utopian had a dream that humans made a quantum leap in their consciousness and grew beyond greed, nationalism and hatred and became true world citizens who could fly higher and higher and further, just like we sang at the Aquarius festival nearly 40 years ago.
> Story by Roger Marmion.