Witchetty grubs were on the breakfast menu at Kings Canyon, a rugged gash in the George Gill ranges near Alice Springs, in central Australia. It was not my ideal way to start the day, but I managed to swallow one by pretending it was scrambled egg.
Jacinta, my aboriginal guide, next offered me a green plum (reputed to be the world's richest source of vitamin C) and as we continued our morning walk, she plucked other edibles in what appeared to be inhospitable bush. She found desert raisins and rock figs and pointed out the tracks in a dry creek bed made by a goanna, another aboriginal delicacy. Then suddenly she bent down and scrabbled in the sand.
‘Charlie Quink-Quink,’ she showed me a tiny termite in her hand. 'We put him on our breasts to make them bigger.' Was it ground into a paste like a quandong kernel, or crushed and painted on like milkwood, I wanted to know? ‘He bites your nipple and makes it grow,’ she giggled.
The Northern Territory Conservation Commission grades Outback walks as easy (Emu), moderate (Sand Goanna) and tough (Rock Wallaby).
The walk up Kings Canyon, a height of nearly a thousand feet was all Rock Wallaby, I decided on the hot climb, but my efforts were rewarded on reaching the top to find a great view and an oasis of exotic plants, including pre-historic cycad palms. Two backpackers who had also made it to the canyon rim had stripped off and lay stark naked beside a rock pool.
Sneaking away, I missed the track and spent a frightening hour walking round in circles. It’s easy to become lost in the Outback. Rangers advise you carry a litre of water to drink for every hour you walk, and to leave a note on the car windscreen saying where you’ve gone.
It is three hour’s drive from Kings Canyon to Uluru, the huge monolith which sits on the horizon like a giant cow pat. Climbing it is an equal challenge, but its Anangu custodians would prefer you didn‘t. More than 600 millions years old, it is a sacred site and every nook and cranny has a significance in their Dreamtime.
I felt to climb the rock would be like wearing shoes inside a mosque. But another reason was the gusts of hot wind. As I stood at the base, a variety of headgear came whizzing down from tourists climbing above me: Terry-towelling hats and Akubras landed in the bushes. Even a white canvas hat embroidered Wimbledon 2010 floated down like a lob by Venus Williams.
Sightseeing alternatives to scaling Uluru include peddling slowly round it on a bicycle, flying across it by light aircraft, or drifting over it in a hot air balloon. There are also guided walks lead by softly spoken aboriginal guides who point out bush edibles such as those I sampled at Kings Canyon.
The best time to visit Central Australia is between April and September which corresponds with the local winter. $25 entrance fee to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Free access to Kings Canyon.
Images from www.copix.co.uk