Issue 1, March-April 1997
Ludwig Leichhardt (on the bushfood trail)
Ludwig Leichhardt was a fascinating, eccentric and very observant man. He also left us some of the most readable records to be found amongst explorers. Here Pat & Sim Symons examine Leichhardt's writings on the bushfoods he encountered.
Ludwig Leichhardt was certainly one of the more interesting and controversial of Australia's early explorers. He was born in 18 13 in the German state of Prussia and trained as a scientist and medical doctor. Arriving in Australia in 1842, he delighted in travelling, studying, tasting, cataloguing and naming as many plant species as his travels would allow. He set off on many journeys into the Australian bush with a zeal and enthusiasm, unmatched by his fellow explorers. He was a keen observer and kept notes, journals, diaries and wrote letters to friends and family. Many of his writings have been preserved and published and make interesting reading. The following from a letter to his mother in 1843:
"After spending some time in Moreton Bay and making a close study of the dense vegetation along the rivers and creeks there, I rode on, with two horses ... to a less well-known part of the country, commonly called the Bunya Bunya district (the Blackall Range district of S.E. Queensland). It is so called after a huge tree that grows in the bush along the ridges of the mountain. It resembles the pines of Germany and bears big cones, between the scales of which lie sweet, floury kernels that are highly relished by the blacks.
These people say that the trees bear a heavy crop once every three years, which draws the clans from near and far. They assemble for about three months, to feast on the nourishing bunya kernels ... life in the bush is very instructive. A man discovers his own powers, and I've had a great deal of this kind of experience myself, which means I'm fairly good bushman by now ... "
In January, 1844, Leichhardt wrote to his friend Lt. Lynd, detailing more on the eating of the bunya kernels...
"I returned from my expedition to the Bunya feast of the blackfellows and well I have feasted myself. Mr John Archer and Mr Waterstone accompanied me, with three blackfellows who carried our provisions, as the dense brushes did not permit to take horses with us .... I have travelled again in those remarkable mountain brushes, out of which the Bunya Bunya lift their majestic heads, like pillars to the vault of heaven... the blackfellows go up to the top of these giants of vegetation with a simple brush vine ... they break the cones and throw them down... the blackfellows eat an enormous quantity; indeed it is difficult to cease if one has commenced to eat. If you find a favourable tree, and if the circumstance, if the day is cool in the morning and the evening - the kernel of the Bunya fruit has a very fine aroma, and it is certainly a delicious eating; but during a very hot day, or from an unfavourable tree, the fruit is by no means so tasteful. The blacks roast them, and we tried even to boil them; the fruit lost, however, in favour in both cases. Besides, it did not agree with my stomach... "
Leichhardt was in Australia from 1842 until his disappearance in 1848. This is an interesting period in colonial history.
The continent, the inhabitants, the plants, rocks etc. were almost unknown.
The Aboriginal and European relationship was developing, Leichhardt was intrigued by skills of the Aboriginal people.
He learned about bush foods by observing these people and regularly experimenting with the plants himself.
He wrote the following letter to his friend Lt. Lynd in Sydney from the Archer's Station, Bunya Bunya ( Woodford, S.E. Queensland) in 1843...
"Some of their (Aboriginal people) discoveries are very singular They prepare for food, for instance, the tubers and stem of Calladium (Alocasia macrorrhiza - Cunjevoi), which is so hot that the smallest bit chewed will produce a violent inflammation and swelling. How is it they were not frightened by the first feeling of pain, but went on experimenting. " (Note: in a separate letter to Lt. Lynd he talks again of Calladium... "At a certain time of the year it forms tubers at its roots, which are eaten by the blackfellows after three days' soaking and pounding)... the blackfellow, in his natural state, and not yet contaminated and irritated by the white man is hospitable and not at all devoid of kind feelings... the Bunya Black who lives on the food the brushes yield him, as much as I am able to observe, there is nothing in nature which they have not discovered...they seem to have tried everything from the high top of the Bunya tree and the Seaforthia (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana - Picabeen) and Cabbage palm (Livistonia australis), to the grub which lies in the rotten tree of the brush or feeds on the lower stem or root of the Xanthorrhoea. Bye the bye I tasted this grub and it tastes very well, particularly chewing the skin, which contains much fiat ..particularly agreeable to them is the honey which the little stingless native bee provides them amply. You have no idea of the number of bees' nests which exist in this country... the honey is sweet but a little pungent. There is, besides the honey, a kind of beebread, like gingerbread, which is very nourishing..."
Eventually, Leichhardt relied on his knowledge of the bush and bushfoods when on his expeditions, firstly as a supplement to the provisions he took with him and secondly as almost his only food source, especially the birds, mammals and marine life. When travelling to Port Essington in 1845 he wrote...
" I frequently tasted the fine looking fruit of the Pandanus, but was every time severely punished with sore lips and blistered tongue; the first time that I ate it I was attacked by a violent diarrhoea. I could not make out how the natives naturalised the noxious properties of the fruit, which ...seemed to form no small portion of their food ..I consequently gathered some very ripe ,fruit, scraped the soft part with a knife and washed it until all the sweet substance was out, and then boiled it, by which process it lost all its sharpness, had a pleasant taste and, taken in moderate quantities, did not affect the bowels. " His extensive knowledge of the use of native plants and animals was to stand him in good stead on this expedition from Toowoomba, near Moreton Bav to Port Essington in Arnhem Land. His supplies were largely gone 2/3rds of the way through the journey and the group lived almost entirely off the land. He was aided by two Aboriginal men in his party and, of course, his own common sense and ingenuity. Other Australian explorers of that period had either perished or been forced to abandon their journey through their inability to supplement their rations sufficiently with bushfoods.
Leichhardt, after some major exploration successes, disappeared without trace on a trip from Queensland to the Western Australian coast. His intense interest in the botany, geology and Aboriginal people of this country is revealed in his writings. We have quoted from only a small portion of his letters and journals and recommend further reading.
Aurousseau, M. Ed., The Letters of F W Ludwig Leichhardt, Cambridge, 1968
Leichhardt, L., Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia, from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a Distance Upwards of 3,000 Miles, During the Years 1844-1845. Sydney, Doubleday, 1990.
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