In Wadandi culture, there are six seasons that celebrate what is hunted and gathered for food. Not four, as we’re commonly told in school. This is just one of the hundreds of new (yet over 60,000-year-old) facts you may learn if you were to go on tour with Koomal Dreaming founder and local Wadandi man Josh Whiteland.
He's a great example of why I reckon taking a guided bushwalk to forage for native bush foods and medicines and learning about their cultural uses should be on everyone's bucket list. After taking part in one of Whiteland's private tours in Western Australia, I can say it was one of the most incredible and eye-opening experiences I've had. It's a direct (and delicious) encounter with what the land offers.
“You will taste traditional foods and flavours around a campfire and depending on the season, these could include anything from kangaroo and emu to quandong and foraged greens," he says. "My visitors are a combination of international, domestic and interstate tourists. We also have a lot of school and corporate groups. But no matter the person, they are thrilled at eating locally harvested grilled kangaroo over the fire with a quandong chutney and smoked Indigenous mussels.”
Not all Indigenous tours and learning opportunities are conducted in remote Australian terrain. Take ooray or Davidson plums. They hang in their own micro-climate in the Adelaide Botanical Garden, which may seem strange considering they are normally rainforest dwellers living in northern NSW and beyond. You would most probably walk straight past them if you didn’t know they were there, but If you head out on a walk through the gardens with Haydyn Bromley, you may learn many a thing or two about gathering these ingredients, among many other Australian native foods. You might also learn where to find bush medicine and perhaps how to hunt duck traditionally. All in a day's work for Bromley, who runs Bookabee Tours Australia.
The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne also gives you the chance to discover traditional uses of plants. Led by local Indigenous guides, the Aboriginal Heritage Walk delves into the ancestral lands of the Koolin nation and explores their rich culture. The tour includes a traditional smoking ceremony, coverage of Indigenous food, tools and medicines, and finishes with a refreshing cup of lemon myrtle tea that's been harvested locally.
“I did not believe any non-Indigenous Australian would want to go on my tours, or that they would pay top dollar for an Indigenous experience, so I first went and marketed myself in Europe for over 15 years," says Poelina, a Nyikina man with deep connections to the Kimberley region. "Finally, I am seeing a big change in our country where more people here are wanting to give their children a positive cultural experience. They see this as a worthy investment of their holiday dollar. I think our country has really matured in this way in recent years."
Indigenous tourism is a way for non-Indigenous Australians to hear about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences and learn from their cultures. But of the millions of tourists that arrive in Australia each year, less than ten per cent engage with Indigenous sites or communities.
According to Whiteland, traditional food knowledge is a key part of culture and important for survival and sustainability.
“Creating awareness and respect about caring for country is a step towards reconciliation. Tourism is a soft form of education, and a more subtle way to create awareness whilst in a relaxed environment,” he says.
Poelina agrees - and a lot can be conveyed through simply seeing how your food is prepared.
“On our tours, our food is caught and cooked freshly, whether it be wild ducks, bush turkeys, our own cattle or freshwater barramundi or prawns. They are always killed humanely and appreciated. None of the animal is wasted and the guests usually like to try the delicacies that are created with the offal of the fish for instance,” he says.
Even the cooking process itself reveals a lot - each aspect plays a role in how flavour is conveyed.
“Flavouring is usually via the cooking method. It is in the smoke of the wood chosen for the fire or the paperbark or leaves that wrap the flesh that is to be baked in the ground."
Or preserves made from foraged bush fruits - harvested in season, "so we have a plentiful supply throughout the year", Poelina says - and served with freshly baked damper.
“You see most Aboriginal people in remote tourism are wanting to live on country in their communities," he adds. "They are looking at a way to practice their culture and sustain their families on their traditional lands. They want to better their family income and get off welfare. This is a way to foster reconciliation, too.”
Could tourism bridge cultural divides and create better futures? These Indigenous food tours certainly make for an inspiring, educational and, let’s not forget delicious, start.