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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 bush, says
Sarah Shuckburgh.

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 from pods.
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 next generation.

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
extraordinary biodiversity.

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 with extinction.

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 sharing
and co-operation. They are also among the poorest of Australians, with the highest unemployment and lowest educational levels.

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 wilderness.

First published by the Telegraph

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