Nardoo Marsilea drummondii must be eaten with protein or it causes vitamin deficiencies.
Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 Casliber

SURVIVING ON FISH, RATS AND NARDOO

BUSH TUCKER

Bush rat by Ludwig Becker – Good tucker according to Wills
Photo: State Library of Victoria

On their way to the Gulf, Burke, Wills, Gray and King camped by the Diamantina River and were given ‘some delicious fat fish’ by Aboriginal people.

Eating bush tucker became increasingly important to the explorers especially as their supplies dwindled.

When they returned to the Dig Tree on 21 April 1861, Burke, Wills and King, exhausted and starving, found Brahe’s supply party had left only a few basic rations.

They had to rely on the foods provided by the Aboriginal people to stay alive but the explorers did not properly understand the preparation and combination of foods. For example, the staple ‘nardoo’ had to be eaten with protein or it caused vitamin deficiencies.

They had avoided beri-beri by eating ‘portulaca’. Wills had tried the sweet seeds of the Bauhinia tree which the Aboriginal people called ‘padlu’.

The Aboriginal people welcomed Wills (Wiltja) back to their camp and fed him while he ‘pointed to the people and learned their names’. Wills’ journal of 5 May 1861 notes the explorers gave ‘fish hooks and sugar’ in appreciation of the fish and nardoo which kept the white men alive.

Wills particularly showed an interest in the Aboriginals and accepted an invitation to stay. He was ‘more hospitably entertained than before … offered a share of a gunnya’ and ate fish, nardoo and ‘a couple of nice fat rats, the latter found most delicious. They were baked in the skins ‘.

The Burke and Wills expedition passed through areas abundant with bush tucker such as: 

Nardoo – native aquatic fern, the seeds were ground to a flour, mixed with water, and baked over fire.

Padlu – bauhinia tree beans which were shelled and boiled.

Portulaca – a fleshy ground-cover which was boiled. 

Birds – crested pigeons, crows, baked over fire.

Rats – baked whole in their skins over fire.

Snake – python, baked over fire.

Fish and shellfish –  mussels, barramundi, bony bream, black bream and catfish which were baked over fire.

The Dig Tree web site is presented by The Royal Historical Society of Queensland.

To find out more about visiting the Dig Tree go to Thargotourism and Outback Tourism.

The Royal Historical Society of Queensland is trustee for the Dig Tree Reserve supported by Nappa Merrie Station and the Bulloo Shire Council.