`The trick is finding exactly the right tree'
Sunday 24 August 1997
"Evidence," Kelly explained, "is what we are looking for. Where you see the termite mounds devouring the stumps you know you're in the right sort of place. The termites will do half our work for us, it's just a case of finding the right tree."
"But will they play tunes?" I couldn't help expressing my scepticism.
"I guarantee it, mate; we haven't made a Didgeridon't yet."
The puns were bad, but the woolly-butt eucalyptus does have a natural defence against forest fires. Although the branches in its canopy are smooth and white, the main trunk is covered with a dark fibrous bark that only singes in the minor fires and protects the wood from damage.
In turn, the tree-piping termites have learned to make their homes inside the fire resistant trees. "This looks like it might be OK." Kelly paused by a young tree, started his chain-saw and felled it at eye level. Sure enough the termites had hollowed out the centre core. The chain-saw started again and took the stump off at the ground. Nearly five feet of hollow trunk was harvested. "I'd say there's a didgeridoo in that."
It seemed a little odd to be wandering into the bush and hacking down perfectly good trees for our amusement, but things were not as they first appeared. As the son of a park ranger Kelly had been brought up near Katherine in and around the National Parks. None were more conscious than he about the environmental impact of forest use, and the place where we collected our wood was already earmarked for agriculture. As a didgeridoo craftsman, Kelly was making use of what would otherwise have been wasted.
"Now all we have to do is turn these pieces of firewood into musical instruments."
The first step was to clear out the hollow. The termites may have eaten out the wood, but their by-product remained. A metal rod and plenty of water cleared the channel of waste. The woolly bark was loosened and stripped away from the wood. Already this length of tree trunk was looking less like a log.
I had never made a didgeridoo before, but then nor had anyone else on the tour. Kelly, who operates as Whoop Whoop Tours, had been making them for years. Six months ago he struck upon the novel idea of running trips out to the bush for people to make their own musical instruments. He had become a master in the art, and now passes on his skills in one easy lesson. No two instruments are the same and he was careful to examine the selected pieces of wood to advise on their shaping. An axe, an old paint scraper, a few wood chisels and rasps were all that was needed.
After the bark was removed the holes at either end were opened out and the wood trimmed to leave a uniform thickness of wood around the hollow. A bit of rounding and smoothing, some rough edges and knots trimmed, and the woodworking was complete.
A couple of coats of sealant to the outside of the instrument ensured that the fresh eucalyptus would dry slowly from the inside, and so reduce the risk of cracking. The didgeridoo dried in the hot tropical sun as we sat back and put the world to rights over a buffet lunch and ice-cold beers.
Kelly could already get the crude instruments to play but made a point of completing them in the traditional method. You need to be able to seal your lips to the top of the instrument to play it properly and this is difficult to do against the bare wood, however well it has been made.
Everybody's lips are slightly different and the instrument should be suitable for anyone. To accommodate this the mouthpiece is finished off with wax. Sure enough Kelly produced a pot of pure unrefined beeswax and set about making the mouthpieces. He warmed the wax in his hand to make it pliable and rolled it out into sausage-shaped lengths about the width of his little finger.
All it took was to push the wax down on to the wood and to form and shape it, neatly smoothing and rounding the end of the didgeridoo. I still couldn't play mine, but he demonstrated that it did work. "I can't play all that well myself, I'm still just learning," he said modestly, although it was clear that he had been playing for many years. "If you come across someone that can really play didgeridoo, let them play this one. I assure you they will make it sound like a million dollars."
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