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Nature’s Bounty

Written by Alison Bone

Popular with chefs, distillers and artisanal producers across the region, bush tucker has had a huge revival in recent years – and you can forget the witchetty grubs and honey ants, it’s all about the fragrant botanicals. We join a Bush Tucker Tour to find out more about traditional Bundjalung food and culture in the Northern Rivers.

Late afternoon sunlight filters through the palm trees as our group gathers in a circle at Bangalow Parklands. Our guide is Arakwal, Bundjalung woman Delta Kay, whose ancestors have lived in the area for thousands of years, and passed down their customs, knowledge, ceremonies and stories to her for safekeeping. Calling to the spirits of her ancestors to let them know we are there, she explains, “It’s like me coming to your house and knocking on your door – would I just come in? No, I would wait for you to invite me in.”

Our Bush Tucker Tour starts by the toilet block, which would seem odd but for the colourful mural that adorns it, which tells the story of European arrival in the region. The first scene is a vision of utopia; a beautiful creek running through vibrant rainforest filled with ancient trees, birds and animals. In the next scene the creek has shrunk to a trickle and all that remains of the rainforest are big tree stumps. “When the settlers looked at the forest they saw money in their eyes,” says Delta, and the ancient silky oaks, hoop pines and red cedar trees were cleared for timber. With the big trees gone, much of the bush tucker, the birds, the animals and a whole way of life also disappeared. “I am excited about how country is being respected and cared for now,” says Delta. The Parklands we are walking in is a great example – regenerated grazing land, planted with hundreds of native species thanks to efforts by the Anglican church, Bangalow Land and River Care Group and Delta herself.

Delta is a natural storyteller and we hang on every word as she shares the Dreamtime story of the junbung – platypus, who can sometimes be spotted here in Byron Creek. As a kid, Delta and her brothers and sisters foraged for snacks and she leads us down the trail to a bush, whose yellow fruit was known as “fluffy leaf lolly.” Native ginger provided tasty bush lollies too “good for tummy ache and quenching thirst on a hot day,” says Delta, while the leaves were used to wrap fish prior to cooking in the fire to give aromatic flavour. “My mum knew where all the bushtucker food was,” she adds, passing around the coarse leaves of a sandpaper fig, which her mum used to rub on the soles of her feet to smooth away callouses. The small dark fruit is juicy and delicious, although less sweet than a European fig.

Delta’s ancestors moved around for seasonal abundance, but also for ceremonies and social visits, and would follow the song lines, or songs of country. “We listen to the land because she tells us everything, where to camp, where to find food.” Sustainability was key, and when we see baby turtles clinging to a log in the creek, Delta explains “we could only eat the binging (turtles) when the silky oak trees flowered.” We stop to crush fragrant myrtle leaves - lemon, cinnamon and aniseed, which all make medicinal teas. And discover that mosquitos and bluebottles have always been about – tea tree leaves were traditionally rubbed on the skin as a repellent, while the leaves of the crinum lily, were used to soothe stings.

Emerging from the forest trail an enticing display of bush tucker foods awaits. There’s tart pink lilly pilly fruit, wincingly sour Davidson plums, dianella – Bundjalung blueberry, which burst in the mouth in the most satisfying way, and sublime finger lime – a Bundjalung superfood now famed around the world for its pearl like insides.  Delta has brought us coastal treats too; some wonderfully salty native spinach, juicy sea purslane, and my favourite, the nyuli, a type of karkalla that tastes like a salty kiwi fruit.

For Delta, who started Explore Byron in 2020, it’s all about connecting people back to native food, and educating kids is a big part of that. “My dream is that kids will want a lilly pilly or finger lime in their lunchbox, not an apple that’s been kept on a shelf for months and sold in the supermarket.” The tour has certainly changed the way I experience the bush and coastline and motivated me to plant more bush tucker trees and shrubs in my own garden. Delta also runs fascinating Cape Byron and Broken Head Tours that incorporate local history, traditional stories and bush tucker.

More ways to enjoy bush food

Native botanicals star in Rainforest Foods, think Macadamia Spread, Lemon Myrtle Honey and Davidson Plum Jam.

Plant bush tucker plants and shrubs in your garden. Check out Northern Rivers Natives and Burringbar Rainforest Nursery

Dine on seasonal, bush tucker-inspired cuisine at Karkalla, Byron Bay

Take the kids to explore the Bush Tucker Garden in Federal.

Follow the self-guided Bush Tucker Trail behind the dunes on the south side of the headland in Cabarita

Learn about the 17 native botanicals used in Brookies gin and more, as you tour the regenerated rainforest on a Rainforest and Gin Tasting Tour at Cape Byron Distillery


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