Nov 10

Foraging for Bush Food the Aboriginal way

by in Adventure, Australasia, Blog trip, Food & Drink

Heat enveloped us, forcing its way through our lightweight clothing, beating down onto a wide variety of headgear as the sun seared its way across the sky, shimmering through the bush on its daily journey across the Australian outback.  Brittle twigs snapped and distant scuttlings broke the hot silence as we followed in a straggly line behind Arty, our Aboriginal guide. He richoted knowledgeably around this, to me, totally alien landscape, with the familiarity garnered from years of experience searching out bush food.

Bush tucker foraging Australia - zoedawes

Suddenly Arty stopped and knelt down in the dusty red earth.  Using a smoothly curved  piece of wood (a Coolamon) he pointed out an irregular bowl shape beneath a straggly tree. “Honey ant nest.  The women from the local Anangu tribe have been here digging them out.  The ants harvest honey dew produced by aphids which suck sap from the trees.  The ants use their antenna to stimulate the aphids to release the sweet liquid. To eat one, pick it up by its head, pop the abdomen in your mouth and bite it.  It’s a real delicacy for our people.”  Fortunately for those of us who are a tad squeamish about eating live insects, we were not going to try one today.

In the bush with wooden coolamon

In the past Aboriginal women were the main food gatherers searching for seeds, vegetables, fruit and witchetty grubs. They used digging sticks and carried the food in coolamons (curved dish made from local hardwood). Men hunted kangaroo, lizards, snakes, goanna and small birds with boomerangs, throwing sticks and spears.  Arty demonstrated how they made the spears using different types of hard and soft wood and an adhesive made from tree sap.  We had to avoid the tough, tussocky spinifex grass which is as sharp and jaggy as it sounds.

Spinifex grass

Further on Arty found tiny seeds which could be hammered into coarse flour to make damper or ‘bush bread’, now becoming quite trendy, dipped with different oils and herbs, rather as the Italians use foccaccio or ciabatta and olive oil.

Grinding seed by hand

Wandering through this sparse, sun-bleached land, not far from awe-inspiring Uluru, where nature seems to wage a perpetual battle for sparse natural resources,  it brought into sharp focus just After an hour of walk about we were starting to wilt so we were  led back to a canopy-shaded area where we flopped down out of the sun and drank eagerly from chilled bottles of water.  Laid out in front of use were more coolamons filled with a wide variety of seeds, berries, flowers and nuts.  Arty explained how each one could be used and then we could taste some of them.  That was a real culinary adventure in itself, as the majority of flavours were totally new and very different.

Sara tasting the bush food

I must admit I was worried in case he presented us with a plate of big, fat, white witchety grubs but fortunately they weren’t on the menu that day.  My favourite was the bright red quandong (or desert peach), used in a variety of dishes to add sweetness and the kernel of the fruit has high levels of Vitamin C.  The reason I liked it is that it tasted great – some of the others were quite bitter or sour and would take some getting used to by a westernised palate.   We tried tiny bush tomatoes, wattle seeds and lemon myrtle, which has to be most ubiquitous of all seasonings, appearing in many modern bush food dishes today.  Prettiest food award must go to the Grevillea ‘Honey Gem’ a vivid green and yellow frondy plant that produces a sweet nectar – perhaps nature’s partner to the honey ant.

Grevillea 'Honey Gem'By the end of this fascinating two hour SEIT Bush Tucker Tour in the Uluru area of the Northern Territory, I felt privileged to have been a given a brief glimpse of just how tough and skilled the Aboriginal peoples were to have survived totally unaided in this fierce desert area for thousands of years.  Plus an insight into how foods that have been foraged for over the centuries are now being used in a wide variety of imaginative ways.   And thankfully, not a witchety grub in sight!

Bush Foods including grevillea, quondong, bush tomatoes & wattle seed

I was on an Aborigine Bush Food & Culture tour organised by Tourism Northern Territory.  It was my first time in Australia and I fell in love with this captivating region.  My stay included time in tropical Darwin, visiting the awe-inspiring area of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and exploring in and around Alice Springs.  During my time in Yulara I stayed at the 5 star Sails in the Desert Hotel run by Ayers Rock Resort.  If you haven’t already been to this part of the world, then do put it on your list of places to see – it is a truly unique and hypnotisingly wonderful place to visit.

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11 Responses to “Foraging for Bush Food the Aboriginal way”

  1. From Zoë Dawes:

    One thing I was surprised at was the bearability of the heat and lack of flies. Everyone had warned me about both but though the temperature was a minimum of 34 degrees every day it was a dry heat and not too debilitating. We were told that this time of year ie spring, was a good season to visit as the flies (and snakes) were not too active yet, much to everyone’s relief.

    Posted on November 10, 2012 at 10:00 pm #
  2. From Lynne Gray:

    I walked with you Zoe – what a fascinating journey you had! Sounds just marvellous and has been added to my bucket list!
    Great writing, as always – you bring it alive 🙂

    Posted on November 13, 2012 at 11:13 am #
  3. From Zoë Dawes:

    Highly recommend it Lynne – and many thanks for kind words re the writing!

    Posted on November 13, 2012 at 11:39 am #
  4. From D.J. - The World of Deej:

    What a cool experience. Well, except for the eating ants part…

    Posted on November 14, 2012 at 1:28 am #
  5. From Zoë Dawes:

    Cheers! Fortunately we didn’t have to try the ants – or anything buggy 😉

    Posted on November 14, 2012 at 1:29 pm #
  6. From Sara:

    Hi Zoe! Sara your tour guide here! So glad you loved your time in the outback. What an special part of the world it is. Now when lost in the outback you will be able to find your own food and water right?!?! haha. Keep up the exciting blogs.

    Posted on November 16, 2012 at 5:50 am #
  7. From Zoë Dawes:

    Hmm – don’t think I’d survive more than an hour Sara! But what a fascinating experience. Arty gave us such a clear and simple insight into just how his people managed to make the most of this tough environment and it’s something I think all visitors to the area would really enjoy. Thanks so much for a great day including the beautiful sunrise tour and walk to Kata Tjuta. If I wrote a Bush Tucker recipe book I think I’d call it ‘101 ways with Lemon Myrtle’ 😉

    Posted on November 16, 2012 at 11:25 am #
  8. From Turtle:

    As little kids in Australia we used to always try to find witchetty grubs and make each other eat them. But we were about six years old. And this was the middle of Sydney… so we weren’t too successful very often 🙂

    Posted on November 26, 2012 at 8:43 am #
  9. From Zoë Dawes:

    Urgh!!! Kids eh? Bet you’re glad you weren’t that successful Turtle …

    Posted on December 17, 2012 at 11:25 am #


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