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Australian Mallee

WANDOO Didgeridoos are harvested in the Mallee patches
of the Western Australian Goldfields woodlands
and are naturally hollowed by termites.

Goldfield woodland sunrise Western Australia


Distribution of goldfield woodland West Australia

The Western Australian Goldfields are places of surprise. It is well known for its rich culture and history. Less well known, however, are its diverse and beautiful woodlands, where a wide range of plants and tall trees abound. The woodlands of the Goldfields are a marvel of nature. Nowhere in the world does such an arid environment support vegetation of such density and size. An average rainfall of 250 millimetres puts the region on a par with arid areas of Arizona, Southern Africa, and the Mediterranean. But woodlands are not normally a feature of such a landscape.

Adapted to harsh, dry conditions, these species have to be tough. As a result, they are extremely slow-growing. This is one feature that gives them their quirky edge: they are extraordinarily dense. Most WA Goldfields Eucalypts have a dry density measurement greater than 1100 kg/m³, ranking among the densest timber in the world. (anything higher than 1000 kg/m³ sinks in water)

Much of the Goldfields woodlands are 40-100 year old regrowth, the result of clearfilling operations undertaken for "woodlines", narrow gauge railways that radiated out from Kalgoorlie-Boulder and other WA mining towns. These woodlines transported timber into the mining towns and supplied fuel for boilers to generate electricity and pump water.

Mallee eucalypt scrub formation


Lignotuber Mallee (an Aboriginal word) is a growth-form rather than a particular specie, that is, a Eucalypt having many stems arising from a large, underground, woody swelling composed of stem tissue called a lignotuber. The lignotubers are large, woody, convoluted swellings often 0.3-0.6 m in diameter and sometimes up to 1.5 m. The largest recorded is 10 m across, which carried 301 living stems, in Mulette, 1978. Mallee is also widely used to describe the plant communities and regions where these plants predominate.

Eucalypts belong to the Myrtaceae family, along with the bottlebrush, tea-trees and paperbarks. They secrete a resinous gum, hence the common name gum tree.
There are a total of about 515 described species of Eucalypts. Of these, approximately 108 are Mallee eucalypts, whom 71 occur only in Western-Australia.

The Mallee growth-habit can occur in response to a variety of stress conditions, the major stresses involved are shortages of water, fires, termites or felling.

The frequent fires which occur in Mallee areas, rarely damage the largely-buried lignotubers. Usually all aerial stems and leaves are killed and new shoots are produced from the dormant buds in the lignotuber. Mallee lignotubers may carry up to 70 shoots six months after fire and this can diminish to about 20-30 seven years later and to less than ten by 100 years (Holland, 1969).
Regrowth The Mallee Eucalypts produce abundant germinable seeds. Despite this, naturally occurring seedlings are only rarely observed and recovery from burning or felling is predominantly by the growth of new shoots from established lignotubers. The scarcity of seedlings is attributed variously to rabbit grazing, competition from mature Eucalypts or lignotuber regrowth, and climate. Thus most observed regeneration is from lignotuber regrowth. In this regard, it is worth noting that a 1 to 1.5 year old Mallee plant can be completely defoliated 26 times before death ensues.  In the Goldfields the main species of Eucalypt Mallee suitable for Didgeridoos are "snap and rattle"
(Eucalyptus celastroides), "gimlet" (Eucalyptus salubris) and "Goldfields blackbutt" (Eucalyptus lesoueffi).


Coptotermes termites The impact of termites, often called by Australian Aboriginals "white ants", although they are not, in fact, ants at all, is omnipresent in the woodlands of the Western-Australian Goldfields.

There has been some suggestion that termites and Eucalyptus have co-evolved and establish an association in which termites processing of the dead component,(heartwood), of the tree is mutually beneficial, in that it helps return nutrients to the system in Australia's generally poor soils. The hollow stems are formed when natural self-thinning takes place.  It is all part of the life cycle and is an efficient way of recycling nutrients from the less-successful plants back to the more successful.

(pictured are the blind workers in light creamy colour protected by
the soldiers with their hard browm heads and jaws)

As the termites make their progress up the stem, they create a structure  made of galleries, which enables them to live, and provides them with  a constant supply of cellulose extracted from the heart wood.

As time goes by, the hollows in the stems are uncovered by drought, wind damage, insect infestation or fire, providing a critical habitat for a wide range of wildlife such as:
  •  small mammals
  •  lizards, goannas, geckos
  •  various type of insects:  ants , grubs, crickets ...
  •  spiders
  •  small birds
As decomposers, termites play a key role in many ecosystems.
Broken stem showing the galleries

As Didgeridoo makers, they are a wonder of nature!  Many expert woodworkers and craftsmen around the world have tried unsuccessfully to replicate their skills in hollowing intricate shapes of timber, like the ones we can find in the Mallee patches of South Western Australia.


In the past, a lot of Didgeridoos were cut in the remnant vegetation of the wheat belt leading to a rapid degradation of those precious small patches of native vegetation. Those small islands of native vegetation could have helped to regenerate much larger  degraded areas.

Now, the value of these patches are being  fully recognized as we become aware of the amazing diversity of the native bush and its inhabitants.

A licensing system for Didgeridoo cutters in Western-Australia was set-up by CALM (Department of Conservation and Land Management)  in an effort to protect the resources.

The terms and conditions of the license lay down some strict rules and areas for the harvesting of Didgeridoos. No more than one stem may be taken at a time from a Mallee plant. Stems must be hand drill to test for hollowness before they are cut. Licensees must only use existing tracks and should not make new tracks.

In 1998 around 2100 Didgeridoos cut were recorded on returns submitted to CALM.

In 2000 around 1150 were recorded.
In 2002 around 1650 were recorded.


CALM in Western-Australia has introduced an innovative procedure regarding the harvesting of Mallee stems for Didgeridoos.

All the stems cut need to be fitted with a plastic number tag in order to control the industry. This tag is fitted to the stem by drilling a small hole at the base of the Didgeridoo. This hole can be filled later with beeswax, wood-putty or wood-glue.

This pilot system is aimed at reducing the number of stems cut illegally and achieving sustainability in the harvesting of Didgeridoos from the Goldfields region. This system could be extended to every region of Australia in the future. For more information on the subject, follow the link  Didgeridoo Conservation Tags


We are currently operating under two CALM licenses and follow  the rules attached to those licenses, but we believe that some improvements can be made to the system, like the freezing of the number of licenses and banning the use of chainsaws.

We work with aerial photography to locate and assess the different Mallee patches and keep a log of the harvesting sites. We also monitor the regrowth  after harvesting. In the light of these observations, we believe that with careful management, the harvesting of Didgeridoos from the Goldfields woodlands is sustainable, but we would gladly welcome the involment of the traditional Aboriginal landowners from the Goldfields region in the process.

We keep a minimal impact on the fauna by carefully emptying the stem on the spot and relocating any wildlife found inside.

We don't have enough information to talk about Didgeridoo harvesting from other parts of Australia and welcome any information .

If you feel like cutting your own, please don't do it because, apart from the ethical reasons, you will also be liable for a heavy fine.

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