By Larry Habegger

The author discovers more than food in sampling plants from the land.

I’d been thinking a lot about crocodiles. The saltwater species that lives in tropical Australia grow to 20 feet or more, and they’re so stealthy and quick it’s said you never see them until they’ve got you. Just yesterday we got hung up in a shallow channel and had to jump into the mangrove swamp to push the boat into deeper water, and every second off the deck felt like an eternity. And now, we were about to do it again.

When we got to the airboat clouds darkened the sky. Max Davidson, former farmer, longtime bushman, buffalo hunter, and now our guide, surprised us all by firing up the engine and blasting us with water, leaves, and a wide grin. We laughed at his impish delight, then helped get the boat into the water to explore the billabong in this isolated region in northern Australia known as Arnhem Land. Rain started to fall. By the time we headed up the channel it was pouring. We pulled rain jackets around us and tied on hats. Already we could see the water was rising; since yesterday it had come up a couple of feet and we had little trouble getting through a stretch that had clutched at us the day before. We hadn’t been on the water more than a few minutes when the storm broke, the rain falling in sheets, lashing the water, the boat, all of us exposed on that silver sheet of billabong. Rain jackets were worthless. We were soaked to the skin. And then Max pulled up under a dense canopy of mangroves and said, “Do you want to hold up for a while?”

“Why?” I laughed. “Makes no difference to me.”
“Can’t get wetter than we are,” he said, and off we went, Max’s poncho blowing in the wind like a shroud.

It was like flying through a thunderstorm in an open plane. The air was water and we could hardly see. Forward, faster. Birds scattered, the boat raced over the water, across vegetation. I expected to hit something that would send us flying into the jaws of hungry crocodiles, and once we almost did, sliding on soil and about to stop when the boat shook free to deeper water. Again we were off, running out from beneath the storm.

Eventually the rain let up and eventually stopped. Now we had a chance to look at the land, illuminated in soft, ethereal light. Max edged the boat aground at a place he said was safe so we could get out and rest awhile. Soaked as we were, boggy as it was, it was nice to be on land.

Max began digging in the earth with his bare hands to collect some “bush tucker,” food the locals have been eating for millennia. Earlier he’d shown us many edible things, plants the Aboriginals and hunters like himself could survive on for weeks at a stretch.

A billygoat plum, a native tree with small fruit, has 50 percent more Vitamin C than an orange. Green ants are lemon flavored (I know, because Max offered me some and I could hardly say no), and Aboriginals take the whole nest, scrunch it up, mix it in water, and drink to treat colds. They eat the bloodwood nut, and use the flaky bark from the paperbark tree to build ground ovens for cooking almost anything. They start with hot rocks in a hole, add a layer of paperbark leaves, some water, more layers of leaves, then fish, wallaby, buffalo, whatever is the day’s meal, and cover with paperbark layers. Termite mounds—conical eruptions of the red earth that sometimes reach over six feet tall—are used for medicinal purposes. The pitaradia acts as a decongestant; there’s a grasshopper here that eats this plant and nothing else.

Paperbark is a mellelucca, the family that provides tea tree oil, and the bark grows in dozens of thin layers to become several inches thick. Early whites who came to Australia did paintings on paperbark, but the Aboriginals didn’t. They used stringybark trees instead.

Max was on his knees, digging with his huge hands. I was amazed at the breadth of his back, the taut muscles of his shoulders, the girth of his arms. He was as broad as he was tall, with a big belly that must have taken years of effort to acquire, a blondish-white beard trimmed close. I couldn’t tell if he was 55 or 75, but clearly he was a strong fellow who was completely at home in this environment.

He was digging for legumes on the roots of grass, busting up the knotted earth. Clumps of grass flew this way, clots of soil flew that way. He dug, and dug, fingering the roots, rejecting them as too scrawny. He kept at it, oblivious of my calls to stop. “It’s OK, Max, we don’t need to taste them.”

He seemed obsessed, and I began to think he deposited us here just so he could get some of this bush food. He was up to his elbows now, hunched over the Earth as if reaching into the depths of its soul, reaching down as if to touch his own soul deep in the bowels of the land. He was glowing, completely consumed by this communion with the Earth.

And then he found them. He pulled up some skinny bulbs, knocked the dust off, put them in his mouth and chewed. He smiled, then looked at me, eyes bright.

“This one’ll be sweet,” he said, handing me a dusty clod. It wasn’t. It was dry and starchy, something I wouldn’t choose to eat but could live on if forced to. But to Max it was pure heaven, God’s own repast, and he waited only an instant to make sure I approved before he dug for more.

And then, a wave of melancholy swept over me. Looking around at this extraordinary land of billabong and flood plain, I felt a deep emptiness, a loneliness rooted in my sense of having no connection to the land. Where was I from? What did I know of ancestry and earth? Was this just a malady of my own, or symbolic of a malaise shared by many First Worlders? The kind of connection I lacked you can only get from working the earth, coming from it, knowing it as part of your spirit. The Aboriginals had it. Max had it. But looking at that shimmering green land carved in squiggly patterns by rivers and streams and buffalo channels, I knew it was something I would never have, unless I changed my life completely. And maybe even that wouldn’t be enough.

On the way back we took it slowly, enjoying the flight of magpie geese, the purple reflections of clouds on the water, the calm after the storm. Suddenly a huge splash erupted to our left and Max killed the engine. Waves two feet high coursed toward us and the boat rocked as if crossing a wake. There wasn’t a sound on the billabong until Max uttered, “Now that was a big crocodile.”

The image of that crocodile we didn’t see stayed with me. The power of that creature, so ominous, so primeval, reflected the frightening beauty of these wild places. There are things here we cannot conceive, powers that make a mockery of our civilized concerns, hidden creatures with clear meanings. We are at the top of the food chain, yes, but only by a thread.

About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on and on As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.

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