Woodskills is a weekend KHA camping event run once every two years, demonstrating colonial timbercraft and carpentry. Held at the Kellett family’s property in Wee Jasper, it’s run by volunteers for members, interested staff from NSW NPWS and ACT Parks and Conservation Service, and for Wee Jasper locals.
Like many social activities, Covid had seen this event suspended, and this was its first chance to run it again since conditions eased. For this year and for the first time, the KHA was able to offer both the event and a catered dinner free to members and volunteer contributors.
Having joined the KHA last year, this was also the first opportunity Ela and I’d had to meet anyone. We were keen to attend, and I offered to contribute some live music. The organisers warmly accepted and slotted me in for a lunchtime performance, with another muso Daniel already scheduled for the evening.
As members who’ve visited it can attest, the Wee Jasper area is amazing: an Irish shepherd’s dream of what the northern tip of the Brindabellas should look like. Once grazing land, the Kellett property is now being turned to eco-tourism with plenty of new trees planted, but is not yet open to the public so camping there itself is a rare treat.
With some eighty attendants expected, after setting up camp on Friday Ela and I helped out with marshalling early arrivals, against skies that promised stunning weekend weather (I’m indebted to Ela for her help in my prep, and also for most of the pics that follow.) That night we were lulled to sleep with the distant sounds of bodhrán and pennywhistle from an impromptu music session in the shed.
From the music technical side, I sing and play a range of instruments but for this event I’d dusted off a couple of acoustic-electric guitars and filled the back of my fourby with an amp and a looper (so you can play against your own music), two PAs, some stands, a mixing desk and a portable table, as I’d been told there was power available and that the music would be performed outside in fine weather.
Thoughtfully, property coordinator Nathan and Simon the KHA President had laid out booths under the shed verandah. As you faced the shed, the music was off to the right, parked next to a pottery demonstration by a former ANU Professor of Ceramics, and past her were locals selling coffee, making waffles and offering samples of locally-made gin. Meanwhile, the verandah faced uphill, where under marquees were the demonstrations and hands-on stuff. The event couldn’t have asked for better weather: after months of grey skies, Saturday bordered on gorgeous.
I thought the set-up worked brilliantly: sheltering the music while the amplification carried up the hill to the action under the marquees. At lunch, people could stop and sit on the hill, eat lunch and listen to the music, or just wander around the demos with music in the background.
Having not been to this event before, in prior weeks I’d asked Nathan what music might work. He said that folk music was popular, so I tried to strike a balance between traditional and modern folk, with songs from Australian folk rock band The Waifs, from Irish punk folk band The Pogues, and from Australian folk band Redgum along with some traditional Irish and Scottish music and some convict songs, and tucked some country Australiana in the back pocket. Meanwhile, the other scheduled musician Daniel was from nearby Yass. He writes his own modern folk music (everything from humorous to historical and political) and does traditional stuff too. We coordinated to share my mixing desk and PAs.
Wood Skills Demonstrations
But the main focus of this jamboree was of course colonial wood skill demos. These dying skills are needed to conserve and restore the regional huts, and Ela and I were astounded to see how many like-minded people this event had attracted who like us, loved camping, the bush, old bush huts and were willing to get their hands on an amazing array of 19th century bush carpentry techniques.
Demonstrated were the use of the froe, adze, shave horse, broadaxe, crosscut saw and treadle lathe. With such tools, guests were encouraged to make mallets and mauls, milk maid stools and four legged stools, benches and tables – or even parts of these things, to help furnish the huts. Also demonstrated were tool maintenance and knife sharpening.
Meanwhile, the Wagga Wagga 4WD Club performed 4WD safety demonstrations for KHA members on future field trips, while two local authors (an historian and a geologist) sold books under marquees, and an artist sold paintings from within the shed. There was demonstration of cord-making from local barks, and I saw someone walk past with a whip at her belt – perhaps doing a whip-cracking demonstration (or perhaps someone had left dishes in the communal sink?)
Local tours were run to Oakey Creek Homestead and the nearby Carey’s Cave and outside formal music sessions, an impromptu folk band played. There was plenty that I wanted to do, but I had to look after sound gear and cuts and bruises are no friend to guitar-playing so I took time to enjoy the displays but kept my hands off the tools this time around (so if anyone falls off a milking stool in some Kozzy mountain hut this year, it won’t have been made by me.)
After dinner, Daniel and I played together for an hour or so. He’s a true folkie as I am not, and has vast quantities of material so I tried to be a good session musician and play along with his songs. That seemed to work more often than it didn’t, as some guests sitting around fire-drums asked how long we’d been playing together (I had to be honest and answer, ‘about ten minutes’.) Daniel later recorded a song commemorating the weekend here.
Conclusions and Lessons Learned
Although Nathan had initially estimated 80 attendants, after registrations were tallied more than 150 had come. As a newcomer to KHA I personally found the range of skills and knowledge on display to be breathtaking. With every conversation you struck, you ended up talking to a bush historian, an artist, a geologist, a bushcrafter, a bush schoolteacher, or a Wee Jasper local with extensive local knowledge. It was impossible to be bored and you’d had to have slept through the whole weekend not to have learned something. The generosity of Nathan and his mother (it’s actually her property) in putting up with so many people over the weekend was a tribute to their care for both the region and the community, while the involvement of neighbours (Wee Jasper is a hamlet of 75 people) was delightful to see.
Despite being a volunteer event it was amazingly well-organised and preparing it must have exhausted a lot of people. Even in a peripheral role I found myself needing to rest for several days afterward, and it took all that time to begin to digest what had just occurred.
In offering a musical contribution to an event that had previously been unknown to me, my thoughts were that after years of bushfires, Covid and La Niña rains, people might want to reconnect, to recommit, rekindle enthusiasms and start making constructive and forward-looking plans again. I wanted to meet the KHA and contribute, wanted the music to help lubricate that, and according to passing comments it did. While the event has music every time it’s run, this was the first time it had had ‘official’ music, with its own space, amplification and prepared material.
Consequently, through lunch, the sound had carried right to the back of the demos and punters told me that it helped them relax. Although people sat around on the hill to listen, there was no thought of a formal audience and I thought that worked well. At the catered dinner, people sat at a long table and I thought Daniel’s quiet, intimate style worked well there: supporting convivial conversation but not clobbering it. After dinner, people huddled around fire-drums chatting quietly and the music got a bit cheekier. When I played Slim Newton’s Redback on the Toilet Seat, Daniel quietly got up to make a cup of tea, though I’m still not sure whether that was in protest. (However, he’d already played his own song Zombie Sheep of the Murrumbidgee, so I don’t think he can point any fingers.)
This event runs every two years. Nathan has indicated that he’d be glad to do it on his family’s property again, and I’d love to be involved. It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating, enjoyable, inspiring and heart-warming way to spend an Autumn weekend in the region.
Despite joining last year, thanks mainly to La Niña rains we still haven’t been out to help maintain a hut, but if the KHA is as enthusiastic with its hut maintenance as it is with its Woodskills event, Ela and I will be looking forward to it.
KHA wishes to thanks Mark Grundy for this report