Tucker For the Taking
Blue Mountains, New South Wales
by Sarah Shuckburgh
With a little Aboriginal
know-how, you can conjure up a feast in the Australian
Our bush-tucker walk is a scratch, sniff and taste tour
with a difference. Early morning mist hovers as we stumble
down stony paths towards the impenetrable, uninhabited
gorges of the Blue Mountains, 60 miles west of Sydney.
We stop often to tune our senses to the extraordinary
habitat of eucalyptus and rainforest. For centuries,
Aborigines lived in this inhospitable wilderness, and their
bush tucker is still plentiful if you know where to look.
Take that odd-looking grass tree, for instance. Standing a
yard high, with a moptop of narrow leaves, it hardly looks a
useful source of food. Wrong: this is a corner shop. The
flowers hold nectar, the roots are edible, the trunk oozes
glue, the flower stalks, which suddenly grow several feet
high after a bush fire, are good for spears, and the spindly
fronds make excellent woven mats.
Leaving the corner shop, we arrive at a supermarket: all
around us are trees, bushes and plants laden with
traditional Aboriginal foods. We munch handfuls of carrot
top, taste tart wild currants, and swallow tiny wattle seeds
We prick our fingers on serrated, pointy leaves, and feel
the stiff hairbrush flowers of the banksia tree, which
produce edible nectar.
Aborigines did not pick fruit: they preferred to wait until
it fell from the tree. But fruit here ripens throughout the
year - there is no spring season of blossoms, and no autumn
season of fruits and berries. Strangely, everything grows
fastest after it has been burnt.
Every few years, fire sweeps through the mountains, fuelled
by tinder-dry debris on the forest floor. While most
European crops are destroyed by heat, indigenous plants have
evolved to survive fire, and many require it to propagate.
Within 24 hours of a fire, tiny horizontal shoots burst
forth from the trunks of eucalyptus to support the tree
until the canopy grows back. Some plants need intense heat
for their pods to open, to germinate seeds or to produce
flowers. Others need ash-flavoured water.
Meat is harder to spot in this supermarket. But wait, what
is that strange scuffling in the undergrowth? Our guide
spots a possum dray in the fork of a tree. Heaps of soil by
the path turn out to be the scrapings of the elusive
lyrebird, which can shift colossal quantities of earth a
day, and can mimic not only bird songs, but also, these
days, human noises such as coughs and cameras rewinding.
We glimpse crimson rosellas, hear the calls of the
butcherbird and the whipbird, and on the forest floor we
admire wombat droppings.
Smaller droppings come from the antechinus, a tiny marsupial
with an unusual sex life: the males mate non-stop for 28
days and then die, leaving pregnant females to raise the
Our only close encounter with a breathing food source is
when our guide, Tim, opens his sack, and a tiger snake
slithers out. "You don't want to pick up a tiger snake too
often," comments Tim. He rescues snakes from people's houses
and his normal method is to lift the snake by its tail,
twisting it to confuse it - but an alternative method, which
sounds more sensible, is to hold out a sack and hope the
snake will creep in.
Now we are down in temperate rainforest, and we splash
across streams, past tree ferns and hanging swamps. Creepers
dangle like ropes, strong enough to support the weight of a
car. Cobwebs brush against our cheeks and we start to worry
about poisonous spiders. Tim is not reassuring.
"There are some deadly spiders here," he says. "You don't
want to come here alone." Much of the wilderness is still
uncharted and each year several bushwalkers disappear.
This ancient terrain has scarcely changed for 90 million
years. When the Grand Canyon in Arizona was a shallow creek,
the Blue Mountains looked much as they do today.
Only seven years ago, botanists discovered a grove of 40
pines, each more than 130 feet tall, of a species thought
to have been extinct for 60 million years. The region has
been made a World Heritage Site because of its
Alas, there are no longer koalas: they were shot by
Edwardian settlers. And when these sportsmen got tired of
shooting marsupials, they imported game from Britain: today
millions of feral foxes and rabbits threaten native mammals
When the white ancestors of these settlers arrived in
Australia 200 years ago, they noticed the physical strength
of the indigenous people compared to their own physiques,
but did not think to adopt their nutritious bush diet.
Instead, they survived on rum, tea and stale rations brought
from Britain, and tried to grow European crops.
The dismissal of indigenous wisdom and the reluctance to
learn from Aborigines continue: only in the past few years
have traditional foods such as wattle seeds, native peppers,
lilly-pillies and Warrigal greens appeared in Sydney
restaurants, and only then on sophisticated menus. Kangaroo,
for example, is full of protein and low in cholesterol, but
eating it is still illegal in some states, and most
Australians are reluctant to eat it.
Many contemporary Aborigines, of course, are in a weak
position. Their traditional ways do not blend happily with
modern urban life. In particular, the concept of private
property is at odds with their sophisticated system of
and co-operation. They are also among the poorest of
Australians, with the highest unemployment and lowest
Although organised bush walks celebrate Aboriginal
traditions, all the guides are white Australians. The ones I
meet are all full of remorse for the damage done by incomers
to the natural habitat and its inhabitants, and determined
to preserve what is left of indigenous wisdom - but they are
at a loss to know how to end the cycle of deprivation and
social exclusion among Aboriginal people.
However, white settlers have not all been bad. On our way
back up to the ridge, we gaze out from a craggy lookout
point above a valley where, in 1931, a party of bushwalkers
came across loggers felling gum trees. The walkers persuaded
the loggers to sell them the standing trees, and then
presented Blue Gum Forest to the local community. Now the
Blue Mountains National Park protects two and a half million
acres of forest.
Our bush-tucker walk took us a little way into this rugged
landscape and gave us a memorable taste of the food that
nourished native Australians in this seemingly uninhabitable
First published by the Telegraph