Should we ever get stranded in the Australian Desert, we might have a better chance to survive than I thought. My husband just showed surprising skills at throwing a spear.

This walk in the bush gives me plenty of food for thought. As it turns out, survival in this harsh environment is complicated to our ethnocentric mind but not impossible. The proof is that Aborigines survived on bush food and water for millennia—before civilization introduced them to processed food.

Mark Kulitja, a guide from the local native Anangu community, will show us how they did it while an anthropology student assists and interprets his dialect.

Fetching Food

We haven’t found any food since we started walking. It gives me time to understand what creates the spectacular desert colors I had seen on our flight. When we stop, Mark looks at a bush that doesn’t promise anything close to food. He then begins to dig by the roots with a stick and scrambles the dirt with his hands until he exposes the bounty: witchery grubs. I can imagine only one conceivable way to eat them, and that’s grilled. Not a far-fetched idea. Aborigines crisped them in ashes or ate them raw. Who would have thought that cooked moth larvae taste like almonds, besides their inside taking the acceptable appearance of scrambled eggs? I take his word for it.

Farther on, Mark scrutinizes the ground until he catches an ant. He points to the bubble on its back, indicating that 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 people also sucked on flowers, another way to satisfy a craving for sweetness, yet not during this off-season. Seeds from trees such as dogwoods, acacias, and others were toasted or grounded into a paste. Aborigines got meat from kangaroos, possums, snakes, and desert rats. I realize that if food cannot always be seen, it can be found.

Mark points and draws in the sand as he talks, his way to explain how Aborigines got water. I know all about eating frogs’ legs, but not that this endemic amphibian gorges on water, before entombing itself where it can survive long droughts. The trunk of the kurrajong—known as the bottle tree—also contains water, as do the roots of other trees. Nature is an unpredictable provider.

For a moment, I imagine myself gathering desert raisins—from the kutjera plant, of the tomato family—and desert peas, released by the red flower of a vine that’s now protected. My husband would have us feast on a kangaroo. But there is more to it. Aborigines used the sharp tendons of the animal’s ankles, attaching them to sticks to make more spears. And they would also chew on these tendons to soften them for other uses. Today, they hunt with rifles.

As a child, Mark learned how to spear and cook a kangaroo. The animal was set over the fire with its legs perfectly straight up to keep bad luck away. On the practical side, it was the only way to cook the meat evenly without charring the thin legs.

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 conveniently rests on a ring pad made from grass. The men in our group throw spears with various degrees of success, and Mark proves that he could still live from the kill.

Stops under shady spots time our walk. Annoying flies are buzzing and our human caravan is showing gaps. Around me, small flowers at the end of wind grasses’ stems undulate in the breeze. They are signs that rain falls at times.

Mark’s assistant says that the dry creek in front of us could fill up to immerse the gum trees above the creek’s rim. Rain also fills the desert with extraordinary blooms. Then water will retreat and hide deep down. The desert conserves its water, and we conserve our strength by taking a break under the thatched roof of an open structure.

Mark is going to make glue with fire. He takes one of the branches stocked-piled nearby, fills a fissure in the wood with possum dung—to help create friction—grabs a stick, and vigorously rubs it until smoke appears and then an ember. In an instant, he lights a small bunch of grasses, which ignites twigs, and then wood.  We gaze at the fire until Mark flashes a jubilant smile as he pulls a lighter from his jacket. Some modern conveniences have their place.

What about the glue? Someone asks. Mark beats a bunch of spinifexes—a desert grass used as fiber, for example—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 he rolls it again in gum powder. By then, no one needs to challenge Mark as to whether the sticky resin would bind wood to stone.

Food for Thought

It has been difficult for Mark to reconcile what was and what is. He knows he is in his eighties, from remembering his people still setting up camp and gathering food. Aborigines always believed that men’s actions could change the world. He worries about the new generations, split between two cultures. His world has changed in ways that would be unrecognizable to his grandparents, and yet finding food in the desert hasn’t changed much. As I thank him for the experience, Mark speaks English, then hands me his business card.

First published 2012