Published in The Weekend Australian magazine, April 12-13, 2008.
“The ladies’ survival kit is a dish and a digging stick,” says Alice Springs Desert Park guide, Leroy, to a captivated audience as he shows how his Aboriginal ancestors ground seeds to make bread. “The best seeds are grass seeds. The smaller the seed, the finer your flour, the better the bread.”
Then, picking up a spear and a boomerang, he adds: “All you men can survive in the bush, no worries.” Explaining how to catch a kangaroo, he says: “You wait till all the leaders go past to the waterhole, then you go for the last few stragglers. That way you can walk off with the kangaroo over your shoulder and the leaders are still at the waterhole drinking. That guarantees your food source for tomorrow.”
The ingenuity of the Aboriginal people quickly becomes clear at the park, where manager Gary Fry says everything is “appropriate and in context”. Women tell women’s stories, and five of the eight guides are indigenous.
Fry admits that the seemingly barren park can be confronting for some visitors. “You have this mental image of rolling dunes of sand and you get here and it’s nothing like that. It doesn’t many any sense.”
Yet, look a little more closely and the series of habitats re-creating desert rivers, sand country and woodland unlocks the secrets of the outback. Early European settlers might not have realized it but for Aboriginal people, the outback is a great big supermarket of nutritious food.
The chef at Desert Park, Fijian Indian Umesh Chand, enthusiastically embraces native ingredients, producing jams from desert limes and riberries, bush tomato chutney and other preserves sold through the park shop.
He also incorporates a bush tucker theme in many of his menus. The park hosts weddings and functions in unique locations such as the Nocturnal House and the outdoor Nature Theatre, set against a backdrop of the hauntingly beautiful MacDonnell Ranges that are woven into Aboriginal legend.
Tim Hill, destination development officer (nature and culture) for Tourism NT, has a brief to support Aboriginal families and communities to develop new tourism enterprises.
He works closely with people such as Aboriginal chef Bob Taylor whose Mbantua Tour offers a unique insight into the outback as well as incorporating a bush lunch. Taylor has been a chef for 30 years, working mostly in restaurants in Adelaide, before returning to his roots.
Some of his tours are combined with a 17km bike ride from Alice Springs to Simpson’s Gap, the lizard of Aboriginal Dreaming, with frequent stops enroute so that Taylor can point out the trees and bushes that are a source of food and medicine.
Another tour operator, Patricia Ansell Dodds, looks at bush foods on her Alice Springs Sacred Sites and Cultural Tour, beginning at Heavitree Gap, the two caterpillars drinking at a waterhole in Aboriginal legend. Ansell Dodds points out the wild figs that she depicts in her traditional paintings. Her tour ends with dinner at the Red Ochre Grill, one of the best known restaurants in Alice Springs, where the dining scene is surprisingly vibrant given the city’s isolation and small population (around 30,000).
From cosmopolitan cafes like The Lane, which would sit well in any Australian city, to Hanuman, which offers Thai and Indian dishes that will knock your socks off, there’s a great choice of dining for all tastes and budgets, but it is the Red Ochre Grill that offers a true taste of the outback. Its eclectic menu features an extensive line-up of dishes made from native ingredients such as kangaroo, crocodile, quandong, lemon myrtle, bunya nuts and bush tomatoes,
A number of tours from Alice Springs include Oak Valley, an Aboriginal-run farm on the edge of the Simpson Desert where the Le Rossignol family has a flourishing orchard and produces olive oil thanks to a plentiful supply of bore water. Craig Le Rossignol, who has both French and Aboriginal blood, grows native foods in a trial program with Alice Springs TAFE.
Bush tucker is the highlight of the magical Sounds of Silence dinner at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, where guests dine outdoors as the sun sets over Uluru. At the more intimate Sounds of Firelight dinner at Kings Canyon Resort, guests are welcomed with canapés such as prawns with wild lime pickle, and smoked kangaroo with bush tomato chutney. It’s a fine twist on an age-old cuisine.
Territory Discoveries (+61 13 43 83) sells two Outback Gourmet Adventures, one to the Red Centre and one to the Top End. The six-night self-drive packages include accommodation, car hire and experiences such as the Sounds of Firelight dinner and an Aboriginal bush foods and culture tour.
© Christine Salins