I had always wondered what my answer would be when I was finally asked the question.
“Would you like to eat a witchetty grub?”
I did contemplate it, until I saw it wriggle in Michael’s fingers. I imagined it wiggling as I signalled its end with a chomp of my teeth.
The curiosity was stamped out then and there.
I was happy to watch as, without a second thought, our travelling companion, Elspeth threw it down. Michael, after failing to tempt anyone else, smacked his lips and let the unwanted Aboriginal delicacy slide down his throat.
We were on our way to the airport after three days of bush camping in the River Red Gum National Park. Our Riverina Experience host, Ian, recommended we pop in to visit Michael, an Australian Aboriginal artist, in his workshed if we had a few minutes to spare.
Everything else he guided us on: kayaking, camp site selection, and mountain bike riding, was amazing, we were sure this would be too.
And we were not wrong.
Michael warmly invited us into his work shed. Hollowed out logs lay in piles, cutting machines held pieces of wood ready for carving and wood shavings were strewn about on the floor. He led us through his daily process of creating didgeridoos and boomerangs.
Tourists arrive in Australia wanting to take home the famous Aboriginal instrument or hunting weapon as a souvenir. They buy whatever they see on the shelf, unaware of and uncaring as to its authenticity. Obviously those being exported in are bulk manufactured and so cheaper.
On the contrary, Michael crafts each of his carefully from hand and with the spirit of his Wiradjuri people. He sells his to visiting tourists and musicians and souvenir stores in Sydney and Melbourne. Stores that sell the real deal.
Michael took out an Indonesian made boomerang from his cupboard to explain the difference.
The artwork was bright and colourful and, as he said, it could come from any tribe within Australia; you could not identify its authenticity based on that. He turned it over and quality of the wood instantly told you it was a fake. It was light, probably made from pine or plywood. Authentic Aboriginal didgeridoos and boomerangs are made from the darker Australian wood: mallee, yellow box and other species of gum.
Most didges are created in C or D notes and he demonstrated the different sounds each one makes. The change in notes is due to the length of the didge. He often has musicians visit his shed trying each didgeridoo until they find the right sound they are looking for. Some musicians buy a didge in each key.
You could not get that quality from manufactured didgeridoos made in Indonesia.
Each boomerang and didgeridoo is painted by Michael in the traditional Aboriginal dot art representing the animals that are totems for his people.
Michael quickly warmed up to his unexpected guests, sharing more about Aboriginal culture, his family’s history, cracking some jokes, and offering sage advice like “You can’t play the didgeridoo with false teeth.”
And of course there was the offering of the witchetty grub that he pulled from a piece of wood lying on the ground outside.
His enthusiasm for sharing his culture continued as he pulled out the frozen goannas and giant cod heads from the freezer that he would soon share around the dinner table with his family.
“Do you want to see an Aboriginal hotel?’ he was nearly jumping out of his skin with excitement and we were near due for airport check in.
We squeezed in a couple of extra minutes to follow him in his ute down to Town Beach. We had passed by the beach in our kayaks the day before and noted what a great little spot it was, it looked even better from land with the overhanging gum trees providing plenty of shade for the ideal camp and picnic spot.
Across from the beach was a hollowed out gum tree, large enough for a couple of people to stand and sleep inside- a real Aboriginal hotel.
I was so enamoured with Michael’s spirit, wisdom and connection to his people and the land, and I felt so deeply saddened that throughout the history of White Australia we have not respected or revered that.
I wish that I can change the past and make it one where we all embraced our differences and saw it as a way to learn from each other and grow in order to make our lives better.
To use a cliché, Michael was an unexpected gem on our trip to the River Red Gum and is another reason why you should visit this area when you travel to Australia.
Not only will you learn more about the Aboriginal culture and meet a warm and kind spirit, but you can buy an authentic didgeridoo and boomerang straight from the manufacturing shed, knowing that each one has been carefully crafted with the symbolism and heart of the Aboriginal culture and hands.
To get there:
Stop off at the visitor’s centre at Narranderra and ask to be pointed in the direction of Michael’s work shed. (That’s how we do things in the country.)