Digging for charba

The midday sun parched our faces, burning the backs of our necks and scalps as our crew ventured out into the bush behind Undoolya, on a very particular mission. Us youngsters stood in the tray of the ute, while the grownups – Rod Moss, Eva and Julie Hayes from Whitegate – held the cabin. Kangaroo tails, matches and two crowbars were all I thought we needed. I excitedly sang pop tunes to the boys – my partner Shaan from Melbourne and young Kaylum also from Whitegate – as we held onto the rail of the roof, but the sound was muted by the blasting wind, as the dirt track’s rocky ride bumped us up and down the corrugation.

When we finally pulled off into thick shrub and prepared ourselves for the hunt, Rod’s silent unloading of the car was welcome relief. The two older women automatically picked up the crowbars and started walking to the acacia without any discussion, and I assumed my role moving gently behind them. They just pointed to the bushes: “Ronja, dig this!” I followed, taking a crowbar and digging at the base of a tree. Within a couple of seconds, one of the women would say, “No, no! Not this one!” … only the direction was not conveyed with words, but a dismissive flick of the wrist. Moving onto another shrub, the process was repeated and every time they just knew. It was either yes to continue digging, or yet another flick.

Finally our endeavours were approved as roots were reached and unearthed. Yet, the heavy metal crushed some of the roots and risked destroying our prize – the slimy witchetty grubs, or ‘charba’ that lived within.

I heaved many deep breaths of exhaustion but kept going, knowing that this was our goal: to acquire as many grubs as possible for use in the Bushfoods Competition on the coming Sunday.

Weeks before I had dreamt up a delicate tempura recipe with the contrast of bold, Central Australian fillings. Of course, witchetty was the first choice as the shape alone fulfilled my aesthetic want. I knew also, though, that to accumulate them I would have to be directly involved, as Afghan Traders did not sell pickled and spiced grubs … as well resourced as they are!

We had been talking this trip up with the women for days. However, after finding no one at Whitegate, we had an hour of searching the centre of Alice and several town camps before we found Eva and Julie next to the mechanized toilets near Yeperenye. Julie just had a specific look on her face: “Yeah. Of course we’re here. Where else would we be?”

The first few we got were squished, revealing their true texture. Inspecting them, we admired the grit and the blood of the grubs in our red-coloured dusty hands.

We had been digging for about 20 minutes when the women directed me to move back to the car and start preparing the lunch. It felt like they knew that time and patience was all that was needed and sent me away so as to not disturb this with my overthinking ambition.

I tried to hush that thought in my mind and to just enjoy the smell of the ironwood fire. Rod and I cut the kangaroo tails out of their butcher’s plastic wrapping and put them in the fire. We left them there for a couple of minutes in order to burn the bulk of the fur off, then cut the remainder away with a sharp knife.  Next, we wrapped the tails in alfoil, placed them in a hole with coals and buried them in a fiery grave.

Kaylum kept cracking jokes as we went about our task, “This been proper good country living!” It was so funny to hear this six-year-old tell us that all we needed was a party with ‘bacco and grog before all the people would come in droves.

Whilst we were making the ‘roo tails and brewing tea in a billy, the women and Shaan continued looking for witchetty grubs. When they returned, the evidence of their work was clear: they had brought back twelve fat, intact charba. In order to not crush the grubs, intricate skill was involved, taking out large sections of root before removing all the bark. Shaan showed me what the woman had been doing, gently prying and pulling the grub in order to tease it out of its dark abode.

I’d forgotten to bring a container for the grubs so we created little containers out of alfoil for them. Shaan had scratches all over his reddened hands.  He had been ripping into the earth furiously, pulling out as many of these bush delicacies as possible. The women were impressed and had sung Eastern Arrente songs, encouraging the grubs to emerge whilst he had battled with the ground.

In recognition of their hard work, Rod broke open the tails from the fire, dividing them into chunks and dishing them out onto plates also made from alfoil. Little alfoil cups  held our tea and we sat on the dirt for lunch. Apparently more was needed than just ‘roo tails and crowbars! The ladies laughed at my inability to supply sugar, bread and most things for a bush feast, but we all giggled together, teasing each other and celebrating the bounty.

Four days later, on Sunday, I removed those tiny little bodies from our freezer and prepared for the big cook-off. It was amazing to think that four hours of digging and several more of cooking, brewing and experimenting were gulped down in a matter of minutes. But the judges had an obvious look of fascination and appreciation, especially after I dosed them with raw local honey and wattle seed sake! We proudly came third and I felt like the biggest winner in the world – a unique recipe, well-received, and most importantly, the memory of a day out with loved ones doing something totally out of my normal comfort zone.

PHOTO: Digging without crushing the roots and damaging the grubs: Eva Hayes shows how.

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