Uncovering the secrets of bush tucker in Kakadu

Bush tracks, paperbark swamps, 4WDs, and “handbags”. Angela Saurine sets off on a Kakadu adventure to remember.

A Lady on shore of Kakadu Twin Falls
  • Angela Saurine
  • June 2018

“There are handbags in here,” says our guide Patsy “Raichiwanga” Raglar as she reaches across the billabong with a long bamboo stick to fish out a lily seed pod. “We don’t say their name, because Aboriginal people believe it will make them appear.”

The “their” Patsy is referring to are crocodiles and, fearing a Crocodile Dundee-like close encounter, I back away from the edge in case Patsy’s “handbags” have a penchant for humans. Patsy hands me a lily stem, which she says her people eat for its nutritional value. I bite it tentatively, and am surprised to discover it tastes like celery.

The sun is scorching as we follow our curly-haired guide back to the open-sided 4WD to continue our Animal Tracks Safari bush tucker tour opens in new window through Kakadu Buffalo Farm.

As we drive along bush tracks, past floodplains, woodland savannahs and paperbark swamps, Patsy tells us stories of her life growing up hunting and gathering, and living in bark shelters and caves in Central Arnhem Land.

Green ants used to help cure colds
Green ants used to help cure colds

Outback pantry

At our next stop, Patsy chops into a sand palm with an axe to get to the palm “heart”, the central growing shoot. The heart’s flavour is reminiscent of coconut, but bitter and starchy. We look for sawdust at the base of wattle trees, indicating that a grub, high in protein, has burrowed there. Patsy grabs a handful of green ants and crushes them in her hand, revealing a strong citrus flavour that she explains is good for curing colds. Bush carrots are next on the agenda. The 18 tour guests spread out in search of a dry, curvy type of grass. When we find it we mark each side of the plant and dig. I’m just about ready to give up when I feel a small, hard, round vegetable and pull it out, feeling pretty chuffed with myself for contributing to tonight’s dinner.

About 240km east of Darwin, Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park at 20,000sq km. With pristine waterfalls and one of the highest concentrations of rock art sites in the world, Kakadu’s beauty and cultural significance earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It has been inhabited by Indigenous Australians for up to 60,000 years, and is now leased back to them by the government to run as a national park.

Rock art of a long necked turtle
Rock art of a long necked turtle

Safe haven

European settlers introduced Asian buffalo to north Australia in the early 1800s to provide meat and milk, and the buffalo skin industry thrived. But in the 1980s the government culled the animals in an attempt to wipe out bovine tuberculosis. The area’s elderly Indigenous residents had come to rely on the bush meat, so it was agreed that a herd of tuberculosis-free buffalo could be kept, and the 170sq km Kakadu Buffalo Farm was created in 1988.

A few years later, Sean Arnold, who was employed fixing fences at the farm, was asked by a senior traditional elder to start a tour to share the wildlife and culture, and help sustain the farm financially. Living on the reserve with her husband Dave Linder, the farm’s manager, shy and softly spoken Patsy watched on every day but it took her a few months to work up the courage to get involved. Patsy asked if she could come along for a look, and when she emerged from the bushes holding a long-necked turtle, the tourists loved it and a tour guide was born.

The milky way in the night sky
The milky way, clearly visible in the night sky

Under the stars

The day culminates at Gindjala, or Goose Camp, on the South Alligator River floodplain, where we collect branches from stringybark trees to build a sunset campfire. A few of us sit and help pluck magpie geese shot that morning. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, but sitting beside Patsy engaging in this long-held tradition proves to be my favourite part of the day. She puts barramundi, buffalo, the geese, and a snake she caught in the billabong into the firepit and covers it all with branches, bark and soil, cooking it for 40 minutes. We wash the delicious feast down with billy tea and damper. It is dark by the time we begin the drive back, with Patsy telling Dreaming creation stories passed down from generation to generation as we gaze out at the starry night sky.