DIDGERIDOO MADE OF ICE. About 400 km from the South Pole Written by NASA Astronaut Don Pettit We spend the many moments of inclement weather (which can last for a few days) inside our Scott tents. While it may seem simply awful to sit for a day or two in an area about the size of a small throw rug, it beats being outside in -40 C wind and snow. To while away the hours, one invents new and useful past times such as counting the number of grains in a teaspoon of snow. In such context I decided to make a didgeridoo; tent life could be livened up with some doo-tunes.
Cold lips: playing the ice didg.
With a bit of practice from a few bad attempts, I managed to form a didgeridoo from the glacier ice we were camped on. The surface ice of this glacier was about 40,000 years old so I now had an aboriginal instrument that was made out of ice commensurate with its invention age.
The didg was a solid, -28 C dense ice that would ring if lightly tapped. Forgetting my playground lesson learned as a kid that gets tricked into sticking a damp tongue on a frozen jungle gym, I could not resist the temptation to blow a few notes. My moist flapping lips were soon glued to the end of this five foot long tube of ice. When your lips are frozen to a tube of ice, you can not even scream.
Most definitely, I am in need of a mouthpiece. Typically, a didg mouthpiece is made of bee’s wax. Due to the shortage of bees in the Antarctic interior, this was not an option. I settle upon butter. At -28 C, butter will form a pliable material not that much different than bee’s wax. Softening a generous lump of butter, it was shaped into something that looked like a doughnut flattened on one side, then set aside to harden. This was then attached to the ice didg and now it was complete.
The Ice butter mouthpiece.
Excited, the first notes were blown. This didg had a very low basic resonance. After playing for awhile, one looked like Winnie the Poo, caught in the honey jar with a ring around your lips, only in this case it was butter. This became a tasty treat after completion of a piece; to lick the butter off.
What I did find was that it took a few minutes of playing to warm up the didg. This is not uncommon for wooden ones as well. For some reason, after a few minutes of hot breath moving down a -28 C tube of ice, the tone changed and so did the ease of playing. Perhaps it also had something to do with softening the butter mouthpiece.
I made up two songs where one can half blow rhythm tunes and half rap-mouth words through the didg. They are sort of primitive but fit the character of our living conditions in the Antarctic interior. The Katabatic wind, for better or worse, is your constant companion and can shape your world and mold your mental state. The didg is a fitting instrument to jam with this truly wild wind. Here are these didg-rap tunes in word form:
ANTARCTIC DIDG RHYTHM
Deep base droning like the wind with higher keyed howling. Mouth these words while keeping the droning rhythm:
Katababatic wind (repeat)
freeze your fingers
freeze your toes
I am all your woes
repeat as needed while varying your drone with wind sounds.
Sastrugi is wind blown snow that packs into places and sets up seemingly as hard as cement. One is constantly fighting the onset of sastrugi as it tries to burry your camp. Again, the didg produces a fitting tribute to such a natural force.
Deep base drone with variations to higher keys, mouth these words while playing with the rhythm:
hard as cement
will bury your tent
hard as cement
bury your tent
hard as cement
Repeat as needed
I set up a recording studio in the latrine tent, a fitting place for an instrument that makes deep rhythmic notes. The recording was made with a small digital voice recorder and to improve the sound, the didg end was placed inside of a plastic wash basin along with the digital recorder. This was not quite studio session quality, but considering the conditions, was not too bad.
Making a didg recording in our studio which doubles as the latrine tent. This seemed a fitting place for an instrument that makes deep rhythmic tones.
When it was time to return to McMurdo, we left our didg of ice laying inside a ring of numbers from an unfinished sundial. The butter mouthpiece was used to fry up a batch of tater-tots.
Read more about my Antarctic adventures: