AS one of Australia’s millions of migrants, it’s not often I feel completely at home in the wide brown land. However my first visit to Uluru brought tears on seeing the rock in real life, and it seems Kakadu has also secured a place in my heart.
The Northern Territory, with its fierce, frontier-like living, is the place that most encapsulates Australia to me. And while my skin colour comes by way of India rather than any indigenous roots, it’s the Aboriginals I meet there who make me feel the most at home.
Most visitors to Kakadu come to the Top End in the Dry, from June to September, but there are advantages in catching the tail end of the Wet.
For one thing, there are markedly less people up here. And for another, there’s the chance of taking part in May’s Taste of Kakadu festival, where tourists and Territorians alike can sample indigenous dishes cooked in traditional ways by the locals, who’ve been eating this way for thousands of years.
On our visit to the tiny town of Jabiru, the rich, gamey flavour of a whole buffalo shoulder, slow-cooked in a ground oven (gungerri) for hours with potato, sweet potato and pumpkin, feeds not only our small group of visitors but also many of the local rangers and guides who gather as word spreads of the feast.
The ranger who’s doubling as our chef recounts how he woke before dawn to dig the shallow hole, lining it with stones and lighting a fire on top. He allowed the blaze to reduce to coals and laid the meat and vegetables on top, covering it with layers of paperbark (melaleuca bark) before the dirt from the hole was shovelled over the top.
Reminiscent of the Maori hangi, Fiji’s lovo or the Cook Islands’ umukai, this method isn’t set-and-forget, with regular checking by the chefs to ensure the coals are still hot by sticking their fingers in the earth, and that the steam generated doesn’t burst through the soil, deflating the natural pressure-cooker.
The mixture of roasting, barbecuing and steaming, delivers tender, smoky and gelatinous meat. Even our vegetarian ranger Sarah stuffs her face with the accompanying tender and delicious sweet potato and pumpkin.
The ground oven feast was preceded by a serve of damper, not made with wheat flour but the ground seeds of water lilies (mabala) and slathered with jam made from the local black currants.
These andjurrugumarlba berries are also being gathered to make a vibrant purple dye used in colouring fibres for basket-weaving, and indigenous forager Patsy shows us where the bushes are and how her fingers have been stained purple from the fruit.
Patsy also offers us a warning about Kakadu foraging, which is limited to indigenous residents, as there are at least two other similar-looking berries that are highly poisonous.
As part of the Taste of Kakadu, visitors will also be treated to many different ways of serving barramundi, crocodile and emu, and to desserts based around finger limes, Kakadu plums and native lemongrass.
Our final meal at Jabiru ends with a dessert composed of vanilla ice cream, topped with black currant sauce and sprinkled with green ants, which impart a zingy, lemony crunch to the dish. Sharing its picture on social media prompted many friends to query my sanity but I was quick to assure them the insects weren’t actually crawling over the dish.
However, I neglected to mention the abdomen of the live green ant I’d sampled on the first day of our visit – called “the best tasting bum in the world” by indigenous chef Zach Green.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Virgin, Jetstar and Qantas all fly into Darwin from around Australia daily with fares from Sydney beginning at about $300 one-way. Day tours are available to Kakadu from there, but the three-hour drive is also easily made in a rental car available from Budget, Thrifty or Europcar at Darwin Airport. Make sure you pay for your Kakadu visitors pass, available online before you get there or at several locations within the park.
STAYING THERE: A range of accommodation is available in Kakadu, including the Mercure Crocodile Hotel with rooms from $150 and the Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park at about $100, both in Jabiru. Rooms at the Cooinda Lodge, deep in the park south of Jabiru, are about $200 per night.
PLAYING THERE: The Taste of Kakadu festival runs from May 18-27 and details are available at: https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/taste/program/
With the water flowing after the Wet, a great way to take in the park is in a small plane piloted by The Scenic Flight Company, which offers flights from $130 for 30 minutes, that will give your cameras a great workout. For those who prefer to stay on land, a cruise along the waterways is a must. Yellow Water Cruises offers sunrise, sunset or daytime adventures from $72 per person.
The writer travelled to Kakadu as a guest of Tourism NT, Kakadu Tourism and Parks Australia.