Updated: Jan 8, 2020
We sat, the three of us, by a small cooking fire on the edge of a shimmering wet tidal flat at Carnot Bay about a 90km walk north from Broome … or to be more precise, a 90km walk back to Broome. It was myself, a photographer and a Bardi elder named Richard and we were stuck; our broken-down Land Cruiser bogged to its chassis.
Mobile phones hadn’t even been dreamed of in the early 1980s, a radio not considered necessary for what was only going to be a day jaunt, and so to the outside world, as we later learned, we were ‘lost’. For our part though, the two city blokes, we actually were in school. Had been for a few days by this point. It might have been involuntary, but Richard had started giving us a life-changing lesson in the land and the extraordinary bounty it has to offer anyone prepared to challenge the ignorance of colonialism and learn what we should have learned 240 years ago.
Australia, the nation, occupies Gondwanaland. It hosts some of the oldest botany on the planet; seeds and fruit-bearing trees, grasses and bushes that were adapted to this climate and landscape countless millennia before humans. Much of this produce is readily edible while some needs knowledge to make safe. With a little imagination or inquiry, it can be plated up, on bark or porcelain, as a delicious and nutritional cuisine.
More importantly, many of these bush foods are the ancient ancestors of modern-day crops that, ironically, left our shores in the course of ancient human migrations, only to be returned in the 19th and 20th centuries as vastly more developed crops but needing billions of dollars of agricultural research to adapt to Australian conditions by farming industries oblivious to the genetics already here. More on this shortly.
Back to our campfire. Two days earlier we were hungry, thirsty and a little anxious. However, in the intervening period we had been shown where to find water, had caught mud crabs, speared a Barramundi at low tide, and picked wild tomatoes; all washed down with a brew of native lemmon grass ‘tea’. We were now enjoying ourselves at a bush banquet.
As we had walked around we were introduced to Richard’s ‘farm’ – mamajen, marool and minyyuru berries rich in vitamin C, succulent and sweet minmin flowers, bush honey, and the therapeutic wilgar vine which Richard told us would heal every mishap from cuts to sprains, even bind and heal fractures. He also collected fistfuls of foliage from the goonggara bush which he periodically fed into our fire, raising a sweet-smelling smoke that kept sandflies and mosquitoes at bay.
Of course there are dangers too. In our short walkabout there were also plenty of attractive-looking berries and fruits that can kill you without special preparation. The nuts of the zamia palm one such example. These are the origin, after crushing, of a nutritious flour used to make damper. (Damper did not arrive with settlers’ sacks of wheat flour.) The crushed zamia nuts, however, have to be leached in water for at least six weeks to remove deadly toxins. Flour from settlers’ stores was certainly more convenient, though nowhere near as healthy. So safety, as well as plenty, was what our short-lived education was all about.
Sadly, school ended when on the fourth day we were ‘rescued’ by a grinning sergeant and lanky constable from Broome. Our bogged Land Cruiser had been spotted by a Coast Watch plane.
The outside world pulled us back, but the impact of that window onto what this land has to offer has remained undiminished; in fact as some today wonder how the world will feed itself in a climate getting hotter and drier, our indigenous plant genetics may well be what saves us all. Certainly a growing cohort of agricultural scientists are thinking this way; among them Robert Henry, Professor of Innovation in Agriculture and Director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI).
When he gazes ruefully northwards from the University of Queensland’s St Lucia campus, he finds himself caught between feeling excited and a niggling regret: “There’s a supermarket out there … but most Australians don’t even know it.”
Robert's excitement stems from the slow awakening to the enormous untapped food and cropping potential of countless indigenous plant species whose genetics could be critical to the planet’s food security. Internationally, northern Australia is already being talked about as the frontier for new plant genetics in indigenous grain-bearing grasses, pulses and fruits. This is of potentially huge value to plant breeders needing to bolster domesticated crops with increased climate resilience.
Putting to one side the vast spread of ‘bush tucker’ foods such as those enjoyed on what became many personal Kimberley sojourns over the years, Robert Henry also points to rice, ancestral grasses related to domesticated cereals like wheat, our own soybean, sorghum, mungbean, pigeon pea; even grapes. There are also four Australian citrus species that have useful disease-resistance traits as well as an early flowing trait that the American citrus industry has already exploited to breed earlier fruiting trees as a climate change measure.
So why have Australians remained so ignorant about our landscape for so long? Robert Henry suggests our native foods have mostly been overlooked because of the long-held, false, assumption that European settlement introduced the only food crops possible: “It was often noted by explorers and settlers that indigenous people didn’t undertake any traditional cultivation; the conclusion being they had no crops that could be farmed. Now, however, we are beginning to realise that indigenous plants bearing edible seeds and fruits were in such abundance naturally that a transition to farming, in the European sense, just wasn’t required.
“For example, native rice is everywhere and in naturally weed and disease-free stands. You don’t need to plant it; manage it. You just harvest and store … activities that were observed and recorded, but not understood. We were blinded to the significance of this by our need to see crops being cultivated.”
But scientists like Robert Henry are lifting the blindfold. He believes that exploiting our native foods resource is one of the most exciting opportunities presenting to agricultural science: “Most of what we are farming today is based on plants that were domesticated 10,000 years ago. Faced with climate change we have to broaden that genetic base.
"Exploiting the biodiversity existing in indigenous crops that are related to many introduced commercial varieties is an enormous opportunity.”
There are even dedicated research bodies emerging, like the ARC Training Centre for Uniquely Australian Foods and the CRC for Developing Northern Australia – and indigenous foods restaurants like Orana in Adelaide. It has captured world-wide attention for chef Jock Zonfrillo’s creative, studied, use of bush foods.
To see a Kimberly cooking fire be elevated to a fine dining experience – symbolically and literally – is a wonderful thing to behold and not something I thought would ever happen in my lifetime. I wish my first bush tucker teacher, Richard, was still around to see this slowly dawning appreciation for what our land and his precious culture has to offer.