Visiting Outback Australia: Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

"How do you kill a crocodile?" someone asks, wide-eyed.

Patsy shrugs. "It's not that hard. You just shoot it."

This is actually a moment of levity. Everyone has been so serious up until now, not sure how to approach Patsy, not sure if she'll be comfortable answering certain questions, not sure if there's a grisly, traditional way to dispose of a live croc that we don't really want to know about.

So you have to laugh when you hear the answer: just shoot it. Not everything about Patsy's way of life around here is the same as it was thousands of years ago. Some things have changed. But many things haven't.

Patsy is one of the locals in this part of Kakadu National Park, a Gunavidji woman who moved down here from Arnhem Land. Much of her life is lived in the traditional way: she forages for food such as freshwater mussels, bush carrots and palm hearts, and she hunts animals like magpie geese and crocodiles.

There used to be a big croc that lived in the waterhole we're standing next to, a five-metre monster that the local Aborigines had an unspoken peace treaty with. They didn't disturb it; it didn't disturb them. But then a dry spell hit and the water disappeared, so the big croc moved on. These days, smaller crocs keep turning up to stake their territory.

"Good eatin'," Patsy says.

Patsy is our tour guide today. We picked her up earlier in an old Landcruiser that's being driven by Sean Arnold, the operator of Animal Tracks Safaris. Sean runs these day tours of Kakadu, but the knowledge is all Patsy's.

For years, she didn't want to do this. Patsy would watch from afar, she says, as Sean brought his groups of tourists out into the park, and would cringe while he attempted to explain the bush to them. "We'd see him out here, just makin' damper," she laughs.

Eventually, Sean persuaded Patsy to come on board as a guide, to pass on her knowledge of the bush.

"Why did it take so long to convince you?" I ask. "Were you not happy to pass on your stories?"

"Nah," Patsy answers, "it wasn't that. I just didn't want a job, you know?"

Patsy was, and still would be, completely happy to survive off the land. She's old school. Sean explains before we pick her up that we shouldn't say hello, because there's no word for greetings in Gunavidji culture. We shouldn't ask too many questions, but rather just let her speak when she wants.

And so everyone is a little unsure, as we walk around the waterhole poking in the mud looking for freshwater mussels, of how to react when Patsy mentions that she hunts the smaller crocodiles that now inhabit this area. How do you kill a crocodile? With a club? A spear?

Nah, Patsy smiles. You just shoot it.

Soon we move away from the waterhole, and into the Kakadu bush proper. The idea of this safari is to give visitors a taste of traditional Aboriginal life, both literally and figuratively. This day trip focuses on local food, on the fruits and vegies and grubs you can forage from a seemingly inhospitable land, and the way to cook them to make them taste good.

We spend a good part of the afternoon watching as Patsy digs fat, wriggling grubs out of the base of a termite mound, or pulls bush carrots out of the ground, or finds water chestnuts around a waterhole. She crushes up live green ants and eats them. She stops to pluck the feathers from a magpie goose she killed this morning.

This might sound a little raw, maybe even confronting, but this is where food comes from. This is Patsy's life.

Eventually, we bring all these ingredients to a clearing by a big mud flat filled with birdlife, where Patsy prepares a ground oven to cook in.

"I had some blokes say to me once, 'Hey, it's just like a hangi'," Patsy recalls, talking about the traditional Maori ground oven. "I said, 'Brother, we've been usin' these for 10,000 years. You know more about Maoris than you do about your own country.'"

It's embarrassing to admit that she's right. Most of us know so little about Aboriginal culture, and this is one of the few ways to learn. On days like today you find out that there's food where you never would have looked for it. You discover there's an ancient culture that lives on in people like Patsy.

And you realise that, out here, a shotgun probably comes in handy.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/kakadu

northernterritory.com

animaltracks.com.au

FLY

Qantas flies from all major Australian hubs to Darwin – see qantas.com. Kakadu National Park is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the airport. For hire cars, see thrifty.com.au

STAY

Cooinda Lodge has accommodation in Kakadu NP ranging from family-style rooms to a campsite and caravan park. See kakadutourism.com for more.

TOUR

Animal Tracks Safaris provides seven-hour 4WD adventure tours of Kakadu National Park, including a traditional bush tucker meal and instruction by an Aboriginal guide, for $220 per adult, $110 per child. See website above.

Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Tourism NT

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