Forage for a feast with Australia’s First Nations peoples
WORDS EMILY MCAULIFFE
There are tales of colonial explorers suffering from starvation in Australia, while the local Indigenous population looked on, puzzled. There was food everywhere. The intruders just didn’t know how to find it. Truth be told, most people today would struggle to survive in the vast Australian outback without their own food, as most of us are blinkered to the country’s organic supermarket.
Australia’s First Nations peoples, however, have long been attuned to the sustenance and healing properties of the land, having refined hunting, gathering and farming techniques over thousands of years. In Central Australia, they learned which species of bush tomatoes were edible and which were heart-stoppers; that catching a perentie is far easier than pinning a kangaroo (goannas are much less bouncy), and that protein-packed grubs like to hang out in acacia tree roots. And with Aboriginal bush tucker tours growing around the country, increasingly, others now have the opportunity to get clued up on bush tucker, bush medicine and other Indigenous practices.
You are sure to be surprised by the organic supermarket you'll find out in the Aussie bush.
One couple passionate about sharing their knowledge and culture is Peter Abbott and Christine Breaden who run Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience & Tours with their family in the Northern Territory’s Watarrka region. Like many visitors, I’ve travelled to the area to see Kings Canyon, but I am equally interested to join Peter and his sister Natasha on a one-hour tour as they talk through the native bush food (or ‘mai’) of the region and other aspects of their culture.
Learn where to find food, and how to prepare it with Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience & Tours.
Natasha begins by demonstrating the seed-grinding process historically used by Aboriginal women to create flour for fire-baked biscuits. She shakes a prickly wattle acacia to release a shower of small seeds. It seems easy enough, but I imagine an awful lot of seeds are needed for a batch of biscuits, which, according to Natasha, don’t taste like much, but were an important form of sustenance. Plus, the act of working together as a community was almost as significant as the end result. Far more flavourful is the grevillea ‘Robyn Gordon’, which Natasha rolls in her palm to release its nectar. We learn that the flower can be swirled in water to create a sweet drink, which sounds a lot more enticing than the biscuits.
It might not look like your typical banana, but bush bananas are an important bush food plant for Aboriginal people. Try them with Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience & Tours.
Sample local delights ... with Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience & Tours.
As we move between 10 stations, Peter and Natasha take turns explaining cultural ceremonies, jewellery-making techniques and dot painting.
A plump, white witchetty grub tumbles out and rights itself on the mat in front of us. Natasha invites us to give it a little poke.
Sitting before a painting by her sister-in-law, Natasha picks up a piece of wood and taps it on the ground. A plump, white witchetty grub tumbles out and rights itself on the mat in front of us. Natasha invites us to give it a little poke. It’s soft like a marshmallow, and, according to Peter, tastes like scrambled eggs or popcorn when cooked. Though, he warns if you take a witchetty grub from the base of a eucalyptus tree it will probably taste more like Vicks VapoRub. We then examine a colourful bounty of fruits — quandong, wild passionfruit, wild oranges and bush bananas, confirming that the Australian bush really is a giant grocery store.
Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience & Tours show visitors that the bush is essentially one very (very) large supermarket.
THE NEW PERSPECTIVE
Kings Canyon is part of the vast 71,000-hectare Watarrka National Park, visitable with Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience & Tours.
The nuanced knowledge of Australia’s First Nations peoples is incredible, and, as I discovered, even the smallest insights into the land can completely change your perspective. On my subsequent hike around Kings Canyon, instead of seeing ‘trees’, I spot weeping emu bush (good for treating wounds), bush tomatoes and different species of acacia. Though I still hope I never have to fend for myself in the Aussie bush, I did google native Australian plants after the tour and bought a pot of soothing body balm made using an Indigenous formula after realising that the best anti-inflammatory drugs probably surround me. Karrke was a reminder that we need to embrace the fruits of our beautiful land – just as our First Nations peoples have done for millennia.
Here are four other incredible experiences around this vast land that you can’t miss if you’re looking to learn more about Aussie bush (and beach) tucker.
WORDS EMILY MCAULIFFE