It takes no time at all to find what we came for.
“I arrived a bit earlier,” Uncle Ron says, producing three small yellow fruits from his bag.
“They’re wild passionfruit… taste them.”
We’ve met Yaegl elder Ron Heron at the entrance to Angourie Back Beach, a regular stomping ground for surfers, day-trippers and nature lovers alike.
But long before the first wave was ridden here, Ron tells us, the land we are standing on was a historic Aboriginal village site, chosen by the Yaegl people for its abundance of food and close proximity to the ocean.“There’s a lot of food here if you know where to find it, a lot of seafood,” Uncle Ron says.
He knows what he’s talking about – as well as growing up in a mission this area, the Yamba resident holds degrees in archaeology and anthropology, and a Doctor of Letters honoris causa from Port Macquarie University for his research on bush resources.
“See that tree and this tree, they’re geebung trees,” he says as we stroll down a nearby track.
It appears the fruits of the geebung, which ripen in summer, are long gone, but Uncle Ron advises us to look to the ground, where they are most ripe and ready to eat. They’re green, about as big as a thumbnail.
“You bite one end of it and squeeze the fruit into your mouth,” he explains.
“if you’re walking along the beach, fishing or gathering sea pipis, and you don’t want to carry a container with drinking water in it, you eat those instead. You might put two in your mouth and chew it like chewing gum and that means you don’t have to worry about water.”
Even if there are no geebung trees around, you can always look for the small vividly-pink fruits that cover the lilly pilly.
“If you have those, again you could spend all day without water. You have a good feed but you put a lot in your pockets for later too,” Uncle Ron says.
“But you never skin the tree so there’s no fruit left, always leave some for the next person. It might be your brother, or your brother’s wife – that’s the way we were brought up.
“We used to do a lot of fishing at the sand spit at Yamba. Back then we didn’t have sinkers on the line and we’d catch two whiting at a time, and end up with a couple of buckets full.
“But we’d never claim them all, we made sure they went to everyone in our community, in the tin huts.”
It wasn’t just fish that the 70-year-old grew up eating – there was emu, kangaroo, goanna and the odd carpet snake.
“(Echidna) is the best though, it tastes like pork.”
Nearby, black cockatoos hold a clue to the presence of another source of protein – the jubal, similar to a witchetty grub.
“Dad would just eat them raw, for all of us kids to see. He’d put a rip in it as he’d pull it out and it stretches the skin. When you opened it up it looked like an egg – raw and white and yellow. And he’d say, ‘I’ll eat it you know’. If it still had a skin you’d put it on top of a wood stove to cook it and eat it that way. I never ate it raw.”
For years I have been coming to Angourie Back Beach and it has never occurred to me that the surrounding bush would be so plentiful.
As we continue further down the sand path the sounds of the bush come to a crescendo- native birds sing out, hissing swarms of locusts move from tree to tree, and every now and then the distinct buzz of a mosquito hisses past your ear.
SLAP. Got one of the little blood-sucking buggers.
“Bracken ferns”, Ron continues on a new tangent, “you can pick the young leaf and rub that where you got bitten by a green ant and it helps to stop the pain.”
Does it work for mosquito bites too?
And what about when you need to wash your hands after a big feed? Pick the leaves of a red ash, also known as a soap tree, and add water to work them into a lather.
“Anything we didn’t know when we were kids we’d ask about the ins and outs, and most times we were told,” Uncle Ron tells us.
Now it’s his turn to impart what he knows of both bushfoods and Aboriginal culture in general, which he has been doing for the past ten years by taking Maclean High School students on native tours with Yuraygir Walking Tours.“They race home with a gleam in their eye and tell their parents about it, and then sometimes, the parents come next time.”
From poisonous plant to delicious damper
Evidence of the ingenuity of the Aboriginal people can be found throughout history, and just one local example of this comes in the form of two highly poisonous plants found in the Clarence Valley.
The first is the root of the cunjevoi plant, the second, black bean.
Both would be gathered and punctured with a stone several times, before being stuffed into dilly bags and placed in a shallow stream where fresh water could flow over the vegetables.
Every day or so the women would put their hands in the bag and feel them, and as soon as they were no longer sticky they knew they were safe to eat.
Then, the bags were emptied onto a large rock and dried, before being put into a wooden coolamon and mashed, one lot cunjevoi and one lot black bean. They were then rolled into balls and cooked in the hot ash. Once cooked, they’d act as bread for the evening meals.
Words: Clair Morton Images: Gary Parker