Michael Lyons: Australian Aboriginal Artist and Craftsman

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.

“No thanks.”

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.

eating a  witchetty grub
Would you say yes?
eating a witchetty grub
Down the hatch

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.

Michael Lyons didgeridoo maker

mallee wood for didgeridoo
The beginnings of the didge

making a didgeridoomaking a didgeridooMichael learned the art from his grandfather; an art he is worried will soon die due to the competition from China and Indonesia.

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.

making a boomerang
Authentic Aboriginal boomerang

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.

authentic didgeridoos
Hand painted with Aboriginal spirit

hand made didgeridoos

authentic boomerangs
The real deal

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.

frozen goanna Aboriginal food
Would you eat this one?

“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.

Aboriginal hotel
Would you sleep in here?

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.)


Caz Makepeace is the co-founder of y Travel Blog and has been traveling the world since 1997, first solo, then with her husband, and now with her two daughters. Get her free email series on the 4 best ways to reduce travel costs. Follow her on Google+

9 Comments on “Michael Lyons: Australian Aboriginal Artist and Craftsman”

  1. This is great. Thank you so much for sharing. I love seeing inside artist’s workshops and reading about people who are passionate about their craft.
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  2. These are so beautiful! It sounds like a real once in a lifetime experience, thanks for sharing it with us.
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  3. Thanks for the peak inside a didge “factory.” What a character and an artist!
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  4. That’s awesome! I love Australian aboriginal culture and I’ve got a didj (and can play it!), boomerang and “Dreamtime” painting from Australia. So to get to see Michael’s shop would be really amazing. Sounds like it was a very cool cultural experience…. and I would’ve TOTALLY eaten the witchetty grub!
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    • That’s cool you can play one. I’m hopeless although women aren’t meant to play it so I use that as my excuse. I’ll get a witchetty grub for you when you come down under

  5. I wish there was a way to stop the importing of crap goods. So many places in NZ do the same thing. Surely we should be trying to keep the money in our own communities!
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  6. I’m originally from Narrandera and I’m also of Aboriginal heritage. I haven’t lived there for about fifteen years now, but I know Uncle Mick. I used to go bush with him to collect didgeridoos as a young teenager. He is a very knowledgeable elder and a great person who loves his culture. I still remember him coming to primary school and telling us stories and teaching us to throw a boomerang. At age 11 I tried my first witchety grub, kangaroo and goanna with Uncle Mick and a group of young Indigenous boys and girls on a camp to the Willandra National Park, which is about 4 hours north west of Narrandera.
    Narrandera is a beautiful little town with a lot of history and a strong Aboriginal culture. It also has a great river(The Murrumbidgee) which runs through it.

    P.s Great blog Caz!!

    Cheers Will!
    Will Carter recently posted..Welcome to Will Carter Arts
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    • Thank you Will! So wonderful of you to share your experiences with Uncle Mick and your stories of growing up. This was so great to read, it sounds like a magical childhood. I really loved my short stay in the area, it really is a beautiful place.

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