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Palm Island: a beautiful, friendly, frontier community

From Becc’s, our Warm Showers host in Townsville, we walked out to explore some of the town’s significant sites.

We finally got to taste ripe bush passionfruit on the hill. Yum!

And we were newsworthy down on The Strand. The article neighbouring ours is fairly amusing. It features a male, Jones, 44 years old, involved with bikes; a description that matches Patrick…

While in Townsville we asked the Palm Island Council permission to visit their island. Palm has been a closed community until this year, but it’s not open to tourists. Council filters those who come by asking them to state their intention. We told council about our free food project and the research we were doing and they kindly decided to sponsor us by offering a much reduced rate to stay in the council-run motel, the only accomadation for visitors on the island. We still had a few days to wait for the next ferry and were lucky enough to stay with more Warm Showers hosts, Mick and Jen. Mick runs The Bicycle Pedlar shop in Townsville, specialising in touring. He gave Patrick’s bike a good going over. Thanks Mick!

On the first night Jen cooked us all a beautiful curry. Thanks Jen! So we reciprocated on the second, beginning the meal with a haul of foraged passionfruit we found at a nearby abandoned house site.

We thanked and farewelled Jen and Mick and boarded the ferry for Palm Island, otherwise known by its Aboriginal name Bwgcolman, meaning many tribes, one people.

Palm, as the locals call it, was like stepping into another country.

One of the most joyous things we soon discovered was all the free-ranging going on. Quite a contrast to surbanite Australia. On Palm, horses,

dogs,

goats,

and children have free range of the island.

It was a beautiful thing, and so too were all the foods we discovered. Over the week we were there we compiled a list of 60 autonomous edibles we found or locals told us exist on the island. Bush cucumber grows along the beaches,

as do tropical almonds,

peanut trees,

native gooseberries,

and coconuts.

The local kids were very knowledgeable about fishing,

hunting,

and having a good time.

So we followed their lead. Zero mixed it with Big Girl and Mango,

Meg fished for Burracuda,

Patrick for mullet,

and Woody foraged Burdekin plums and cluster figs.

Each day we found more and more species of both traditional bush tucker and newcomers. We met Uncle Nick and he took us out foraging.

He showed us a number of plants including this weed, possibly a spurge, which is good for treating worts,

and these ripe emu berries.

By the end of the week we had discovered living on or around the island the following species: mango, chinee apple, banana, bush banana, African tulip tree, bush lemon, amaranth, coconut, barracuda, barramundi cod, sea turtle, bush passionfruit, snakeweed, snapper, trevally, brush turkey, echidna, possum, Burdekin plum, bush cucumber, cluster fig, autonomous goat, queenfish, clam, native mulberry, rock wallaby, mud mussel, spider shell, crab, pipi, cassava, sweet potato, naturalised squash, mangrove snail, mud whelk, stingray, sea caper, beach cherry, autonomous pig, jackfruit, emu berry, Pacific rosewood, lady apple, fleabane, goats foot, dugong, grasshopper, naturalised tomato, green ant, guava, mullet, nardoo, native gooseberry, native rock fig, pandanus, paw paw, peanut or monkey nut tree, mackerel, purslane, oyster, emu berry and tropical almond.

The green fruit of the tropical or beach almond looks like this:

During the week Patrick wrote a paper for the forthcoming Indigenous Men’s Health Conference in Cairns. His paper is called Future food, future health: Remodelling tradional Indigenous food and lifeways. For those wishing to delve into more detail of our time on Palm Island and his thesis of walked-for food, you can read his draft.

Later in the week we also got to hang out with these two lovely peeps, Yo and Jarrod,

who are involved with Kinfolk in Melbourne, a café whose sole purpose is to generate funds to support goodly things. They were on Palm with one such enterprise, the Cathy Freeman Foundation, which is set up to assist Indigenous kids education. While on Palm Artist as Family considered ways to help improve non-Indigenous kids education around Australia, to ‘close the gap’ so to speak, with the lack of knowledge in free-ranging, foraging, fishing, hunting and general life resilience. Palm kids were simply awesome and each afternoon fishing off the jetty we met a great number of them and shared our stories and knowledge.

Many outsiders consider Palm Island a third world country and focus on the negatives well publicised in the media. But to us this island represents a frontier, and much is to be learnt from Bwgcolman people as we move into an energy descent era. Resilient kids are certainly the future, as are Indigenous knowledges.

Palm has been a such a highlight in our journey. Thank you to all on the island for sharing your stories, skills and knowledges. It has been a wonderful learning for us.

Strange fruits, bush tucker, diverse cultures and generally composting ‘Team Australia’ (from Airlie Beach to Townsville)

On leaving Airlie Beach we discovered this woody vine and stopped to investigate.

Despite all our best efforts we haven’t been able to work out what plant produces such a fruit and whether it is at all edible. Perhaps you can help dear reader? [UPDATE: Thanks Amanda Ramsay for identifying this fruit as the creeping or climbing fig (Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang). Apparently in Taiwan the fruit is dried for eating and the seeds help form a jelly.] 

We left our mystery fruit, collected some roadside citrus and Black Sapote (Diospyros nigra),

raced a cane train engine back to the Bruce Highway (thanks for the peg Tim Burder!),

and discovered our first cocky apple (Planchonia careya), a traditional bush food of the north.

It was a long day in the saddle riding 80 kms to windy-as-hell Bowen, where we took an obligatory peg under the big mango (note the edible, fruit-loving  green ant, which we still have to try).

Bowen is a kind of birthplace for the mango industry in Australia, dating back to the 1880s when the Kensington variety was first grown for commerical purposes. Now mangoes have naturalised and are considered weeds by landcare groups where they grow without monetary intention. Sadly we’re too late (or is it too early?) for mangoes freely foraged or commercially grown.

We also discovered bananas that have naturalised in this region,

and another weed of great significance for a country arriving at peak affluence, coconuts!

We have so enjoyed this nut, which is so freely available everywhere along the coast. We have developed a fast technique to remove the husk (note the hatchet) and to drill through the eyes (note the three-pronged fishing spear head) to extract the nutritious milk. Every tool we carry has to have multiple uses.

Bowen was a haven for new species we hadn’t previously documented. We came across another strange fruit, which despite all our reference books and online searching we also haven’t been able to identify.

We discovered bush passionfruit (Passiflora foetida),

Burdekin plums (Pleigynium timorense),

and the (apparently) good eating brush turkey (Alectura lathami),

all at Horseshoe Bay. This little place was something quite special.

On the beach we noted the forageable and medicinal but nonetheless potentially poisonous goats foot (Ipomoea pes-caprae). Traditionally, the fleshy part of the taproot was removed, washed and then steamed over coals wrapped in pandanus or some like leaves, making the root edible.

Bowen is also a town of citrus at this time of year and we knocked on several doors to ask if we could harvest a little. While there is still little value given to fruit grown on trees in front and backyards, it is easy pickings to travel Australia and everyday find something good to eat.

Bowen is also a town of capsicum and tomato monocultures,

and like all conventionally grown fruit, petrochemical pesticides are absolutely necessary, and significant waste goes with the territory. This is one season’s weed matting and irrigation pipe ready for the tip.

We left Bowen spotting Mexican prickly poppies (Argemone mexicana), a traditional medicine plant of Sonora in Mexico, used to treat severe headaches and constipation. The oil the plant produces (katkar oil) can be toxic and has been known to cause epidemic dropsy in humans when other edible oils (especially mustard seed oil) have been adulterated by it. Notably severe headaches and loose bowels are just some of the symptoms produced by poisoning.

While the dry tropics at this time of year have been conducive to living outdoors, the temperature increases as we head north make for thirsty cycling.

We rode a short leg to Gumlu where we paid $10 to camp the night and take a warm shower,

at a caravan park that’s seen better days,

and is now in transition to an energy descent scenario.

Woody found a store of corn kept for the animals, helped himself and also picked up some unwanted guests.

It was at Gumlu Caravan Park that we first tasted Ber fruit (Ziziphus mauritiana), also known as Chinee Apple, Jujube, Indian plum and Masau. Look how appley they look.

It is a rather dry fruit, not overly sweet but much richer in Vitamin C than all types of citrus. As Woody will tell you the orange fruit indicates they’re ready to eat.

We harvested a bunch for the road,

set out to seek more species but for a while only found ‘nature’ just south of Ayr,

crossed a rather big bridge,

and set up home in a park south of the town.

It was in Ayr we first came across candle nut (Aleurites moluccana), which gets its common name from its traditional use as a light source. This very oily nut can be burnt as a candle.

We were also introduced to the beach cherry (Eugenia reinwardtiana), otherwise known as the Ceder Bay cherry.

This was a delicious, moist, sweet find and we relished the few fruit we consumed.

On the way out of Ayr we discovered our third mystery fruit for this 300 km leg.

We asked the owners of the property we found it on, but they had no idea. Even though our main research focuses on naturalised, uncultivated food sources, anything edible, medicinal or useful is of interest, especially those species that yield much food,

and can lead us away from sickness.

We rode to a little sugar cane town called Giru, and asked a local man whether we could harvest his Kumquats. He happily obliged.

Beside this abundant tree was a Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus). We tapped on the larger fruits to see whether they were hollow and ready to eat, but we were too early in the season for them.

We stopped at the local pub for an afternoon ale and got the lowdown on free camping in Giru. As we pulled up and we adults began to set up, Woody noticed little red fruits at our feet.

Naturalised tomatoes. Yum!

We threw them through a pasta with locally gardened garlic and olive oil before rumbles in the tent.

With the new day we had a rather testing ride into Townsville with gusty side winds and disappearing shoulders,

arriving fairly exhuasted to stay with Becc, a local bicycle advocate and warm showers host.

Becc took us down to The Strand for a cultural parade that had little to do with ‘Team Australia’ and all to do with celebrating diversity,

and cooked us a beautiful dinner which we enjoyed with other lovely local cycle tourists. We’ll stay a little while in Townsville and rest up to ready ourselves for our next leg of discovery.

Friends and foes en route (Mackay to Airlie Beach)

We left Mackay and travelled the long but quiet route to Calen, witnessing more ill-effects of the sugar industry.

Dispersed beside the monocultural fields we found plants that have no economic or ecological status, such as these health-giving sow thistles (eat the young tender less bitter leaves),

guava (this is the largest fruit we’ve seen so far, measuring 80mm in length, and oh so delicious!),

and public citrus. (If you’re in the air when you pick private fruit does that make it public??)

We got a bike-eye view of sugar processing, which confirmed our resolve to remain a processed-sugar-free family (which means not purchasing the great majority of supermarket items),

as we travelled along the cane fields,

and beside the cane trains that were busily moving Australia’s obesity epidemic around in little carts.

We travelled the Mirani – Mt Ossa Road west of Mackay until we got to Boulder Creek,

where Jeanie and Peppe, our Warm Showers hosts in Mackay, had suggested we camp. We’re glad they did. Thanks J and P! The water was pristine and we refilled our bottles with this dynamic, autonomous mountain brew (there’s not many places left in Australia where the water hasn’t been polluted by conventional agriculture).

We met a bunch of unruly free campers at Boulder Creek, and we shared stories about our respective communities and where we are heading before it was time to take to the road, once again under Queensland’s mid-winter sky.

These quiet roads really are a blessing. Our senses are alive with the absence of motorised transport.

Collecting free citrus in the region is also an absolute treat, and there’s no shortage.

In this little public park at Calen, just before we returned to the Bruce Highway, we helped ourselves to free oranges, bush lemons and grapefruits, as well as free power, recharging our devices behind the public toilet block while we feasted.

Not far north of Calen we spotted for the first time these cluster figs (Ficus racemosa),

a well-known bush food of northern Australia, which also grows in India and South-east Asia. When ripe they turn soft, orange and then red, and have a similar texture to commercially-grown figs, only less sweet to taste. They were lovely to eat but a week or more ripening time would have produced a better result.

After nearly nine months of cycle touring we have seen hundreds of snakes on the road. All of them dead, until now. This lively black snake went to cross the Road of Death just south of Bloomsbury, then decided against it, possibly after sensing the hysterical vibrations of Zero’s barking. Needless to say we quickly tethered Zero, snake bite being a common cause of death for Jack Russells.

Later in the day we passed another couple of road-killed snakes, several birds of prey, a grass owl, countless kangaroos and wallabies and this little quoll.

We took a few side quiet roads into Bloomsbury and discovered this very interesting vine:

the elephant creeper (Argyreia nervosa), aka Hawaiian baby woodrose, Adhoguda, woolly morning glory, elephant climber, elephant ear vine or silver morning glory. This plant may have been introduced by Aborigines on their route from India thousands of years ago, however some botanists believe it is a relative newcomer and an invasive weed. An ancient healing plant, the seeds are said to be psychoactive, producing similar effects as LSD. We just need a baby-sitter for several hours so we can investigate…

We stopped for the night in Bloomsbury, knocking on the principal’s door of the local primary school to ask permisssion to camp the night. Sam, the school’s delightful principal, whole-heartedly agreed and offered us use of the staff’s bathroom and shower. Blessed warm water and a quiet place (after hours) to lay our heads. Thanks Sam!

For all the interrupting death we witnessed the day before on the Bruce, we instead found abundant life living among the sugarcane wastelands the next day, riding towards Proserpine.

Magpie geese eggs are certainly something we’d like to try, but will have to seek permission from local Indigenous elders before we do.

We spotted the magpie geese at Deadman Creek, just south of Proserpine, on the way to Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays,

another painfully beautiful area on the east coast of Australia done over by rampant corporate-bogan tourism,

with absolutely no evidence or recognition of the original culture, the Ngaro people, to be seen anywhere.

It was in Airlie Beach that we met up with community friends from Daylesford, and shared a camping ground site with them. We had four lovely days with Fiona, Tim and their kids Max and Rose, sharing meals, walks into town and along the beach,