I’ve been exploring the most pristine and remote river systems on earth for over a quarter of a century now, often alone and with minimal equipment. As hobbies go, it has its challenges. Foremost is how to pay for all these journeys, many of which last over a month and involve some of the hardest-to-reach spots on the globe. Fortunately, I make more than enough money these days as a Jet-setting Copywriter to pay for all the overseas adventures I can handle.
Logistics can also be tricky. When I decided to spend 27 days in a rugged, isolated part of Western Australia’s Kimberley region in 2013 (the River with No Name expedition), I knew there was only one way in or out – by helicopter. In northern Gabon, I spent three weeks crammed in a tiny boat with four chain-smoking Baka pygmies as we paddled, dragged and cajoled our craft up the Ntem River.
Interesting culinary adventures are par for the course with these journeys and always add to the experience. As the author of Australian Bush Survival Skills, I’ve experimented with my share of native foods, both in Australia and around the world. During remote-area expeditions, you have to make do with what’s available.
Here are just some of the more unusual food items I’ve consumed in a lifetime of hardcore river exploration:
Roasted monkey and squirming grubs – Gabon, West Africa
When you spend time in the jungle with Baka pygmies, you soon learn to appreciate their ability to find sources of protein. There are no supermarkets in the Gabon rainforest, so they eat whatever they can catch and kill. This is how they have always lived; they are superb trackers and hunters, keenly attuned to the rhythms of their environment.
During our journey, we visited a small camp where two Baka women had collected buckets of squirming grubs – the larvae of an insect that lives in palm trees near the river. These are roasted or boiled and are an important food source. Of course, the thing about the Baka is that they consider it rude if you refuse an offer of food….
Then there was the night the team’s best hunter bagged a small forest antelope. I watched and filmed as they efficiently butchered it with machetes in about twenty minutes. We ate antelope casserole for the next few days, which was quite palatable. On another occasion a large hornbill bird was added to the pot (this was tough but okay). The real test of my politeness came when they slowly cooked a monkey over the coals and offered me some. I ate it along with the rest of the group and am rather ashamed to say it was quite delicious.
The Ntem River in northern Gabon is full of small fish about as long as your hand – these are smoked and used as ‘travelling food’ by the Baka. Snacking on these was like chewing on a fishy-tasting strip of leather.
Donkey stew and termite soup – the Kimberley, Western Australia
Back in the late 1980s, feral donkeys were a real issue in the Kimberley (the Government has since taken care of the problem). They were considered a pest, much like the wild pigs that roam across the top of Australia today.
On one of the many solo expeditions I’ve conducted in this part of the world, I hitched a lift along the Mitchell Plateau track with some folks in a Land Cruiser. When we stopped to set up camp that evening, one of the guys decided to shoot a donkey so there would be meat to add to the stew.
For the record, donkey meat tastes exactly like beef – there’s no discernible difference.
Because I’d once read in a survival book that termites are (a) high in protein and (b) have a ‘pleasant, nutty flavour’, I decided to try them out on another Kimberley trip. I located a rotten tree stump, found thousands inside and collected as many as I could, dropping them into a billy full of water. It took ages to get a decent number – and then I had to pick out all the bits of bark that had fallen in with them. Eventually, I was able to boil them up into what might optimistically be called ‘termite soup’.
I’m sure the protein content was exemplary, but the taste was neither pleasant nor nutty – it was bitter, woody and downright horrible. I’ve eaten some thoroughly acceptable wild foods in the Kimberley over the years, including roasted goanna, bush turkey, freshwater crayfish, pink hibiscus buds, nerites (mangrove snails) and assorted estuary fish, but termite soup is a dining experiment I won’t repeat. Maybe termites that have been feasting on a different kind of wood taste better. I’ll never know!
Moose meat and onions – Kuskokwim river region, Alaska
My first-ever solo kayaking expedition was down a stretch of Alaska’s second largest river, the Kuskokwim. I started at the town of McGrath and ended up in a tiny place called Stony River. I took my time and stretched the trip into over a week. The wildlife was impressive – I think I spotted a black bear almost every day along the riverbank.
The only habitation along that entire stretch of wild river was a little cabin in the middle of nowhere, occupied by a half-blind 80-year-old man, his daughter and her husband. They were really nice folks and invited me to share lunch with them. This turned out to be moose steak with onions, which wasn’t bad at all. To many Alaskans living in remote areas, eating moose meat isn’t all that unusual but this was my first (and last) sampling, made all the more memorable by the spontaneous hospitality of my indigenous hosts.
Black piranha – Guyana jungle, South America
While swarms of frenzied piranhas love to reduce hapless swimmers to a skeleton in the movies, this virtually never happens in real life. Humans are far more likely to devour piranhas than the other way around – many species are staple food items in South America.
A few years ago, a Makushi companion and I became the first people to canoe down from the headwaters of the pristine, wildlife-rich Rewa River in Guyana. This was an incredible journey. Our stores of dried food were supplemented by catching river fish for dinner. Species included giant catfish, freshwater swordfish, peacock bass, haimara, kuti and black piranha.
Black piranhas are tasty and easy to catch – the challenging part is removing the hook from their mouths without losing the tip of your finger. I happily let my skilled companion do that part. Smaller piranha species (such as the notorious red-bellied version) are often quite bony and not worth the effort to fish for them.
Kevin Casey is a professional freelance writer and author of The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing.