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Free food: the art of foraging while on tour

Alia Parker's picture
Foood foraged by Woody from Artist as Family. Cycle Traveller

You meet the most inspirational people while cycle touring, and the family I would like to introduce you to here are nothing short of that. We met Artist as Family – Patrick, Meg, young Woody and dog Zero, and since joined by son Zephyr as well – while cycling down from the Daintree Rainforest. The family pedalled off on two tandems from their home in Daylesford in central Victoria, in November 2013, and made their way northwards along the east coast. What was more important to them than geography, however, was the food they would find along the way; not the food typically found in supermarkets, but food foraged from nature, freshly picked and nutrient rich. As they say, it is food that requires no synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, no refrigeration, no marketing departments and billboards to sell it, and no transportation. Food, instead that grows autonomously and can be obtained without any money changing hands. All the information about the species they eat is documented on their blog, and the information is being collated for a book they will be publishing on autonomous foods in Australia.

What they have found will open your mind to a whole untapped edible world: roadside fruit, agricultural weeds, bush tucker, wind fallen fruit and nuts from farms, fish, eels, rabbits, fresh roadkill, food from community gardens and a small amount of dumpster and bin diving.

We touched base with Artist as Family to find out more about foraging and autonomous foods.

Artist as Family: Meg, Zero, Patrick, Zephyr and Woody. Cycle TravellerCT: You have cycled many thousands of kilometres on this adventure. How challenging has it been to source your own food through foraging and fishing over the past months?

AAF: We didn’t know it at the time we left home, but our journey north would continue until we reached the Indigenous community of Hope Vale, 50km north Cooktown in Far North Queensland. We were fortunate enough to have been invited to spend the week with elders Tim and Elaine McGreen who shared their knowledges and stories with us about the medicinal and edible foods on their country; where to source them and how to prepare them.

Tim and Elaine introduced us to many other community members who all very generously shared their stories and wisdom with us too. Clarry Bowen took his axe to a tree to remove the bark, which he boiled up for us to drink as a bone and teeth strengthening tonic. Dora Gibson introduced us to the fruit colloquially known as Snotty Gobble for its mucilaginous texture. Pastor George Rosendale confirmed for us that the tennis ball sized growths we had picked from the branches of several eucalypt trees were in fact edible; that these Bloodwood apples, also known as Gall Fruit, contain a little yellow parasite that you eat along with the moist inner lining, which is a little like coconut flesh.

As we build our free food knowledge, we’re learning that we’re only just scraping the surface of what is out there, we’ve only recently learnt to eat maggots that have grown up in over ripe citrus, for example.

Artist as Family cycling Australia's east coast on tandem bicycles. Cycle Traveller

At Hope Vale our heads (and tummies) nearly exploded with all the amazing information we gathered. But we aren’t always so lucky, or well fed. In some parts of the country, for days and days, all we came across were bush lemons. At other times, the high coastal winds kept the waters muddy and the fish, just out of reach. But every day we found at least one species to put in our mouths or food pannier. One day all we found was Snakeweed to make tea. For days at a time all we found were coconuts. And then there were the times that we didn’t have to venture into a store to buy oats or pasta to supplement our diet because our haul of jetty fish, coconuts, beach hibiscus flowers, guavas, bush passionfruit and feral citrus was enough to keep our bellies convex.
CT: How much potential food is out there that goes uneaten?

AAF: One of the aims for our book is to give people the confidence to go outside their homes and forage in their gardens, along verges, in parks and forests for freely grown autonomous foods (foods that have generated themselves). Even if what you find is paltry, it is a step along the path away from polluting supermarkets and chemists. At the beginning of winter, instead of heading to a GP for a mercury laden flu shot, head outside for a handful of chickweed (in southern Australia), which is jam packed with Vitamin C, or munch on some green ants (in northern Australia), which are full of citric acid. And while you’re outside, why not dig up some dandelion roots, which you can roast then grind up into a delicious chocolatey coffee substitute, or make a foraged tea with mulberry and snakeweed leaves. Look, over there, there’s some plantain, which when masticated and put on a cut, will stem the bleeding. It’s a natural coagulant and antiseptic. And that stinging nettle next to it is full of iron and in our opinion, makes a tastier pesto than basil.

CT: How do you identify if something is edible?

Woody and Patrick catch an eel for dinner. Cycle TravellerAAF: Every day is a treasure hunt as we seek out goodies to eat and drink. And because we’re cycling, we are always hungry, so we are more than happy to stop all the time to see if that black berry, red flower, brown fruit or oval shaped leaf is edible. Identification of the species we come across varies from plant to plant. Sometimes we have in mind that a certain shrub will be fruiting in the climate zone we are in, so when we find it we instantly recognise it. Sometimes we take samples with us and look them up in one of our bush tucker books. Sometimes we put a photo on our blog and ask our readers to help identify it. One afternoon in Wudjal Wudjal, we googled ‘large purple fruit Queensland’ but still couldn't work out what we had found. Later, a local told us they were Star Apples, so we took our knives to the fruit’s flesh and gorged on it till our lips were literally stuck together from the fruit’s outer gummy purple latex.

CT: Any tips that would make it easier for a cyclist to forage for food?

AAF: One of the principles of permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’, which you can more readily do going slowly. Besides walking, cycling at a gentle pace is the ideal speed for spotting food. So long as you aren’t a lycra clad speed freak, you are sure to find any number of self-determining plants just waiting to be found. Take a small guide book and look at plants, animals and mushrooms closely. Build your knowledge one species at a time, and if you’re not sure, don’t eat it.

CT: Could you name some foods that would be relatively easy for a cyclist to find around Australia?

AAF: The following are species that are either indigenous or have naturalised since 1788:

  • Apples, blackberries, rabbits, trout and cherry plums in VIC.
  • Loquats, day lilies, roadkill, dandelion and black fish in central NSW.
  • Guavas, bananas, flathead, black nightshade and gota kola in northern NSW.
  • Pandanus, chickweed, guavas, dart fish and purslane in southern QLD.
  • Bush Passionfruit, trevally, hare, cluster figs and cocky apples in central QLD.
  • Bloodwood apples, spanish mackerel, mud whelks, snakeweed and mangoes in northern QLD.

CT: What are the benefits of foraging for food?

Artist as Family's Patrick cooking dinner by the ocean. Cycle TravellerAAF: Free food is everywhere, if you know where to look. When you consider that commercial agriculture is responsible for so much damage in the world, to include freely obtainable garden, grassland, roadside, river, ocean and forest gifts into your diet is not just good for your health and your hip pocket, but for the planet.

Certain species are culturally specific to indigenous groups, so where possible, seek permission from the elders to camp, hunt, forage and pass through their land. When harvesting autonomous foods be considerate not to over harvest; think of yourself as an accountable mammal of place, lightly touching the earth in how you travel and fuel yourself.

You can learn more from Artists as Family on their blog


Great to see this family getting a mention here. I met them in Townsville a few months ago. A lovely family with such an inspiring spirit to get out as a family and attempt a big ride. Woody is going to grow up with some fantastic memories. I take my hat off to you. Well done.

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