Foodie Dreaming

1 February 2011

Feast on nature in Kakadu National Park

The brief is simple. Find a succulent palm, rip away its leaves and find the buried palm heart within. The palm heart contains enough moisture and sweetness to keep you going as you search for the next campsite.


The search proves elusive. The palm has to be not too dry, not too green, and dismembering it to get to the heart within is a tricky business.


Digging for bush carrots or tubers is no easier. Patsy, our Aboriginal guide, instructs us to find a tuber, dig, and then extract gently otherwise it will ‘bleed’ red sap.


We are on the Animal Tracks Safari, a six-hour journey into the heart of Kakadu’s ancient billabongs, wetlands and forest to discover its bush tucker and hopefully spy some animals. We are accompanied by Jeff, our driver and accomplished bushman plus an Aboriginal guide, Patsy, who directs him to the best places to find tubers, palm hearts, medicinal water lilies and bush celery.


A joint venture between rangers and Patsy, a local Aboriginal with an extensive knowledge of tribal tucker, Animal Tracks tours has been running for around eight years and has won a raft of awards. I’ve chosen this tour out of the myriad of tours on offer as they pride themselves on being the authentic Aboriginal experience, which lots of visitors to Kakadu seek but frequently don’t get to experience. Plus, the beauty of this tour is that every trip is different, depending on what is in season, and where Patsy feels the best food is to be found on any given day.


There are six seasons in Kakadu and each shift brings different animals, birds, fruit, bush vegetables and berries. In early summer, the wet season has left Kakadu looking luxurious. There are meadows of spear grass, so named as heads look like miniature Aboriginal spears and scrubland specked with pretty pink turkey bush flowers.


Patsy directs Jeff to stop in a little clearing, gives us all poles (traditionally strong sticks were used), and shows us how to dig for tubers – small turd-like structures found under a spiky tree – and how to extract the artichoke-like palm heart.


We wander through the scrub with our sticks feeling like we are on the cast of Survivor. Something about walking through the bush on the lookout for dinner forces you to slow down and start looking at things you wouldn’t have noticed before. A clump of spikes might hide a root vegetable, and a curl of leaf might mean a succulent palm heart. It’s like a shopping excursion with the earth as your bounty.


This is one of the most fertile tribal areas of Australia. While Patsy breaks off sand palm reeds that she mysteriously says is for an activity later, Jeff explains that Kakadu is teeming with medicine, like the Kakadu Plum with its high vitamin C content, and good quality protein from barramundi.


Because of the abundant food supply, Aboriginal culture traditionally was very strong here, as there was more time to devote to art and storytelling.


We bundle back into the van and hop along the corrugated road to our next food source. Jeff drives through burntout scrubland to a beautiful billabong, a delicate fragile oasis, with a sandy, palm-rimmed beach. The billabong is covered with a shimmer of water lilies, and is quite beautiful. Patsy tells us she caught 20 barramundi here the day before – one of which we will be devouring for dinner.


As we wander to the water’s edge, excitedly photographing the field of lilies on the surface, Patsy gives us a timely warning. Crocs lurk here she tells us, so we hightail it back up the beach. She laughs heartily at our fright, but there is a serious side. She explains that crocodiles are getting the upper hand and losing their natural fear of people as they are now protected. Her family give them a tap on the snout with a stick, just to let them know who is boss.


Keeping alert for ripples on the water, we stick close to Patsy as she drapes a long stick into the water and magically brings up water-lilies with strange bamboolike roots.


She breaks off the roots and tells us it’s bush celery and hands out pieces for everyone to taste. Amazingly, it does taste like celery, only milderand more piquant.


Yellow flowers now emerge from Patsy’s stick, which she turns into garlands and gives to a family to put around the children’s necks and wrists at night. She says if the necklaces are unbroken in the morning, the children will not argue. It’s a poignant bush tale and a timely reminder about how little we know about the land.


Patsy spies geese and tells us it means water chestnuts must be in season, as geese are looking for them.


Everything in Kakadu is linked to the seasons and traditional owners take their cues from nature. Most animals come out at night in Kakadu because of the heat, so apart from the odd wallaby, we don’t see many coat of arms staples like kangaroos and emus.


There’s a solitary goanna shimmying up a tree and a distant tank-like water buffalo (they like to munch water lilies).


Water buffalos were brought to the Territory in the 1920s in one of many misguided attempts to tame the Territory and give it over to farming.


Similar experiments in the USA had worked well, but in the Territory the buffalo broke free. Authorities planned to capture and shoot them, but in the meantime local tribes had developed a taste for the meat and established a buffalo farm in part of Kakadu. Despite a capture program, some still roam the park.


We’re starting to feel peckish despite mouthfuls of celery and palm hearts. As the day edges towards dusk, Jeff drives to our sunset dinner plain and sets up tables and chairs. But, as usual in the bush, there is work to do before dinner.


While Patsy strips a paperbark tree, Jeff builds a fire. Patsy wraps bark around some buffalo meat and a barramundi she caught earlier. She places the yams and bush root vegetables on top, then covers it with more paperbark, then a layer of soil, to make an Aboriginal style aboveground hangi.


While dinner is cooking, Patsy hands out sand palm reeds she collected earlier and shows us how to strip them ready to be made into reed bags – little pouches used for collecting bush vegetables and for fishing.


Effortlessly she dissects the reeds to make a string-like substance, which she then weaves into a basket. She shows us one she is working on, using ash and berries to colour it. It’s hard yakka and most of us can’t even manage to split the reed. As a welcome diversion from weaving, Jeff shows the little kids and big kids alike how to throw spears. It’s fun to feel like we’re throwing spears into the sunset.


As the sun hovers above the horizon, we devour barramundi, buffalo, bush vegetables, damper and billy tea. The buffalo is chewy but moist and surprisingly un-gamey. The barramundi, wrapped in paper bark and cooked in the embers, is the best fish I’ve ever tasted.


There’s no champagne and no degustation menu, just barra, billy tea and a magnificent Top End sunset. Life doesn’t get better.




  • Animal Tracks provides a hefty portion of funds to the Kakadu Buffalo Farm, which provides bush food to Aboriginal people in Kakadu.
  • Kakadu Plum is believed to have the world’s richest natural source of vitamin C.
  • Dot art is from the desert tribes, wetland tribes around Kakadu traditionally used cross-hatching in their artwork.



Toll Free 13 67 68


Tours depart daily at 2pm during the dry season (June-September). They leave from Gagudju Lodge, Cooinda, Kakadu National Park. A six-hour safari costs $129 an adult and $69 a child. (Note: prices subject to change).
(08) 8979 0145




Kakadu National Park is a three-hour drive south of Darwin on a fully sealed road. During the wet season, RVers should check road conditions.




Gagudju Lodge, Cooinda has camping, caravan and motel-style accommodation. The 80 powered sites and 300 unpowered sites include full use of all leisure facilities. Bookings are essential during the dry season.
(08) 8979 0145

By Juie Ihle