How a bush food experiment is helping grow 'a healthy life' for future generations

On a rural block just off a remote road linking two tiny Far North Queensland towns sits Aunty Cherry Turpin’s bush camp. It was establish...

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On a rural block just off a remote road linking two tiny Far North Queensland towns sits Aunty Cherry Turpin’s bush camp.

It was established after the 560-hectare parcel of land on her grandmother’s country, Mbabaram, was handed back to the family through native title.

small bush camp amongst trees at the feet of mountain range

Aunty Cherry’s bush camp is hidden amongst the scrub near Watsonville in Far North Queensland.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

She laments what’s been lost over generations of disconnection from ancestral lands.    

“My grandmother was taken away from this country and she probably missed out on a lot of stuff from this country,” Ms Turpin says.

“I feel sad about that … but I think that’s what they taught us … to come back to country and live the life they did; a healthy life.”

But it’s the future of this land, and what she and her brother Gerry Turpin are growing together, which has her excited. 

“The idea is to build our own rainforest and arid food industry on country,” she says.

“Since I’ve been on country back here, we’re learning as we go, discovering our own food and plants and how they work in the environment.”

Older Aboriginal woman sits by river

Aunty Cherry Turpin is hopeful her project will help the next generation reconnect with country.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Aunty Cherry was inspired to grow bush foods by her father, who hails from Yidinji rainforest country.

“We looked at how they lived way back in the early days, they didn’t have fertilisers or anything like that,” she says.

“They put their seeds straight back in the ground where they sat and ate and that’s how the country’s grown with all this food – that’s the same idea as we want to do.”

Old ways in the modern world  

The bush block is a myriad of makeshift structures.

There are irrigated experimental plots of native fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in greenhouses, and garden beds interspersed with caravans.

Composite image of plants growing in garden beds on rural property

The Turpins are experimenting with garden beds and greenhouses for growing native foods.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

There is also a camp kitchen and yarning circle, where family members come together for meals and a cuppa after a hard day’s work.

So far, modest yields of native finger limes, tamarinds and cassavas have been produced.

Uncle Gerry Turpin is an ethnobotanist who’s using his academic and cultural experience to bridge the gap between traditional knowledge and modern life.

Aboriginal man puts leaves into pot on camp stove

Uncle Gerry Turpin brews a tea made from leaves harvested while foraging around his bush camp.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

He’s hoping the model can be up-scaled and replicated in other communities.

“This project is about helping communities,” he says.

“There are plenty of ideas and knowledge, but they just don’t have that financial backing. 

“So, this project is about helping the communities to at least to be able to start and then get going.”

Forage, knowledge and sharing culture through cooking

Uncle Gerry’s knowledge of Australia’s northern savanna lands is apparent as he takes a small party on a hunt for bush tucker.

pink flower with yellow stamen

The musk mallow plant found in northern Australia has an edible underground tuber. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

They’re collecting a haul of bush cherries, edible grasses and leaves when Gerry spots a hibiscus-like flower, a bright speck in the otherwise brown, harsh scrub.

man using large green pole to dig ground in bushland

Uncle Gerry Turpin digs for the tuber of a native musk mallow plant.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

He reaches for his digging tool and after a few lusty blows, removes the tuber of the musk mallow.

“We’ll take it back to camp, wash it and roast it on the coals – we’ll think of ways we can use it in the modern sense as well,” Uncle Gerry says.

composite image of a man digging out a plant and holding tuber to camera

Uncle Gerry Turpin removes the tuber of a musk mallow plant.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

composite image of tubers being washed in bowls and cut up on plate

The musk mallow tubers are washed before being roasted on the coals and plated up.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

And that’s where chef and teacher Cat Clarke comes into the project.

She’s been working with the Turpins and other traditional owner groups to develop recipes, with the aim of producing an Indigenous cookbook blending ancient ingredients with contemporary cuisine.

woman in hat and white shirt holding piece of damper glazed with bush cherries.

Cat Clarke is working with traditional owner groups to incorporate bush foods into modern cuisines.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“The conversations that happen and how stories are carried down through generations … it’s a beautiful journey,” she says. 

“I think it’s really important to understand the cultural significance and respect the ingredients.”

three people in bush kitchen preparing food

Cat Clarke says it’s important to understand bush ingredients’ cultural significance.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Uncle Gerry says it’s helping to keep Indigenous culture alive and constantly evolving.

“We live in a modern world and there’s no reason why we can’t continue our culture while living in the modern world,” he says.

Glaze made from cherries being poured on cake

Cat Clarke makes a glaze from bush cherries for a cake cooked on the coals.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“Culture is not static, it’s dynamic, so culture changes all the time and we’re changing within it, within this modern culture. 

“We don’t have to get into a lap-lap and get painted up and carry spears and boomerangs — we can use modern technology as well as the ancient knowledge … it’s a living knowledge, not dead.”

plates of food on table

A spread of bush foods grown on or foraged around the camp.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

Learning and healing on country

Mbabaram man Alan Anderson has worked as a ranger and tour guide for more than 15 years, but is the first to admit he’s still learning.  

“I’ve only just come back to my home country and I know all these plants and trees from other areas, but I don’t know about any of the stuff from my own country,” he says.

“I’m out here to pick Uncle Gerry’s brain and learn about the medicinal plants that we have [on] our own country here and the bush tucker we’ve got.” 

During the foraging trip, Alan records Uncle Gerry’s every word and step with a plan to produce videos, handbooks and other resources for posterity.

Young Aboriginal man filming Elder with GoPro while searching for bush food

Alan Anderson is recording Uncle Gerry Turpin so that he can preserve traditional knowledge. (ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“You’re not always going to have access to an elder, so to have something recorded, it’s going to be really important,” Alan says.

Aunty Cherry believes helping younger generations reconnect with country will deliver endless physical, mental and spiritual health benefits.

Older Aboriginal woman standing amongst grass and scrubland

Aunty Cherry Turpin on her grandmother’s Mbabaram country.(ABC Far North: Brendan Mounter)

“Today, we have too much of the high blood pressure, heart disease, and even cancer,” she says. 

“I think that’s the main thing [with] coming back the country, it’s to get back to the natural environment and teach our young people. 

“This is what we were put on this earth for, to look after country and to look after our self.”

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