Spots of Time

April 15, 2003

What Goes Around Comes Around

Learning to throw a boomerang is not hard. Learning to catch a boomerang is another story. Welcome to Boomerang School.

I found “The Boomerang School” when I first came to Sydney – back in November of last year. I went right inside – after all, what is more typically Australian than a boomerang? The owner, Duncan MacClennan, let me know about the free boomerang school he ran every Sunday morning. Unfortunately, I was moving to Melbourne the next day, but the idea of learning to throw a boomerang stayed with me and I vowed to come back.

Since returning to Sydney from Tasmania I’ve made Boomerang School my new Sunday morning ritual. Though I am sure my grandmother would be more pleased with regular church attendance, there is something exotic and exciting about learning how to throw a boomerang while in Australia. The “school” is located in a park in Rushcutter’s Bay, a beautiful harbour suburb of Sydney – next to the yacht club with views of North Sydney and the Harbour Bridge. Somehow a stuffy church just can’t compete.

Sharp as a Tack…

Our teacher, Duncan MacClennan, has run the Boomerang School for 40 years – first from a kiosk in the park and then moving to his own shop in Sydney’s Kings Cross neighborhood. Considered by many to be an “expert” in the field, he was taught by an older aboriginal man many years ago. Duncan is 81 years old and partially disabled, yet watching him throw a boomerang is like watching someone take a sip out of the fountain of youth. He throws with a dexterity and power of someone half his age.

At one point during my first lesson Duncan commented that it might be time for him to think about retiring. I asked him who he was training to be his replacement – to pass on the knowledge and the tradition. “Awhh, Australians just aren’t interested in learning to throw a boomerang,” he said. I found this to be incredibly sad. Asking around it became apparent that all the other participants were young backpackers or out-of-country visitors – most finding out about the school through a guidebook entry or when purchasing a boomerang in Duncan’s shop.

Duncan is sharp as a tack and well read – he works seven days a week in his little shop which consists of a desk, a long display case and row after row of boomerangs hung on the walls. Every time I come in he is reading the newspaper, usually with a magnifying glass, and he is as up on current events as anyone I have ever known. During one visit I made the mistake of expressing my distaste with the current US foreign policy. For the next 20 minutes I was lectured like a naughty child about the importance of supporting my country and the history of beneficial US involvement around the world. Apparently Duncan was a veteran of WWII and had fought side by side with US soldiers – they were “mates” and that was all there was to say about it.

Success – well, almost…

I was quite pleased with myself last Sunday after a particularly good throw. I watched the boomerang sail smoothly through the air and arch gracefully to the left. I was so happy I did it right that at first I didn’t realize it was coming back – directly at me! I started to prepare myself to catch the boomerang (the proper way is to sandwich it between your two hands) when all of a sudden – thwack! – the sound of wood hitting skin – and bone. Unfortunately, my throw had not been as perfect as I thought and the boomerang came in low – knee level to be exact. If I ever had any doubt that a well-thrown boomerang could kill an animal, it vanished at the moment the wood struck my knee – drawing blood.

Of course I tried to be macho about the whole thing – laughing it off and calling it my first “battle scar” but the truth was it took me a few minutes of limping around and massaging my knee to confirm that the damage was not permanent. Another lesson of the boomerang – it is not a toy and should be used with caution. Before throwing Duncan always looked around the park to make sure no one was in the potential flight path – which is a large area considering we were all beginners. As the park is popular with non-boomerang throwers, there were frequent delays while we waited for people to move out of the way – a tricky situation as many were unaware of the danger and watching for us to throw again!

During one pause in the action, a white haired man in a silk bathrobe waved from the third floor of the posh apartment complex across the street. “Hello Duncan,” he said. “Hello there!” said Duncan waving back. He turned to me and said, “He’s Dutch but has lived in Australia for years.” Later he confided to me in a quieter voice – “Did I tell you he was accidentally hit by one of the students a few years ago? He had to go to hospital and it required stitches. I was really worried – he’s in his 70’s. Anyway, I went over to check on him the next day. The first thing he said to me was this: I’m not going to sue you – don’t worry.” He laughed. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

Ancient Egyptian Boomerangs

There are many different types of boomerangs – ranging from the small, well-known banana-shaped returning boomerangs to the larger hook-shaped hunting boomerangs. Boomerangs are hand-specific too – a lefty can’t accurately throw a right-handed boomerang any more than a right-hander can throw a left-handed boomerang.

When most people think of boomerangs they usually picture those created and used for thousands of years by Australia’s native inhabitants, the Aborigines. However, boomerangs have been found in many parts of the world from Eastern Europe to Northern Africa. According to Duncan, boomerangs were even found in the ancient Egyptian tomb of King Tut!

Non-returning boomerangs were first used as hunting instruments. The speed and power a boomerang picks up when thrown properly makes it a formidable weapon. According to Duncan, the small banana-shaped boomerangs were used primarily for hunting ducks – and no, when they hit something, they do not come back.

“Aboriginals didn’t set out to create a returning boomerang – that’s just ridiculous,” Duncan said. “A boomerang was a weapon – you threw it to kill dinner for your family. Creating a returning boomerang was just an accident.” Most anthropologists agree – believing a returning boomerang was simply a matter of trial and error.

Proper Technique

Before throwing a boomerang you must first be facing the right direction – which depends completely on the direction of the wind. Start by bending down and plucking some grass. Throw it in the air to determine the direction of the wind. Then face in the same direction as the wind is blowing and turn 45 degrees to your left. Throw directly ahead of you.

To throw a boomerang you first grasp it in your hand, painted or curved side toward you (flat side away from you) and “elbow” pointing back (the elbow is the bent part of the boomerang). Tilt it 10 degrees to the right. Then, take it directly over your shoulder like you would when serving a tennis racket – do NOT throw it like a baseball. Take a step and bring your arm forward, letting go of the boomerang before you completely straighten your arm – while your elbow is still bent at a 90 degree angle. Keep your eye on it as it curves back around and when attempting to catch it clap it between your two hands. Using your knee to stop the motion is not recommended.

The best words of advice on catching a boomerang came from Duncan a few minutes after my unfortunate knee encounter. “If it starts coming at you and you aren’t confident you can catch it, move out of the way,” he said, “That’s your self-preservation instinct kicking in - listen to it!” Now he tells me.

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For those of you really interested, a great resource for throwing a boomerang can be found online at www.howstuffworks.com. You’ll find more detailed information on why it come back, too. (Thanks Ed!)