How to make a didgeridoo, cultural travel in Australia, cheap travel in Australia
Namoi Hills Cattle Station, Australia 6:54 a.m.
The alarm's going off, but I swear I've only had my eyes closed for a moment or two. It was just a few hours ago that the drinking contests with line-dancing cowboys, picnic-table dancing, and tug-of-wars were going strong. Nevertheless, I'm dragging myself to breakfast for marmalade-soaked toast and some sort of orange-flavored water. I'm wondering why I signed up for this, until I remind myself that very few people get to do what I am going to do today. Brian and Jules, the local guides at Namoi Hills, Australia, are bringing eager backpackers into the bush to cut down trees to make our own authentic didgeridoos.
A didgeridoo, or didjeridu, is an Aboriginal wind instrument, made from the trunk of a eucalyptus tree. Termites eat the inside of the tree, hollowing out the trunk so that when you blow through the top of the long tube, the airflow produces a deep, vibrating noise. Didgeridoos are native to the Aborigine tribes of northern Australia but are sold in every tourist shack across the country. I have heard stories about people purchasing one off the street only to later discover a "Made in Korea" sticker on the inside. Because I am determined to have an "authentic Australian" didgeridoo, here I am, up at dawn, ready to spend the day trekking through the Outback.
An hour later, our group of six arrives at "The Spot", which looks exactly like everything else we've passed along the way. I begin to how wonder Brian, our salt-and-pepper-haired native Aussie guide, even knows where we are, because I don't see any distinctive landmarks. There aren't any signs, hell, there isn't even a real road, just strips of flattened dirt. For miles on either side, it looks like the set of The Never Ending Story broken, burnt trees and vast emptiness. I've got the sinking suspicion that I've been cast in some twisted new reality show. Jules, the other guide, and Brian will leave us here in an area already passed through by "The Nothing" and we'll be forced to find our way back to the cattle station, the survivors receiving a lifetime supply of Vegemite and Victoria Bitter beer. Sizing up this group, I figure we'll be dead within days.
Brian lugs a large ax out of the truck, swinging it over his shoulder as he begins the search for suitable trees. Jules also has an ax, but swings with a lot less power than Brian. A short, stocky woman with curly graying hair, she's got a thick accent that sometimes makes it difficult to understand her. When we ask when we get to chop, she grins and says (I think), "Liability issues. We're not insured to have a bunch of backpackers running around wielding an ax."
Ahead of me Jules calls to Brian, "Do ya think this one would work?" She's standing in front of a curvy, skinny tree with this fabulous bend in the middle. While I will be satisfied with the straight, thick ones we've collected so far, what I truly want is a curvy one. Brian goes over, takes two swings and the tree falls. He examines the inside and discovers there is a small hole on the side near the bottom, but "with a little wax to plug it up, this will make a very nice didge."
I'm thrilled, already laying claim to it because although the other trees will no doubt make better sounds, I'm more interested in the aesthetic appeal. It's doubtful I'll be playing much. I just want one that looks cool.
With a tree for each of us, it's time to start working. Resting the end of a tree firmly between our ankles, Brian takes the blunt side of his ax and whacks the bark loose. Once the bark is stripped, Jules hands us a knife and instructs us to shave off the bits still stuck on the trunk. Sitting in a row side by side, we hunch over the trees scraping bark off, deep in concentration. Our legs are soon covered in wood chips, the ground underfoot sprinkled with a fresh snowfall of wood shavings.
After the knife, it's time to sand. A symphony of "shika shika" fills the air as we each attack the wood to make it smooth.
Jules hands us several books of photos and examples of typical Aboriginal art, along with photos of didgeridoos made by past backpackers. Loaded back in the truck and bumping along the road, we're quiet, studying the pictures. Didgeridoos commonly have a "totem" animal painted in the middle. The story goes that each Aboriginal tribe had its own totem animal: a snake, kangaroo, lizard, whatever. The tribe would not eat the totem animal. This way, they could try to prevent the overhunting of any one animal. What should I put on it? A snake, goanna? A crocodile in tribute to ol' Steve Irwin?
Arriving at the second cattle station of the day, we set up the didges in two rows and get ready to paint. Jules helps me brush on brown paint in order to give my didge a "stained" look in the middle. Then she pulls out a high-tech version of a hair dryer, and within seconds the paint is completely dry. From this point on, I make ample use of the stencils they've provided for the artistically inept such as myself. Authentic didgeridoos are designed with straight lines and dots at the top to represent the air going in, and curvy dots at the bottom to signify the music coming out. I interpret it a little differently, painting daisies (my specialty) on the top, leaping kangaroos, dancing men, and a large snake wrapped around as my totem animal. I stick to the "authentic" colors: yellow, red, black, and white. Typical tourist didges sometimes include blue, green, and purple, mainly as a commercial tactic, to make them stand out a little bit more, catch the eye. But true Aboriginal didges make use only of the colors that could come from the earth: red as the dirt, black from charcoal, and so on.
All the quiet and shyness of the morning is officially gone by this point. Someone is trying to convince Brett to put a maple leaf on his didge, a nod to the fact that every Canadian backpacker we've met has a flag on their bags. Because every good didgeridoo tells a story through its design, Jules suggests that we come up with one of our own, maybe as a reflection of our Australian experiences thus far. Richard's yapping in my ear about his story. "Now, the number of dots at the top represent my age, then the lines intersecting are the number of years I lived in New Zealand. The three stripes underneath are for my favorite football (soccer to you Yanks) team, and I've got a fish as my totem animal . . ."
Waiting to play them is torture when we arrive back at Namoi Hills. Brian and Jules coat each one with a sealant, telling us that we can't touch them for about an hour. Like new parents, we sit next to them as we eat dinner, swelling with pride as admirers come over to look and guarding them protectively as the admirers try to touch. Finally the time comes, and we grab them, plopping down on the picnic tables to practice our circular breathing. I take a huge breath, bring the mouthpiece up and blow. The moment of truth is something of a disappointment. What comes out is a sad, pitiful, "pfft" noise. Around me, the other five are making deep, resonating sounds while I continue to make pathetic little 'farting' noises. The cacophony irritates our fellow travelers trying to make calls at the phone next to us. We move our symphony to the verandah, overlooking drunken backpackers dancing around a bonfire. I spend more time listening to the others playing, giving up on my own. Every now and again I make an impressive sound, but mostly it sounds like a cat wheezing or coughing up a furball. Not exactly soothing to the ear.
Months later, after I've lugged my didgeridoo around Australia, it sits in a corner of the living room, a lovely decoration. I never did get the hang of circular breathing, and for that, I am sure my entire neighborhood is grateful.
Photos by Jill LeGrow