A foraged meal beneath a star-studded Outback sky is an experience for all the senses, writes Julia Carlisle
The Outback terrain provides a tasty smorgasbord and we are hours from being seated under the stars for the real bush-tucker spread.
For a novice looking out across the endless scrub around Alice Springs, a feast doesn't look promising. It's where a true-blue bush-tucker bloke comes in handy. His name is Bob Taylor and he knows his game.
We've been picked up from the luxury Lassiters Hotel Casino and are heading out in Bob's minibus to Alice Springs Telegraph Station Historical Reserve. We're soon wandering through what looks like a dry creek bed when Bob hands me a leaf from a river red gum leaf with a white substance on the back, and tells me to try it. It's sweet like sugar.
We pass a bush orange tree, then a desert passionberry, some sort of raisin and wild baby tomatoes. All the while, Bob, who's from the Arrernte people, points out snake and lizard tracks in the sand and explains other interesting Outback facts.
Next stop is what the locals call Tyunpe, or for us white fellas "A place of lizards". As we drive closer to the towering gorge, Bob points to one side of the huge stone wall that is in the form of a lizard's head. We feel minute walking through the gorge and it's magical to discover the water hole at the end of the dry river bed — a true oasis.
There are only a handful of other tourists and the warm, late-afternoon sun highlights the colour of the towering rock walls. Bob's keen eyes spy tiny bush wallabies hiding on the cliff faces either side of us.
We drive out along the Western McDonnell Ranges arriving at our magnificent bush setting and the appetite is good after several hours of bush roaming.
Now it's time to dine under the stars.
With a permanent spot of land that Bob's leased in the national parks, his guests are guaranteed the best table in the desert. There's a permanent wooden shelter that he strings lamps to and his trailer is a well-organised mobile kitchen.
Our "Outback MasterChef" runs an efficient show — in a matter of minutes a fire is burning nicely, the table is set, the comfy chairs are arranged.
While he's preparing we take a stroll around the bush, glass of wine in hand, as the sun sets. A platter filled with macadamia nuts covered with bush herbs and chili is passed around — the feast begins.
First course is a bruschetta with chickpea dip and lemon myrtle — he's made the bread and it's grilled over the fire, the mulga wood enhancing the flavour. Every course is cooked in a bush oven or barbecued over our fire.
The banter is jovial as we sit around the flickering fire and Bob's stories entertain us. He's a trained chef, worked in Holland and travelled the world — hence the confidence and ease with which he serves our five-course meal.
Aged in his late 40s, Bob talks openly about his life; how he's part of the Stolen Generation, which he explains with maturity. He doesn't seem to carry bitterness but remembers the heartbreak. I feel privileged hearing his story and the way he looks to the future, and realise he's the first person I've met from the Stolen Generation. But what a way to learn about it, sitting around a camp fire with a charming, chatty Aboriginal man, under the stars and dining on his exquisite menu.
Bob says he works a lot with the local Alice Springs schools taking groups of kids on his tours, knowing it's important for his culture to live on.
All throughout this chit-chat we're served homemade emu sausage with mustard and sun-dried tomatoes, followed by grilled kangaroo fillet with a wattle-seed duka and bush tomatoes with roasted macadamia nuts.
As the night goes on, Bob educates us on how the Aboriginal people lived by the land. "Don't eat all the berries or fruit on the trees, let the birds eat them. .. then eat the birds," he wisely tells us.
His elders worked with nature. When there was drought and food and water was scarce, the men and women would use natural birth control to prevent creating any extra mouths that needed to be fed.
Finally we move on to the main course that's been bubbling away — Outback beef hotpots served with potato fritters and saltbush steamed vegetables with lemon myrtle.
The fresh night air is wonderful. We're in the middle of the Australia, under the Milky Way, with the sounds of desert keeping us alert as we try to spotlight some wildlife.
"This is what dreamtime means," I suggest.
Then dessert arrives.
Bob has whipped up a steamed Quandong pudding, with apricot wattleseed and white chocolate topped with caramel sauce.
When our minibus pulls up at the hotel and we farewell Bob I feel like I'm saying goodbye to a dear mate whom I've just caught up with after a long absence.
Now it's dreamtime.
IF YOU GO
For details of Bob Taylor's tours, see RT Tours Australia.
The writer was a guest of Tourism NT.