When my husband demonstrated surprising skills at throwing a spear, I thought that we might have a chance to survive, should we ever get stranded in the Australian Desert. But a guided walk in the bush gave me plenty of food for thought: Survival in this harsh environment is a lot more complicated than I thought.
A Native Tour Guide Shares the Survival Secrets of the Desert
Aborigines lived here on bush food and water for millennia, before civilization introduced them to processed food. On a walk through the Outback, I am going to learn how they did it from Mark Kulitja, a guide from the local native Anangu community. Mark is assisted by an anthropology student who interprets his dialect. He tells us that Mark is in his eighties, a fact Mark knows only because he still remembers his people setting up camp and gathering food.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Discovering the vibrant simplicity of the Australian desert is soul-filling.
- It’s an opportunity to learn directly from someone who lived the traditional Aboriginal culture.
- For intermediate walkers who can tolerate heat.
We haven’t seen any bush food since we started walking, so when Mark stops by a witchery bush, I am curious. I watch him dig with a stick and scramble the dirt with his hands until he exposes the bounty: witchery grubs. I guess if they were (well) cooked…
Not a far-fetched idea: Aborigines would crisp them in ashes, unless they ate them raw. Who would have thought that repulsive moth larvae would taste like almonds once cooked, and that their inside would take the appealing appearance of cooked eggs? Now that I know, I could be the food gatherer while my husband would roam the land in search of kangaroos.
Farther on, Mark observes the ground until he catches an ant. He points to the bubble on its back: It’s a honey ant. How many of these would it take to satisfy my sweet tooth is hard to tell, but it would obviously be a time consuming affair. Marks says that people also sucked flowers: Another way to satisfy a craving for sweetness, yet not during this off season.
I realize that if food cannot be seen, it can be found. After Mark points, draws in the sand and talks, the guide interpreted it as one of the ways Aborigines got water. I am intrigued because I have never heard of water-holding frogs. It turns out that the amphibian — with creative surviving instincts — gorges on water before entombing itself in the ground where it can survive long droughts. What an unpredictable provider nature can be!
More accessible were seeds from dogwoods, from acacias and from the desert kurrajong whose edible roots also contain water. Seeds were toasted, or ground into a paste mixed with water. We don’t see any, but Mark says that they also ate possums, snakes and desert rats. I imagine myself gathering desert raisins and desert peas for a treat, and eating my husband’s kangaroo for a feast.
In their search for food, Aborigines roamed the land with the tools they made. Mark says that spears consisted of sharp tendons from kangaroos’ ankles, glued to the extremity of long sticks. Tendons could be softened for other uses by being chewed. Today, Aborigines hunt with rifles.
Mark learned as a child how to spear and cook a kangaroo. The skill involved setting it with its legs perfectly straight up over the fire, to keep bad luck away. There’s also a practical benefit: it’s a good way to cook the meat evenly without charring the thin legs.
A Lesson in Desert-Smart and Eco-Friendly Skills
It is time for hands-on activities. I carry on my head a curvy tray scooped from the bark of a tree: It cleverly rests on a ring-pad made from grass. The men throw spears with various degrees of success, and my husband proves that we might survive from his kill.
Our walk is timed by stops under shady spots. Flies are buzzing. Our human caravan is showing gaps. Around me, small flowers at the end of wind grass stems undulate in the airy breeze. They are signs that rain falls, at times. I am surprised that the dry creek in front of me could fill up to immerse the gum trees above its rim. Mark’s assistant says it also fills the desert with extraordinary blooms. Then, it retreats and hides deep in the ground.
The desert conserves its water, and we learn to conserve our energy by taking a break under the thatched roof of an open structure. Mark says he will make some glue using fire. He takes one of the branches stocked-piled nearby and fills a fissure in the wood with possum dung. Then, to create friction he grabs a stick and vigorously rubs the dung until smoke appears, quickly followed by ember. In an instant, he has lit a small bunch of grasses, which ignites twigs, and then wood. We gaze at the fire for a while. Until Mark flashes a jubilant smile, and pulls a lighter from his jacket. Some modern conveniences have their place anywhere.
What about the glue? Someone asks. Mark proceeds to beat a bunch of spinifex until a white powder—the gum—accumulates on the ground. He combines his saliva with the powder — shapes it into a ball — skews it on a stick — and exposes it to the heat. The ball turns shiny as it melts, and bigger as it gets rolled again in gum powder. By now, no one wants to challenge Mark: for sure, the sticky resin would bind wood to stone.
Food for Thought
I think of how difficult it must be for Mark to reconcile his life with “what was” and “what is.” Aborigines always believed that men’s actions could change the world. His world has certainly changed: In some ways, his life today would be unrecognizable to his grandparents. And yet in other ways, such as teaching the secrets of the desert, not very much has changed at all.
- According to Tourism Australia Anangu Tours have been replaced by Uluru Aboriginal Tours. (They contract out tours to other operators such as AAT Kings).
- Wear appropriate clothing for hot weather, and walking shoes.
- Fly-nets are available at Uluru Information Centre.
- Water is provided by the tour organizer.