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O while away an af­ter­noon in the Botanic Gar­dens of Ade­laide is al­ways plea­sur­able, whether pic­nick­ing, read­ing or sim­ply gath­er­ing one’s thoughts be­neath the shade of an oblig­ing tree. But an hour spent in the com­pany of Un­cle Wally Kite takes you be­hind the green cur­tain to dis­cover what re­ally lurks at the bot­tom of the gar­den: larder, apothe­cary’s chest, hard­ware store and ar­moury.

Once a month the dap­per Un­cle Wally, don­ning the stock­man’s hat of his for­mer trade, leads vis­i­tors through the Ade­laide gar­dens, ex­plain­ing the myr­iad uses plants have for Abo­rig­ines. He be­gins his tour be­neath a ven­er­a­ble 300-year-old river red gum gashed with a long scar where a ca­noe was ex­tracted. This is my su­per­mar­ket tree,’’ he smiles.

Aside from the ca­noe, likely crafted by the lo­cal Kau­rna (pro­nounced gaa-nah) peo­ple long be­fore Euro­pean set­tle­ment, this wily old tree can pro­vide boomerangs (Un­cle Wally points to a bent root stub, per­fectly shaped to wield two or three weapons) and, given the large burr near its base, bark for a coola­mon, or car­ry­ing ves­sel.

He points to an­other scar where a shield was taken, then in­di­cates the tree’s other prod­ucts: honey from the na­tive bee, meat, skin and bones from the pos­sum (four skins make a vest, the bones are used for spear heads) and medic­i­nal eu­ca­lyp­tus leaves.

As we move through the Ade­laide gar­dens — once a camp­ing ground for the Kau­rna, to­day an Eden-like repos­i­tory for trees and plants from across the globe — it is the Aus­tralian flora that comes to life un­der Un­cle Wally’s gen­tle tute­lage. We pause at a wild cherry tree (Myr­taceae Syzy­gium) to pluck a fruit that looks like a berry but tastes like a tart ap­ple.

The charis­matic yakka or grass tree (Xan­th­or­rhoea) is one of Un­cle Wally’s favourites. When this plant burns, the skirt is stripped, re­veal­ing a black­ened stem from which is chis­elled a shiny, aromatic resin (Un­cle Wally ex­tracts a piece from his pocket) used as a glue, per­fume and body paint. The long flower stalk pro­vides a nectar dis­solved in wa­ter to be tossed back like cor­dial; the seeds are ground into flour for dam­per.

The Kau­rna men used the stalks as short spears; Un­cle Wally has adapted them into fire sticks. A quick demo be­neath the burned-out hol­low of an an­cient river red gum pro­duces a pun­gent char­coal dabbed on to the skin as an in­sect re­pel­lent.

Even the base of those rather lethal yakka leaves are ed­i­ble, tast­ing some­what like po­tato.

Dur­ing the course of our ram­ble, Un­cle Wally con­veys a deep re­spect for ev­ery plant we en­counter, stress­ing pru­dent man­age­ment. Noth­ing must be over-har­vested (just a few leaves from each grass tree), while the great sheets of bark pro­vided by the stringy­bark for shel­ter are col­lected only af­ter they have fallen.

This in­cred­i­ble, twisted gi­ant of a tree, hid­den at the gar­den’s heart, is women’s busi­ness’’, Wally says, for it is they who would have teased the witch­etty grubs, which are loaded with vi­ta­mins B and C and tasti­est in spring, from small holes pocked all over the tree.

Plant knowl­edge is held by women, ex­plains Un­cle Wally, who learned at the knee of his mother and aunts. But be­cause this is a botanic gar­dens, he is able to ex­plain trees from be­yond the lands of his Narungga peo­ple (of South Aus­tralia’s Yorke Penin­sula). The macadamia nut’s hard shell is used as a whis­tle, he tells me; the foam bark tree is used to poi­son fish and the seeds of the stately bunya pine taste like cus­tard when ground.

I’ve rarely en­joyed a stroll through any gar­den as much. Un­cle Wally is ex­cel­lent com­pany and a bril­liant guide. We place our ears against the bulging trunk of a bot­tle tree, tap gen­tly and hear the echo­ing reser­voir within, we stroke the silky pa­per­bark tree (as an in­fant Un­cle Wally was swad­dled in this soft bark) and ex­am­ine the dried flower head of the silky oak (when fresh, nectar is squeezed from the oblig­ing pods; kids at­tack it like corn on a cob, he says).

In only an hour, Un­cle Wally man­ages to il­lu­mi­nate what ev­ery botanic gar­den strives to be: a liv­ing ark for im­por­tant ge­netic and in­tel­lec­tual ma­te­rial so fre­quently linked to food and medicine pro­duc­tion.

Next time I stroll through the gar­dens I’ll be giv­ing far greater re­gard to the trees that shade me. Chris­tine McCabe GREG Nan­nup leads Abo­rig­i­nal tours of Perth’s glo­ri­ous 400ha Kings Park. We are to meet on the lawn op­po­site the state war memo­rial but no one looks a likely prospect. Fi­nally I de­cide it must be that sprightly young man car­ry­ing an in­trigu­ing bag. Suc­cess, and af­ter a hes­i­tant in­tro­duc­tion I’m fi­nally shak­ing hands with my guide for a 90-minute walk.

Nan­nup tells me there is a small town to the south (pop. 1200) named af­ter his an­ces­tors. I am suitably im­pressed. His grand­fa­ther, Charles William Nan­nup, was born in the hills near Perth, which made him a

Plant­ing the seeds of knowl­edge: Un­cle Wally Kite, who con­ducts in­dige­nous plant and bush tucker tours at the Botanic Gar­dens of Ade­laide mem­ber of the lo­cal Wad­juk peo­ple, one of 14 tribal groups shar­ing a large pocket of land in the re­gion. Wad­juk means car­ers of the link be­tween the land and the ocean, I’m told. That link was the Swan River, which the Abo­rig­ines called Der­bal Yar­ri­gan.

Nan­nup says that sus­tain­abil­ity was as big an is­sue then as it is to­day. If every­one lived in the same place the land would be stressed when it came to hunt­ing and gath­er­ing food. Also, the land was burned each year to en­sure it would grow back to its full po­ten­tial. Looking back at the an­cient wis­dom and knowl­edge about car­ing for this coun­try, fire was clearly im­por­tant.

We pass a statue of for­mer West Aus­tralian premier and ex­plorer John For­rest. In 1890, Nan­nup’s great­great-great-great-grand­fa­ther trav­elled with For­rest as a guide. He tells me, with a touch of fam­ily pride, that the would-be premier wrote in his jour­nal that without his guide’s help they all would have died. ‘‘ So I come from one of the long­est-stand­ing tour guid­ing fam­i­lies in Aus­tralia.’’

Our talk is rudely in­ter­rupted by the an­gry whirr of chain­saws mak­ing short work of a hefty gum but Nan­nup is un­con­cerned: ‘‘ They have to keep the park looking its best for vis­i­tors.’’

We walk past stands of plants rep­re­sent­ing ar­eas of the state; it’s ed­u­ca­tional for those who can’t get out and see the real thing. The boab trees from the Kim­ber­ley re­gion are 3000km from home. ‘‘ They don’t re­ally like the cli­mate too much,’’ ad­mits Nan­nup. ‘‘ They hold wa­ter quite well. It was an emer­gency sur­vival tree for the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple of the north.’’ The seeds are also use­ful: when crushed they look like sher­bet or flour. ‘‘ It doesn’t taste very good but it will keep you alive,’’ Nan­nup says.

The lat­est boab to ar­rive here — it was in the way of a new road — is a size­able spec­i­men. Af­ter four months it was sprout­ing leaves but it will take three to four years to know whether it will sur­vive. At 750 years old, Nan­nup says it’s still a baby.

We move on to the pep­per­mint tree, the leaves of which can be used to treat coughs and colds. But Nan­nup says the most use­ful plant for Abo­rig­ines was the grass tree, or balga. The fronds can be used as fire­lighters, the white pulp, which tastes a bit like co­conut, can treat snakebites and the sap be­comes a glue when com­bined with char­coal and kan­ga­roo drop­pings. Nan­nup says it’s the old­est form of fi­bre­glass.

Next comes the so-called medicine tree, or marri, which Nan­nup ad­vises can cure just about any­thing. ‘‘ It’s magic stuff.’’ I won­der how th­ese things are dis­cov­ered but Nan­nup has the an­swer: ‘‘ It’s about the dream­ing, the sto­ries and the knowl­edge. If you want to learn some­thing just go to sleep and the land will tell you.’’ I am start­ing to feel that if I were lost in the bush, my guide would be the per­fect com­pan­ion.

At a wa­ter fea­ture, away from the chain­saw sym­phony, Nan­nup re­veals the con­tents of his bag. It in­cludes a kan­ga­roo cloak — for cloth­ing or bedding — a kodj, which is a stone axe held to­gether with grass-tree glue, a spear thrower, a cer­e­mo­nial knife, a yandi dish used for separat­ing crushed seed, boomerangs and a dig­ging stick used by Abo­rig­i­nal women.

I am told a tra­di­tional story that has been handed down through Nan­nup’s fam­ily. It’s a long af­fair in­volv­ing whales, rain­bow ser­pents and child spir­its. Nan­nup says a lot of Abo­rig­ines have lost their knowl­edge but he feels ‘‘ lucky that my fa­ther heard the sto­ries from his Un­cle Thomas around the camp­fire’’.

He says im­por­tant places that were used by Abo­rig­ines are still serv­ing the same pur­poses to­day. Kings Park, a favourite spot for Abo­rig­i­nal wed­ding cer­e­monies, still hosts about 500 mar­riages a year. The land de­mands to be used for that pur­pose; it’s the most prime real es­tate in WA but spir­i­tu­ally for Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple it’s an im­por­tant place. ‘‘ We are lucky to keep it,’’ Nan­nup con­cludes. Barry Oliver


Un­cle Wally Kite leads free, hour-long Abo­rig­i­nal Food and Plant walks, usu­ally on the third Sun­day of ev­ery month. Con­tact the Botanic Gar­dens of Ade­laide: (08) 8222 9311; www.botan­ic­gar­ The Kings Park In­dige­nous Tour, which runs daily, costs $15 (adults); $8 (chil­dren). More: (08) 9316 8190; dabakarn@ef­;

Pic­ture: Kelly Barnes

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