Exploring Australia’s Outback
Australia’s Outback is wild and rugged, and you can get there on a cruisetour before or after your Australia/New Zealand cruise.
Beneath the starry skies of Alice Springs, billy tea boils over a blazing campfire, kangaroo stew simmers on smoldering coals, and Rod Steinert, a rugged outback bushman, allows a three-inch witchetty grub to dangle from his lips.
‘The witchetty grub,’ Steinert explains while attempting to keep the writhing creature from escaping his lips, ‘was a major source of food for Aborigines who traveled Australia’s outback.’
Then, with his forefinger, he gives the white, wiggly creature a push on its tush. The Southern Cross winks as the last bit of the grub’s rear slips through his lips. ‘You have to be careful to close your mouth when you bite down,’ he warns just before doing so, ‘or else the yellow custard shoots out everywhere. They reckon that’s how Australia’s first cave painting happened.’
Welcome to Dreamtime Tours. Earlier in the day, we arrived by air-conditioned motorcoach at the tropic of Capricorn, a few miles north of Alice Springs. Here, at an outback settlement where dingoes roam freely, we witnessed how for thousands of years Aborigines have survived Australia’s hostile deserts. The Aborigines have no agriculture and no shelter, and while they’ve been wearing clothes for some time now, they have only recently come to use blankets though nighttime temperatures dip to near freezing.
Shuffling in the sun-seared soil of the Northern Territory’s outback, we toss boomerangs, meet real Aborigines, scan the sparsely vegetated horizon for hopping kangaroos and generally contort our faces as Steinert presents us with the particulars of the Aborigine’s bizarre diet.
Peeling open an acacia root unearthed for the occasion, Steinert reveals the witchetty grub to our tour group. Resembling a short string of popcorn, its yellow forehead and glistening white body are met by a chorus of oohs and yechs as it is passed around for inspection. ‘Eaten raw, it has a woody flavor,’ says Steinert, who tried his first one about 25 years ago and now typically eats a grub a day. ‘But it tastes like the yolk of a hard-boiled egg. It’s actually quite pleasant.’
Few of us, however, are willing to discover the taste for ourselves. I tried one and swallowed it with difficulty.
The witchetty grub is only one item on Steinert’s outback menu, and it’s not necessarily his favorite. So he gives tourists an opportunity to sample such mouth-watering delicacies as water-holding frog, bush coconut, lizard, maggot and various marsupials. ‘A lot of people are turned off by kangaroo, because they see it as something lovable,’ Steinert says. But kangaroo consumption is legal in the Northern Territory where the marsupials are so abundant that they have to be culled.
No one salivates over the bush coconut, a knotty growth about the size of a golf ball that grows on gum trees. It’s not so much the outer appearance that turns people off as what’s inside: slimy larva and its offspring, maggots. In terms of protein, though, the bush coconut is hard to beat. And the taste isn’t all that bad. I tried one: tastes like grated carrots.
Water-holding frogs, another outback delicacy, burrow as deep as 12 feet and are usually eaten raw to preserve moisture, an important consideration in these deserts. Steinert places his forefinger over the frog’s rear and his thumb over its head, squeezing together quickly, the idea being not to let a drop of water escape.
We retreat a step when he asks if anyone is still hungry. Of course, no one is, but a woman from California wants to know how many people the frog will feed. ‘You can feed up to 5,000 tourists with one,’ he quips. ‘Curiously, though, it’ll only feed one Aborigine.’
For his part, Steinert prefers lizard, or goanna as it is known Down Under. Though goanna can be eaten raw, Steinert bakes his whole in the hot sand beneath a fire (the idea again is to preserve moisture). Fifteen minutes later, he flops the sizzling goanna into a bowl made of tree bark, scrapes the prickly scales off and disembowels it. ‘It tastes like a cross between fish and chicken,’ he says slicing into the white meat and passing it around. ‘I could eat it till the cows come home.’ Many of us, understandably, are wishing the cows would come home.
Boomerangs And Wild Things
During his presentations, Steinert quickly dispels a few myths surrounding the boomerang. ‘The biggest misconception about the boomerang is that they all come back,’ he tells us. ‘But, in fact, only a quarter of Aborigine people used the returning boomerang. The misconception comes from the fact that they are thought to be good weapons, and they are not. They are very lousy weapons.’
The returning boomerang, he explains, was used only for rounding up birds, waterfowl and ducks off waterways. ‘And it could only be used where you had wide expanses of water. If you had too many trees, the returning boomerang wouldn’t work.’
The boomerang that most Aborigines used was the hunting boomerang. Ranging from two- to three-feet, it is an aerodynamically shaped piece of wood that ‘goes dead straight and keeps going dead straight until hopefully it hits a bird or an animal,’ Steinert says.
An Aborigine clad in jeans and a Western-style shirt shows the accuracy of the hunting boomerang. Winding up like a baseball pitcher, he sends it hurtling end over end for about a hundred yards until it hits a spot marked on the ground. We clap.
Today, hardly anyone would think of using the boomerang for hunting, Steinert tells us. ‘The Aborigines will carry one around to shift the coals of the fire, or if they shoot an animal, they may use the boomerang to finish it off rather than hitting it over the head with a club,’ he says, adding that these days, ‘no one in Australia gets less than 98 percent of their diet from the supermarket.’
That’s a comforting thought as we consider our next meal Down Under.