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This Is Northern New South Wales


I always thought that the annual Brunswick Heads Woodchop was little more than a hokey little, country town tradition; great for tourism, a big boost to regional camaraderie but not much more than a quirky gathering of enthusiastic axemen.

I was wrong.

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These guys are serious. Friendly, open, always ready for a beer and a yarn, but maniacally competitive, highly trained and about two and a half million percent dedicated. And so they would be – it’s in their blood. Rare is it that axemen come to an event as anonymous outsiders. “Ah, so you’re John’s son,” or “my grandad was old Billy Smith” are common phrases around the arena and family spirit is strong. Lineage is almost a prerequisite in the extensive rule book, and father-son teams are frequent.

There are some for whom it is a bit of a hobby, not that they are any less dedicated, but for others it has become a career. Spending over $2,000 on a carefully machined saw and an absolute bargain basement axe setting you back at least $500, axemen are devoted to their sport. Traveling internationally with an axe quiver of up to $20,000, caressing their tools lovingly and honing the blades to the point you could shave with them, there is nothing small-town, nothing hokey about it.

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Split over three divisions, the underhand, the standing block and the treefell, there is a massive amount of skill and technique involved, bred from the practicality in the sport’s tradition. Many of the axemen are from a timber-infused background, working in forestry, carpentry or some aspect of the lumber trade, and the event emulates the industry from which it grew.

The divisions are varied. In the underhand, axemen have to halve an upright log of a specific dimension which is securely bolted into a frame, attacking it strategically and precisely from both sides until it topples. In the standing log, competitors stand atop a horizontal log which they have carefully prepared, chipping flat steps at each end of the log to stand on and tapping nails in around the log’s circumference to prevent splitting – a bad split can result in a heartbreaking and immediate disqualification.

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But the most impressive is the treefelling event. A four or five metre tall trunk is secured in the ground. At its summit, a log, milled to specific diameter, is nailed. Competitors start at ground level, chop a notch into the trunk and wedge a special springboard into it. They leap up onto this board and repeat the process, hauling up another board. When they have repeated this three times and are standing on the final board, a dizzying height above the arena and crowds, they underhand chop the summit log, swinging as enthusiastically as if they were on terra firma, but they’re not: they’re on a board, a metre or so long, 20 centimetres wide…and four metres above the concrete-hard, parched earth. Balls of steel, these boys.

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Wood chop competitions are as ‘Strayan as they come. This first recorded event was in Tassie way back in 1870 when they first invented trees. Just kidding – but only about the trees. The record books hold that a couple of roughnecks, Joseph Smith and some bloke named Biggs, chucked 25 quid down on who could chop a log faster. Smith won and the woodchop was born. It wasn’t until over a century later that the world’s first official woodchopping championship took place, but Brunswick Heads has been in it from the start, established in 1961, and one of, if not the, longest consistently running woodchop tournaments in the world.

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Of course, there’s heavy rivalry between NSW and Queensland – the states seem to cause contest out of pretty much anything they can – but the focus was on the individual divisions, this year’s event not only hosting current world champion, Brad de Losa, but also crowning the new Australian champion.

So who won? No idea. To be honest, and with the utmost respect to all competitors, I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter if they’re a first-round dropout or at the top of their game, what these lads do is bloody impressive. Their skill, bravery and endurance is more than a little humbling, they’re all winners in my eyes and if I ever meet any of them – let’s just say I’ll be calling them ‘sir’.

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