by Peter Kaupp, 2004
Have you ever tried to play the didgeridoo? If so, then you surely remember the excitement you felt when you were able to create the first sounds. Many are captured by the fascination of the instrument and learn the circular breathing technique. I was excited, on the way to Zurich airport on August 1, 2004, to embark on a very special journey led by Matthias Mueller.
To introduce Matthias Müller, a Swiss didgeridoo musician, is hardly necessary, as he is known as one of the world’s best professional didgeridoo players. I was intrigued by his idea to lead other European didgeridoo players to the instrument’s country of origin. As a long-time didgeridoo player, I had always wanted to learn more about the Aborigines and their culture.
On that August 1, I met 8 soul mates, 2 women and 6 men, at Zurich airport. The group soon developed a comfortable atmosphere, as we discussed what we might experience in the next 23 days. The flights from Zurich to Frankfurt and on to Singapore went smoothly and offered time to get to know each other. At the stop over in Singapore, we already felt as if we had known each other quite some time!
As impressed as we were by Singapore, we gladly left this modern and atypical Asian metropolis for Down-Under. We could hardly wait to feel Australian soil under our feet. Quantas landed in tropical Darwin early in the morning. First, we confused the Australian immigration officials. Why were tourists carrying didgeridoos to Australia? Of course we all had our own instruments along for the Garma Festival and for our workshops. No wonder they wanted to have a close look at us. Upon arrival at the hotel we were welcomed with a hearty, true Australian breakfast. Strengthened, we set off on a city walk. Does it surprise anyone that we soon landed in the didgeridoo shops? Some had hoped to find new instruments, however our disillusionment was great. The quality of the instruments offered was questionable. We were upset to realize that some "whites" offered cheap tourist didgeridoos at the expense of the Aborigines. After some time, we did find an Aborigine shop that sold didgeridoos by Djalu Gurruwiwi. The afternoon visit to the Aborigine Museum gave us our first closer look at the Aborigine culture.
After one day, our time in the city was up. The group was more than ready to visit the true Australian outback, so we boarded a plane that took us to north-eastern Arnhemland in the Northern Territory, home of the Yoingu Aborigines, where we were to be allowed to take part in their Garma Festival, well-known for the traditional and contemporary art of the indigenous people of Australia. The popular band Yothu Yindi supports and helps organize the festival. The cultural heritage of the Yoingu is passed on through this large happening. The tone of the yidaki (didgeridoo) is the call announcing the annual Garma Festival, calling for all people to unite. This tone places the Yoingu culture in our hearts and our minds.
After a bumpy landing in Nhulunbuy (Gove) we immediately felt as if we had landed in another world. Only a handful of people are invited to the Yidaki Master Class, so we felt very honored to be permitted to experience the 40’000 year old culture of song, dance and ceremonies of the Yoingu Aborigines and of other tribes. We especially looked forward to the workshops with famous didgeridoo musicians.
We took part in the first yidaki workshop lead by the master Djalu Gurruwiwi and Milkayngu Mununggurr. Demonstrations and explanations showed us how the traditional playing had developed over thousands of years. The language of the Aborigines forms the basis of the playing. The workshops were conducted with a great deal of sensitivity and high musical quality. We were thrilled and enthusiastic to learn. I realized that I would never be able to play in the traditional and wonderfully clearly structured way of the old masters of the yidaki. My own music did become richer as I was able to integrate certain elements into my own playing.
A highlight of the workshops was the search for hollow stringy bark trees (eucalyptus). We stalked through the bush with Djalu and Milkay on the lookout for suitable yidaki material. By knocking on the tree trunks with the back of an ax, Djalu and Milkay found trees that had been sufficiently hollowed by termites. The participants then cut the chosen pieces. Some branches could immediately be played. In the hands of Djalu and Milkay, we surely arrived at the origin of the didgerdoo and felt a deep respect for the Aborigines.
The five days at the Garma Festival are a lasting memory. The ceremonies, rituals and dances each day at sundown touched us deeply. We were fascinated by the hard-to-describe wildness of the Arnhemland scenery. On a small scale, the festival presents this valuable culture to the world, in opposition to the open discrimination against the Aboriginal culture still seen in Australia. Bidding farewell was not easy, yet deep in our hearts we treasure this rich experience.
Tour in the Kimberleys
A further highlight of our trip was a tour on the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley Region. The isolated area in the tropical northwest is the last frontier of the continent. Endless grasslands and savannahs are interspersed with rugged mountain chains of sand- and limestone deposits. The Kimberleys are as unspoiled and fascinating as the Dreamtime, the story of the creation of the Aborigines. The landscape is accented by the characteristic trunks of the massive baobabs (Australian bottle tree). Apart from 600’000 cattle, thousand of wild horses, countless kangaroos and crocodiles, a mere 320’000 people inhabit this area the size of Germany.
Our guide Philip, left no wish unfulfilled on the 10-day trip. After a short test-drive with our tour vehicle on Cable Beach in Broome we headed for Derby, where we were immediately confronted with Australia’s dark history. We visited the infamous, over 1000 year old Boab Prison Tree. The white settlers had made use of its’ 14 meter circumference and hollow center as a lock-up for Aborigine prisoners. We were glad to leave this tragic place and continued our journey on the famous and not at all smooth Gibb River Road. For many years the road had served the surrounding stations as a route of transport for cattle to the ports of Derby and Wyndham. Some of us thoroughly enjoyed the bumpy ride, which only slowed for the cattle that could suddenly cross the road without warning. At nightfall we arrived at Windjana Gorge National Park. After a wonderful dinner, tired as dogs, we crawled into our sleeping bags. The next day included a hike in the Windjana Gorge. The 350 million year old reef from the Devon age took our breath away. The fresh-water crocodiles in the Lennard River were oblivious to our presence. We felt as if time stood still. Matthias and I agreed that this was the place for the first of our four workshops.
The experienced players joined a group led by Matthias, while I led the beginners. The aim was to find a link between our European style with what we had learned at the Garma Festival. The beauty of the surroundings provided a relaxed atmosphere in which the participants made striking progress. After the workshop, we returned to Gibb River Road and to Bell Gorge. We traveled through the gorge where numerous waterfalls come plummeting down. Over the course of thousands of years, nature created a series of pools connected by small waterfalls, where of course we had to take a dip.
During the tour, we experienced and enjoyed many more of nature’s wonders. The thermal springs at El Questro (Zebedoo) were just one example. Another spectacular sight were the Bungle Bungles in Pumulu National Park. Orange and black striped sandstone, somehow reminding us of beehives, rise over rugged surroundings. In these gorges, plants flourish that are yet unnamed. This area has been the Aborigines’ home for thousands of years. Numerous artifacts and gravesites of the indigenous people are found here.
The Cathedral Gorge provided a worthy setting for the last workshop, with its acoustics providing an exceptional atmosphere. An awesome final concert by Matthias marked the close of the workshop.
After 10 days, our tour came to a close. Laden with many adventures, memories of unforgettably beautiful scenery and deep experiences in our hearts, we returned to Broome for our flight home.
As I write, Switzerland is icy cold and I long for the evenings at the campfire, surrounded by our own didgeridoo sounds. I thank Matthias for this very special experience. I also thank Philip, our master chef and guide through the Kimberleys. We were in such good hands and will never forget this trip. Finally, we owe our greatest thanks and respect to our friends, the Aborigines. Their love of nature and their humanness have opened our eyes to their world as well as to ours.