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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. (Friends tried them later – I’m glad I didn’t!) 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.
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!
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.