Monday, June 23, 2008

Discovering Your Inner Caveman

With apologies to G, I am going to reveal one of his little obsessions to the world. He has a thing for making fire. Not that he's a pyromaniac by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he is more reluctant to start a fire than almost any camper I know. But his collection of flints and tinders rivals some outdoors shops.

Still, a flint firelighter is not quite primitive enough. G also wants to be able to light a fire by rubbing sticks together, like primitive cultures once did before white man got them hooked on matches. Now there are just a few elders out there who know this stuff - and Ray Mears.
The first trick is choosing the right wood. Having read up on native trees here in New Zealand, G knew that for his soft base he needed to find mahoe, also known as whiteywood. The nickname comes from the fact that a white lichen often grows on the branches of the mahoe. Once we started looking, we found that there was lots of mahoe growing around Wellington's parks.

The hardwood to use for the drill is traditionally from the kaikomako tree. At first we could not find this tree at all. Then on a nature walk in the Rimutaka Forest Park, there was not only a tree, but a helpful sign telling us that it was indeed the right kind. However, cutting branches off trees along nature walks is not the most noble practice, so we left it alone.
Later, however, we found an alternative hardwood tree called the kawakawa that is much more common in our area. Eventually we were able to gather a dry branch of kawakawa and a short section of mahoe to experiment with.

G wanted to try the bow and drill method, which is arguably the most effective and easiest on your hands. Two pieces of softwood are used as a base and top. You need to carve out a depression in each piece for the drill to sit in. On the base you also need to cut a groove on one side where the hot ash can accumulate.

The drill is a length of hardwood stripped of its bark and slightly trimmed at the ends to sit nicely in the depressions. The bow is also made of hardwood, with a length of cord tied to the ends.

The cord gets wrapped once around the drill, and by moving the bow back and forth, you spin the drill against the base (presumably more quickly and less painfully than you could using your hands.)

The softwood gradually heats up and creates burning sawdust, which you can then use to start your tinder burning. If all goes well, that is.
While G managed to get his wood to smoke, the ash was not hot enough to get a fire started. He thinks that his drill was both too short (making it awkward to keep the bow string on it) and too narrow (making it drill all the way through the base too quickly.)

More experiments may be coming your way in the future. I'll certainly let you know if we get a flame.

On a related note, G also tried out a flat, plastic magnifying 'glass' that came with a survival kit. Although it was not consistently effective, he did get a piece of newspaper to catch fire with it.
Cartoon at top via

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