The Central Australian Outback, Northern Territories, literally smack bang in the heart of the country, and otherwise known as the middle of nowhere or ‘extremely remote’. The all too predictable cityscape is replaced with something unfamiliar and ever changing. What seems to be a bare, never-ending burnt red surface has creased floors like spreading roots, trails of ant-like trees, etched dirt tracks, and puddles of land, wet sand in colour, contrasting against a brilliant blue sky. This window to the Australian Outback is almost otherworldly and Mars-like, I’m sat in air conditioning but I can almost feel its heat radiating onto me, and I’m fixated.
The desert is a scarce, harsh and hostile land for anyone or anything daring to enter its sands. But, if you take a step back you can experience things you never imagined – seeing beauty and adventure in its harsh façade, you can learn, be inspired, be changed and make change.
As we make our decent, I start to understand the deceptive nature of the desert. The plane’s-eye-view made more sense. Fine red sand-like soil covered the entire landscape, but the remnants of rivers provided an unexpectedly greener, hillier setting, with a graveyard of fallen charred trees, and this sense of sameness. Leaving the tourists behind at the airport, we embark on a 6-hour jeep ride to three remote indigenous homelands – ‘Lilla’, ‘Ulpanyali’ and ‘Wanmara’. Unlike the mass of others travelling to the middle of nowhere, this is a story about trial and error, about evolving, about cooking, about education and about family.
Assaulting on my senses, I’m struggling to process the stimuli hitting me. Born and raised in England, I have no sense of history towards Australia’s tragic and sensitive indigenous past, what lies hidden in its culture or in its future. Cautious about my curious ways, I ask a barrage of questions to my Slow Food colleague, Andrew. ‘Native’, ‘tribe’, ‘indigenous’, ‘community’, ‘family group’, ‘aboriginal’, ‘dark skinned’, ‘black folk’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘bush people’ ‘Mr or Mrs X’, these are just some of the terms used to refer to one of the oldest civilizations on our planet, so which is appropriate reference for Australia’s original Australians? I’m prompted to refer to ‘them’ by their first name, just like you or me. The term ‘they’ was soon replaced by ‘Vera’, ‘Sadie’, ‘Linda’ and ‘Peter’. And to answer my question, ‘indigenous’ or ‘family group’ were preferred in this instance.
There’s an air of caution as matriarch of Lilla, Vera, shook my hand, deflecting any eye contact. Living through the scars of the past, I’m just another person that she’ll likely never see again. A plump, middle-aged lady with scraggly chin-length light brown hair, yet despite her harsh exterior, I see a glimpse of kindness in her eyes, there’s a chance we can connect. But for now that was enough.
The scorching desert sun radiates onto me. Flies gathered comfortably on our backs, with a constant and loud buzzing in my ears. You didn’t need words; the desert introduces itself through silent conversations. Native plants destroyed by rampant wild fires, native plants under attack by the fast spreading bufflegrass weed (a non-native weed presumed to be bought over by Afghan camels), everywhere I looked the desert spoke. It was time to surrender to my new environment and just let go. And once I did that, it allowed me to see more (and to sleep).
Like many of other indigenous family groups or communities across Australia and around the world, there was a sense of neglect. Situated approximately 500km from the nearest major city (Alice Springs) these Australians are hit hard by locality, intense weather conditions, zero humidity, and an eco-system and evolution disrupted by the ‘white man’. For thousands and thousands of years the indigenous population in Central Australia were self-sufficient – surviving by understanding the bush. Being one with the environment, adapting to their harsh conditions and surviving on very little. Australia’s bloodstained hands tainted the palette of the bush, creating addiction, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Cultural identity is intertwined with food, a glance at a dot painting tells us the outback is no exception. Like with everything, knowledge is power and power is food. But what happens when that knowledge has sadly disappeared because of the introduction of refined white sugar, white flour and water, to an otherwise sustainable eco-system? I was there for one reason, to help – to play a small role in planting and maintaining living gardens in a place where nothing, apart from bush food, grows.
Planting a Seed
As I walked onto Linda’s Ulpanyali land, there’s something out of place in this harsh scenery – there’s rows and rows of vibrant green, setting against our burnt red backdrop. There are cherry tomatoes, red beets, green onion, salad greens, chillis, pumpkins, bell peppers and even watermelon. Boxes teeming and bursting with life with moist soil and fresh, healthy, happy vegetables and herbs popping with colour.
“I just like to planting seeds and growing vegetables”, said Linda, the matriarch of Ulpanyali.
Those simple words spoke volume, sending chills down my body. Since Slow Food Australia planted the garden with Remote Education Tours in 2014, a seed was truly planted. Change was happening and Linda was planting her own seeds, patiently nurturing, waiting, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, but learning each time.
Heading to Kings Canyon just 30km away, I peek inside the fresh food fridge at the resort; lonely produce sat there, patiently waiting to be bought.
80c (AUD) per orange, $1.50 for a single pear, $1.30 for one apple, $3.50 for a cucumber, 80c per medium sized potato, $1.20 for just a medium red onion or 50c for a medium yellow onion; you start understanding how this garden can interrupt the on-going cycle of oppression, and improve the health of Australia’s first nation. With those prices how can you afford to feed a family 5-a-day, even if you tried?
Before this journey, I never expected to see the extent of Australia’s hunger pains across the country. We say that food is a basic human right, but with little said about the food insecurity faced by Australia’s first inhabitants, it questions whether de-humanizing indigenous Australia makes the issues simply easier to digest.
Putting the food politics aside, changing eating habits of bush meats, ‘white man meat’ and potatoes, lasting over 5 generations is not an easy task. Hunting and gathering, adapting and surviving, the concept of cooking what we think of as ‘everyday produce’, was and still is, non-existent. That’s where I came in, albeit in a very small role.
The sense of sameness within the surrounding extends to another way – just like with my other edible adventures, people don’t have the time to cook, even in the remoteness of the outback. Convenience has overtaken survival. Native Australia, just like the rest of the world, is becoming more and more disconnected with their food, where it comes from and the stories behind it. In the past, the food chain was about hunting and gathering, splitting into groups to prepare a meal, barely surviving, but surviving nonetheless. Australia’s original foragers are losing their basic survival skills like fading footprints in the sand, becoming victims of cheaper processed non-perishable packaged foods, just like everyone else. This was a breadcrumb trail to a deeper rooter issue, one that was actually the reverse to other communities: the rest of the world may be stressing the importance of foraging and turning to bugs as a protein source, but the real question is ‘can Australia’s indigenous population survive again, if these hunter/gatherer skills are fast becoming a recent memory?’ This cycle of oppression and the politics of food, bought on by society (not vegetables), seem to be steering course yet again.
As afternoon slides into evening, the colours all blur into one and the stillness of the night’s sky has me retreating into my tent, exhausted from digesting and attempting to make sense of everything.