Even accompanied by a good deal of gesticulating, Brandon Walker’s shout of "over there, just coming in on those waves, can you see them?" isn’t helping. Not the first time he says it, or the fifth. We’re knee-deep in gently-lapping, bath-temperature water just off Cooya Beach, 25 km north of Port Douglas, with spears in hand. The plan is to take advantage of some unsuspecting blue salmon passing us by somewhere up ahead. Now all I have to do is make out where we’re meant to be aiming and throw my weapon convincingly. Both things are easier said than done.
Brandon, 36, has been doing this since he was a boy, learning from his grandparents how to wade into the shallows to catch fresh seafood, as is the way of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. Pronounced Gugu Yalanji (each 'k' is sounded like a 'g'), they are an Aboriginal clan whose land stretches from Cooktown in the north to Port Douglas in the south, to encompass both coastal and rainforest habitats.
Today, Cooya Beach is still a sleepy seaside idyll, but Brandon, who has lived here all his life, can remember when it was just a handful of houses, all of which belonged to his family. "After a night out in Port Douglas, I’d walk home along the mudflats. It’s a three-hour walk and I’d catch a few crabs for breakfast along the way," he says.
Despite dusk being better, or at least easier, for fishing and catching crustaceans like crayfish, Brandon can still spot lunch a mile off beneath the water under a baking sun. He can make out the detail – like whether it’s one of the two varieties of stingray that are good for eating out of the seven that inhabit the local waters – before he throws his spear. Even before Brandon steps foot in the water, he can tell the varieties of fish that are likely to be plentiful by observing which plants are in flower on the shoreline.
And the flowers themselves aren’t to be ignored. He hands me a bright yellow bloom from a cottonwood tree and tells me to chew on its purple centre. Saliva instantly builds on my tongue as my teeth get to work, a weird sensation that Brandon says is useful for staving off dehydration. "If you take a straight branch off the same tree and strip its bark, you can use the string inside to make a fishing line. Then dry the bark you’ve stripped in the sun for a few hours and you’ve got a fire stick. We don’t like to waste anything," he explains.
So far, compared to my catch of zilch, Brandon has bagged a blue swimmer crab and a handful of wurrul (paper-thin scallops found just under the sand) to add to the mangrove mussels and periwinkles he foraged earlier in the day. He tells me that some leftover turtle is also on the menu for lunch – "a tasty snack", as he likes to call it – and a rare opportunity to try the meat that can only be caught by indigenous people and is usually reserved for their celebrations and ceremonies.
"A good-sized turtle weighs 260 kilograms and can feed up to 300," Brandon says as he’s chopping and cooking in his kitchen later in the day. "We catch green turtles around here, named because of the colour of the fat on the meat, rather than the shell. It’s a high-energy food that’s good for pregnant women, but the elderly love it too because it breaks up easily, so it’s easy to eat once you’ve lost a few teeth."
It turns out to be a red meat, rather than the white I was expecting, and it tastes remarkably like a delicious veal schnitzel. The crab, cooked simply and quickly with chilli, is sweet and the mussels have a plump, silky texture that run-of-the-mill mussels lack. Brandon shows us how to twist back the tiny flaps of the periwinkles he’s just dry-baked in his oven with a safety pin, before removing the twisted sliver of meat and dipping it in chilli for a kick. They taste salty and have that trademark snail-like texture, but Brandon reckons they’re a proven aphrodisiac. "Better than oysters?" I ask him.
"Definitely," he says deadpan. "Look at me. I’ve got six kids."
I’m fast learning that another day in the Daintree is another opportunity to try a new delicacy. Despite having mild anxiety attacks about the possibility of being presented with a live witchetty grub the size of my index finger to eat, what I’m faced with standing in the middle of the Daintree, the world’s oldest living rainforest with at least 65 million years on the Amazon, is a yangka (green ant).
It’s a sizeable ant. And alive. Following instructions, I grab it by the head and bite its lower body and legs off to unleash a tangy, citrusy smack of flavour. "Eat enough of them," says Juan Walker, today’s guide and Brandon’s brother, "and you’ll get a big dose of vitamin C. And if you crush a bunch up between your fingers to release the formic acid and sniff, it instantly clears the sinuses." He’s not wrong.
It’s one of countless things Juan shares with us about how the Kuku Yalanji have made use of their lush rainforest surroundings. He shows us where to find native pepper and Australian nutmeg, and points out a patch of jidu (a native ginger he says is one of the sweetest things you’ll ever taste when it ripens). Its leaves are used to wrap fish before being placed in a kurrma (underground earth oven).
"And see this," he says, pointing to a mound of leaves and twigs at the base of a tree trunk, "that’s the nest of a diwan, or scrub turkey. When the biray (flies) come and bite me, I know the eggs are ready to harvest." Once pulled from the nest, eggs are wrapped in hair-festooned palm tree leaves – what Juan calls 'nature’s bubble wrap" – to keep their thin and brittle shells intact on the journey home.
But pointing at the diwan’s nest from a distance is as far as Juan can go because collecting eggs is "women’s business". Showing us his depiction of how a traditional Kuku Yalanji camp would have looked many moons ago, Juan explains why many of the clan’s activities and responsibilities are divided this way. "The old laws decided what is women’s business and what’s not," is his response, making it clear that, even thousands of years later, it simply is how it is.
A waterfall looms above us. At its base is a pool where Kuku Yalanji women would come to bathe and prepare food, securing dilly bags made from fibres laboriously stripped from a black palm, and using a mussel shell as strainers. On a huge grinding stone, they would prepare seeds known to be laden with toxins, like those from the black bean tree, crushing them to a powder before transferring it to a dilly bag and submerging it in water for up to seven days to leach the poison. "Then the old girls would taste it to see if the poison was gone. Back in those days, there was a lot of work involved to get their food."
And that’s even before it was cooked. Integral to that process is fire, which, as it turns out, is definitely not women’s business as it’s considered taboo for a female to create it using a jimal (fire stick).
Feeling buoyed by my encounter with a green ant, I ask Juan whether termites are tasty, or at least have a use, too. "They’re not something we’d traditionally eat, no," he says. "Perhaps if there was nothing else..."
In the end, I didn’t get to try a witchetty grub in the Daintree. Juan says it’s not the best time of year for them, but he does tell me what they taste like: "Kind of milky, like creamy peanut butter." I’m happy to take his word for it.
The hit list
Daintree Eco Lodge
Each of the 15 bayans (the Kuku Yalanji word for house or shelter) is designed to sleep two people and is nestled into its own spot amongst the trees, complete with a private balcony. Also check out the lodge’s Daintree Wellness Spa. The treatment menu is typically indulgent, yet uniquely Daintree, crafted under the guidance of Kuku Yalanji elders and performed using a skincare range made from rainforest ingredients. 20 Daintree Rd, Daintree, (07) 4098 6100.
The Daintree Eco Lodge’s onsite restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, and most dishes include a splash of native flavours, but the Julaymba Journey is a standout, combining four separate dishes to represent a journey down the Daintree River. 20 Daintree Rd, Daintree, (07) 4098 6100.
Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours
Try your hand at spearfishing and unearthing mussels on a two-hour tour with the Walker brothers. (07) 4098 3437.
Choose from a number of half- and full-day cultural and sightseeing tours that cover everything from Aboriginal hunting practices to sampling bush tucker. 0429 478 206.
Photography by John Laurie