Northern Territory: Bush tucker by the billabong

By Karen Michelmore

Karen Michelmore goes in search of a traditional feast in the Northern Territory's world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.

An egret perches on a tree in Kakadu National Park. Photo / Thinkstock
An egret perches on a tree in Kakadu National Park. Photo / Thinkstock

A beautiful white greater egret sits sunning itself in a tree before launching into a lazy flight above the billabong.

The water below is dotted with blooming pink water lilies and the occasional pair of gleaming green eyes of crocodiles lurking just below the surface.

It's a still and sunny day in the Northern Territory's world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.

Only the sounds of a gentle breeze and the odd distant call of birds interrupt the peace.

But we are not here to be idle, we have come to hunt.

Secreted within the lush surrounds is dinner. Apparently we only have to know where to look.

The billabong before us is teeming with wildlife and, according to our guide, potential and tasty foodstuffs.

Patsy Raglar is an Aboriginal woman with great traditional knowledge and skills gathered from a lifetime in the bush, and as the daughter of a famous hunter in the region, known as Spider.

Each afternoon between May and October she takes small groups from Animal Tracks tours on safari for bush tucker in Kakadu's Buffalo Farm, which is off-limits to normal tourists.

"These waters are just full of food," she explains.

Indeed. We don't know it yet, but over the next seven hours we will gather and eat a feast of traditional bush tucker - water lily, bush carrot, magpie goose and green ants.

We'll also see plenty of wildlife, some of the 10,000 species of insect, 55 types of fish, hundreds of bird species and 75 different types of reptile to inhabit the vast 20,000sq km national park.

That will even include some brutish-looking Asian water buffalo, that until the 1980s charged through the park's wetlands and floodplains at will in their hundreds of thousands.

Our hunting ground - the Buffalo Farm, run by Patsy and her husband David - is a 120sq km pen for about 500 buffalo, spared from the shotguns of hunters in the government eradication programme of the 1980s.

The Kakadu buffalo, introduced from Timor, originally arrived with English settlers in the 1800s at Cobourg Peninsula northeast of Darwin, but were set free when the settlement was abandoned, rapidly multiplying and sparking a buffalo industry boom that ran until the 1980s.

The farm is now the last bastion of the buffalo in Kakadu - a compromise between local Aborigines, who still hunt the huge animal for its meat, and the need to protect the area from the major damage trampling buffalo cause to the wetlands.

The spectacular wetlands and prolific wildlife are a major tourist drawcard to Kakadu, about three hours' drive from Darwin.

The park, which is packed with stunning scenery and Aboriginal rock art and culture, attracts about 200,000 visitors each year, mostly from overseas.

Just five per cent of the tourists are local "territorians" - something the government is hoping to change.

Earlier this year the federal government, which jointly manages the park with Aboriginal traditional owners, scrapped the A$16.25 ($17.70) entry fee into the park.

It's also reopened one of the Top End's most popular destinations - the spectacular Twin Falls gorge - which closed for more than a year after a crocodile was spotted in the area.

Visitors are now able to catch a free boat shuttle for a short, pleasant ride through the gorge, and walk across rocks and a new shiny metal boardwalk to the thundering waterfalls. But today, off the well-beaten track, our four-wheel-drive inches forward, before stopping again.

"That's a crocodile," Patsy says, as her sharp eyes detect a 3m long reptile lurking in shade under some trees on the opposite side of the billabong.

We fiddle with our binoculars and eventually are able to pinpoint the croc she casually spotted minutes earlier.

A beautiful group of water lilies in the middle of the sparkling waterway also catches the eye.

We clamber out of the vehicle and walk down to the water's edge, where Patsy expertly fishes out several water lily bulbs with a long bamboo pole.

We take five to be cooked up for our bush tucker feast later, but sample the flower's seeds, which taste nutty and a little sour.

Patsy, with her wild curly hair and quiet smile, explains the menu changes from week to week, as the six Aboriginal seasons and hunting calendar changes.

"Often once a week, sometimes, my husband gets buffalo meat," she says.

"Yesterday he was watching for goose, but they didn't fly.

"When this water dries, when they [the magpie geese] start eating water chestnuts, my husband can stop getting buffalo - they'll start getting bony soon.

"We get goose and wild snake and turtle, sometimes barramundi."

We leave the billabong and drive through bushland between vibrant green gum trees to another hunting ground. This time we are looking for bush carrot, to complement the two magpie geese lying in the back of the vehicle that Patsy's husband shot for us earlier this morning.

After a brief explanation, the group begins scouring around the bottom of trees looking for tiny vines that indicate a bush carrot may be hidden below, and dig them up with metal sticks.

Mid-way through the gathering, Patsy stops us to feed us crushed green ants, sherbet-tasting and crunchy critters.

When boiled the ants make a bush medicine that can ease the symptoms of flu, we are told.

Later, we sit on paperbark on a small hill overlooking a vast, open floodplain and help Patsy pluck feathers from the magpie geese in preparation for dinner.

A whistling kite shoots by overhead and in the distance we can see three long-legged brolgas frolicking in the water.

Patsy throws the geese into the fire briefly to singe their skins, before hacking into the flesh with the skill of a surgeon.

She talks about her culture and family as she cuts up the geese and places them on the hot charcoal to slowly cook.

As the intoxicating steak-like aroma of the cooking bird wafts through the air, we sit in silence and watch the sun set over the expansive floodplain and reflect on the day.

What a day.

CASE NOTES

Getting there: Kakadu National Park is about 250km south east of Darwin.
Fly there with Air New Zealand Book now

What to do: Animal Tracks tours.

Karen Michelmore was a guest of the Northern Territory Tourist Commission, staying at the Gagadju Lodge, at Cooinda.

Find out more at Australia.com

- AAP

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