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Eating ants, bush fruits and eels, and meeting crocodiles (Narragon Beach to Daintree Village)

It was very hard to leave our free-camping sanctuary with our freshwater pool streaming onto Narragon Beach just down from the Clump Point jetty where we pulled in our evening hauls of fish.

It was also hard to leave our lovely new and not so new friends.

We had our last ride in to Mission Beach with the delightful Tom Dean, the errant wayfarer, before once again setting our compass north.

Our restored senses went immediately into shock after we got back on the Bruce Highway. Trucks, motorhomes, caravans, misnamed ‘eco’ tourists, roadkill, roadside memorials, anthropogenic garbage and sugarcane mayhem all came flooding back to raze the peace and make us harden back up for another dose of digi-industrial reality. Needless to say we took the longer back road to Innisfail, via south Johnstone and Japoon, which rewarded us with this little haul of free fruit,

and a croc safe (at least in the dry season) swimming hole.

Further down the road we stopped to investigate some of the hidden ingredients in conventional banana farming.

This farmer was using two different pesticides: Echo 720, a fungicide and known carcinogen and the herbicide Gramoxone 250, which is an extremely dangerous chemical. The active constituent in Gramoxone 250 is paraquat dichloride, which is banned in 32 countries including China and all the EU nations including Switzerland where Syngenta, the chemical company that produces it, has its headquarters. This chemical has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease.

What is incredible is that bananas are considered ‘health food’ in Australia! When we’ve been stuck for food and have had to resort to supermarkets on this trip we routinely ask one of the staff where the ‘health food’ and ‘organic’ foods are. These minuscule couple of shelves contain products that have too much packaging or are also packed with hidden nasties such as refined sugar.

To paraphrase Michael Pollan: If it comes from a plant eat it; if it’s made in a plant don’t. The sugar industry in South Johnstone had certainly made its mark on the town, the cane trains surge down the main drag like cocaine through a major vein.

We just keep thinking: what would it look like if the Queensland Government pulled its subsidies from cane farmers, taxed refined sugars like they do tobacco and transferred the revenue to organic food producers or farms transitioning to organic food, bringing the price of organic food down so as everyone could purchase it? Imagine the savings made to public health! Imagine the beautiful ruination of predatory pharmaceutical companies and irresponsible doctors who have built their businesses on an innutritious, immune depleting food system! And then there are the environmental questions.

Imagine if soils were no longer mined to grow a substance that isn’t necessary and that is causing so much ill health. Can you imagine in these razed fields as food forests of Maccadamia nuts, Davidson Plums, paw paws, bananas, grapefruits, oranges and a hundred other fruits all grown as a polyculture with leguminous plants interplanted, used as chop and drop fertilisers, where thick humus would form, repairing the soil and its mycorrhizal strata, and where perennial groundcovers would spread out after the first years of pioneering annual weeds doing their work to repatriate the earth, where a billion organisms live and build soil structure, and who through rigorous competition fight off the threat of dominating species, so as no pesticides, no corporations making decisions about our health, no organic certification was necessary because agricultural pesticides were all banned and common sense prevailed? But for now this is the present: millions of acres of completely unnecessary sugar cane.

Because Woody has never had refined sugar, his taste buds are open to all foods and their sensations. Whereas we older ones in the tribe may have a few blue quandongs here and there, Woody seeks them out with a passion. He’ll eat the tart ones, sour ones, mildly sweet over ripe ones, as well as the way past desirable ones.

He’s becoming the most enthusiastic forager of us all. He’s also partial to autonomus meat. At the free-camping spot at Babinda, Patrick hand speared a small black fish for bait and used it to catch this lovely creature on a 40-pound hand line:

an Australian long-finned eel (Anguilla reinhardti). We made a fire and cooked it on the coals for around 12 minutes each side. It was heavenly dining after peeling back the bitter skin and revealing the extraordinary white, moist flesh.

Artist as Family gave blessings to this powerful water creature and slept with the watery whirlings of the eel inside us. The next day we packed up early,

and took to the road. Our long-finned fuel powering us all the way into Cairns where we stayed with this delightful family:

Meet warm showers hosts Sarah, Oscar and Renee, who we look forward to spending more time with when we return to Cairns. After a night of great conversation, games, showers and delicious shared food, we picked up some supplies from the community food co-op and from a local park,

and headed north again. Sarah and Oscar rode ahead to steer our departure as Zero was having an RDO as our biological GPS.

One species that we have camped with everywhere, been stung by, admired their architecture but so far failed to try out as a bush food is the green ant (Oecophylla smaragdina).

These amazing fruitarians are everywhere and we’ve now incorporated them into our everyday diet as a robust free food species. Like whitchetty grubs they have a high fat content; perfect as a cycling fuel. They are a zingy citrus-like edible, which is not surprising as they love citrus. We have all, including Woody, learnt to catch them by the head with our pincers, killing them instantly and popping them whole into our mouths.

We only got as far as Smithfield, an outer suburb of Cairns, and Patrick’s front wheel rim spilt open, possibly as a result of his eating too many green ants.

While waiting for the repairs we walked for a few hours in an industrial wasteland along the A1 and found these delicious ripe bush passionfruits (Passiflora foetida).

They oozed the devine right off the vine: no built religious environment was necessary to partake in this godly moment.

We were rather abruptly asked to leave the bike shop in Smithfield, prompting Patrick to write the following poem from our campsite at Unity Reef.

It felt right to be kicked out of the bicycle shop
in Cairns. We had coveted all their back room
power points with our touring stench. Baby and dog
running in and out of the place unsettling the gloss
while we waited for the expensive repair.
But perhaps it was really the ‘G20 – – – – LIES’
writ large across one of our tail panniers
that prompted the call for our exile by the boss.
After all the city was in feverish preparation
eager to celebrate the international visitors
with a cultural festival of entertainers
known as ‘the arts’.

Even if our schooling system today does its best to breed out the inquistive and critical in the population this doesn’t mean that the forthcoming G20 bankers get-together in Cairns isn’t a pox on the planet. But obviously many disagree, especially in Port Douglas where we came across this holidaying couple near the beach. When we asked the lady wearing it about her singlet she boasted it cost only $3 from K-Mart. Is it a joke? Are we missing the irony? Where do you start with such intransigence to life and the suffering of others for the sake of a $3 joke?

No doubt G20 finance delegates will flock to Port Douglas with all its monetary shmaltz. We on the other hand couldn’t wait to leave, legging it back to the A1 after a picnic lunch with fake artisan bread, temporarily being split up by big sugar before the town of Mossman in Kuku Yalanji country, on the way to the Daintree.

Not far on we met this fantastic duo who were heading south and who are working on a very exciting bicycle touring project. It was lovely to meet you Simon and Alia!

Just nearby we found a laden grapefruit tree, loaded up, gave some to our fellow tourers before pushing on to find some ripe guavas, which we have commonly picked all along the east coast from as far south as Kempsey.

We camped the night at Newell Beach and the following day arrived at the village of Daintree.

Prone to regular flooding and therefore constant change the Daintree River is an ecological hive of activity.

We adults were as wide-eyed and excited as Woody when we saw fishing birds such as this pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax varius),

the numerous reptilian water critters such as this grand male estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porous),

and these common tree snakes, sunning themselves.

While in the Daintree village we also learned more about Far North Queensland plant life, such as native taro (Colocasia esculenta var. aquatilis), which requires much lengthy preparation in order to make the tubers edible,

and Woody, completely unprompted, collected up all the Kuku Yalanji forest delights he knew including blue quandongs, satin ash fruit, peanut tree pods and hibiscus flower.

We were fortunate enough to meet Linda, a Kuku Yalanji elder, who was collecting freshwater mussels (Velesunio ambiguous) from the river. Linda told us that there are many important Aboriginal places around the village including a burial site that the local historical society is simply not interested in marking. Daintree village seems to be another case of white history told, black history conveniently disappeared.

We are resting up here for a few days, readying ourselves for the final northern leg, up the Broomfield Track to Cooktown, which is going to be quite a challenge from all accounts. We hope you are meeting all your challenges too, Dear Reader, and we thank you, once again, for joining us on our adventure.

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.

The lessons of salt (for an inlander family)

Crossing the Hawkesbury at Wisemans Ferry signalled our first real taste of salt water. To mark this ecological shift Zeph got stung by a jelly fish while swimming at Wisemans before we jumped on the friendly ferry. The kind lady at the ferry kiosk gave us some vinegar to calm the stinging as we couldn’t find any plantain and none of us had any wee on offer.

On the other side of the River, at Mill Creek, another ecological shift took place. Freely forageable bananas. After two and a half months since leaving our cool Highlands home, the land, and what it has on offer, is really starting to change.

We camped the night in the national park but didn’t stay long as we had become the prey of some rather fierce mosquitos. We left before breakfast, riding several kilometres along the river before stopping to cook porridge,

where another ecological transformation took place. Mangrove country. Zeph hunted for crabs.

The Hawkesbury is a beautiful river and we snaked along Wisemans Ferry Road for another hour before coming across a rural fire brigade and a community centre, both abuzz with people. We asked a volunteer fire fighter whether we could recharge Meg’s bike. Meet Captain ‘Jock’ Ross.

Jock, it turned out, was the founding president of the notorious bikie gang the Comancheros, made famous in 1984 for their part in the Milperra massacre. We took our photo with a warm and generous elder, but having since done a little research we have learned what horrific violence can be committed by an ex-military man unable to settle back into ordinary civilian life. Perhaps this local creek, situated near to where we met Jock, could be renamed, Perplexity Creek. We certainly have met some interesting characters.

We passed through the small one-shop town of Spencer in the late afternoon, bought some supplies and got some local advice to camp at Mangrove River Reserve,

where we set up the tents, swam in the lovely cool water and collected fuel to cook with.

Seeing there were prawns in the river, we set about making a makeshift net with Meg’s torn stockings and some bamboo stakes that were lying around.

The net wasn’t ideal, but we still managed to catch two prawns while spotlighting that night. We quickly set this live bait on a simple tackle of hook and small sinker. With each prawn we caught a short-finned eel (Anguilla australis), both within a few minutes of casting.

We gutted them, hung them in a tree over night and prepared them for breakfast the next morning, cooking them in a little olive oil and adding a spritz of