INTERVIEW – THE BUSH TUCKER MAN ON TRAVELLING THE KIMBERLEY
In a time when Australia was fascinated by its natural, indigenous and pioneering history, an Australian Army Major, Les Hiddins brought all three into our living rooms via his television series, The Bush Tucker Man. After he just got back from a tour of the Kimberley, we sat down with him to find out how it all started, and what he loves so much about our corner of the country.
TKA TEAM: WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN BUSH TUCKER?
Les Hiddins: I think I could wind that question right back to the Vietnam War. There was one occasion over there, I was in the infantry in those days and we were on a very big, long range patrol which kept on getting extended and extended because we were in constant contact with the enemy. We didn’t want to give our position away by getting a new food supply, so we kept stretching the ration packs that we had with us. And I thought then, wouldn’t it be nice to know what you could supplement your food with around here. Then when I changed over from Infantry to Army Aviation, having been commissioned and flying around Australia in a Kiowa helicopters, you’ve got to ask yourself the questions when you are going over 200km of deserted mangroves in the Gulf of Carpentaria; how would I get on if I had to ditch here?
TODAY, ANYONE CAN SIMPLY SUBSCRIBE TO YOUR NEW WEBSITE TO LEARN ABOUT BUSH TUCKER, BUT HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT IT? DID ANYONE ELSE KNOW ABOUT IT?
LH: Very few. Only the Aboriginal people and a few anthropologists around Australia that recorded some of the bush foods in use in certain communities. But their records were very limited to a single community here or another community over in the Kimberley, and they’d only record the stuff that was evident while they were visiting that community. Don’t forget, of course, that bush tucker is like ordinary food, it’s seasonal, and as one thing goes out of season, another thing comes in. So, you’ve got to record that seasonal change as well. But no, there was no one there to hold my hand while we did this.
YOU FINISHED UP IN VIETNAM IN THE LATE SIXTIES AND GOT YOUR DEFENCE FELLOWSHIP TO STUDY AUSTRALIAN BUSH SURVIVAL TECHNIQUES IN 1980. HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR KNOWLEDGE OF BUSH TUCKER IN BETWEEN?
LH: I took it up, not as a job, but as a hobby. As I was flying around various areas and stopping in places like Aurukun and Arnhem Land and the Kimberley, and that sort of thing, I’d ask the locals what was in season. They’d show me something and I wouldn’t have a clue what it would be at that stage, so I’d take photographs and get back to Townsville and take the sample that I’d collected to the herbarium at the James Cook University and they’d identify it for me. Then I’d go and research that species and what you can do with it. And once I got the Defence Fellowship, things got a bit more serious, because we started analysing the samples I’d collected and finding out the nutritional values as well.
KAKADU PLUM IS ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS FOODS YOU’VE FOUND. WHAT’S MADE IT SO SIGNIFICANT?
LH: It now leads the world in ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, and we had no knowledge of that at all before we catalogued it. It belongs to the terminalia group – that was Terminalia ferdinandiana – but it’s got cousins around the place and they are all really high in vitamin C. It’s really interesting, you know. I was reading the history of WWII and the prisoners of war in Changi, a rumour went ‘round the camp that they’d be impotent at the end of the war because they had no vitamin C and yet each day the Japanese were making them go out in the streets of Singapore to sweep up the nuts of the terminalia that were growing on the sidewalk. So, the cure for their morale drop was being swept up in the gutter and they knew nothing about it. We only found out about that in the 1980s!
THE PREMISE OF THE BUSH TUCKER MAN SERIES SOUNDS BIZARRE WHEN YOU CONSIDER IT’S JUST A BLOKE EATING FOOD HE FINDS IN THE BUSH. WHAT CAPTIVATED PEOPLE SO MUCH ABOUT IT?
LH: I think you’ve got to remember it was a step in learning about Australia. Don’t forget we’d only been here, at that stage, for around about 200 years and we’re still learning about this continent that we’ve got. You know, you can go into the Kimberley and walk 100 yards off the road, stand on top of a rock and be pretty much sure that you’re probably the first white person to stand on that rock. Can’t do that in England.
YOU’RE CALLED THE BUSH TUCKER MAN, BUT YOU’VE WRITTEN SO MANY BOOKS SPECIFICALLY FOCUSSED ON AUSTRALIAN EXPLORERS AND OUR PIONEERING HISTORY. WHAT’S YOUR FASCINATION WITH IT?
LH: It’s the discovery of the place and looking at our explorers like Kennedy and Leichardt, the Jardines and John McDowell Sturt and that sort of thing. They were pioneers and were operating not that long ago when you look at it. And it was a pretty savage environment that they were working with, too. Some of them paid the ultimate price.
YOU’VE RECENTLY BEEN OVER TO THE KIMBERLEY. WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT OUR BACKYARD HERE?
LH: That’s a fascinating part of the world you’ve got there. I flew around the coastline of the Kimberley quite a lot and you hover out over the ocean and you see a waterfall dumping down into the ocean from a big cliff. It’s pretty speccy stuff. And it’s also still wild as anything because you don’t have the road system that people can get into it. I really enjoyed following up on George Grey, the explorer who went through there in 1838 and we found his cave and that sort of thing.
Plus, the more modern history of it, like the Truscott Air Base, which was the World War II air base, which still has a lot of machinery and equipment that was left behind.
HAS THE KIMBERLEY CHANGED MUCH IN THE 40 YEARS YOU’VE BEEN COMING HERE?
LH: Yeah, a lot of the properties that once upon a time were just isolated have now become refuelling petrol station places and wayside inns almost, which wasn’t the case when I first went there. The road has improved a lot too. People might think the Gibb River Road is bad now, but I can remember it being so bad when I first used to attack it, a few times I got so sick of being on the road that I actually went bush because I thought it was better!
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVOURITE PARTS OF THE KIMBERLEY?
LH: I think the coastline around Kalumburu is just great. And at the back of the Mitchell Falls there you’ve got all that rock art which, now that it’s not quite as adventurous to get to as it once was, opens up some really great Bradshaw art which I really enjoyed seeing. And I enjoyed, at Mt Elizabeth, staying at Bachsten Creek, too.
WHEN YOU TRAVEL DO YOU STILL LEARN NEW THINGS ABOUT BUSH TUCKER AND NEW FOODS?
LH: Pretty much. But not the way I did 30 years ago, because it was a brand-new sheet of paper back then, but you can still learn. What I do now is get better photographs and that sort of thing, because back then it was all film, and now it’s digital, and as you’ll see on the website there’s quite a leap forward on the photographs.
SO, ARE YOU GOING TO KEEP UPDATING THE SITE?
LH: Yes, as time goes by we’ll be improving the pictures of all of the foods and adding some voice commentary for all of them, because you can do that on the internet, but not in a book. Then maybe later on I’m thinking about getting a drone and doing some aerial and video stuff. They’re all things that make it a better deal than republishing a book.
Find out more about Les’ website by visiting bushtuckerman.com.au. Subscribe for just $5 a month to get full access to everything you need to know about Australian bush foods and their uses. If you’re considering your own trip to the Kimberley, find out the best places to go in our book, 100 Things To See In The Kimberley, written by local guide, Scotty Connell.