When called upon to list Australia’s great foodie destinations, remote Arnhem Land in Australia’s tropical Top End may not be the first to spring to mind – but perhaps it should be.

WORDS Roderick Eime

With various capital cities, along with the world-famous regions of Victoria’s Yarra Valley, South Australia’s Barossa Valley and Western Australia’s Margaret River dominating foodie lists, the Northern Territory hardly gets a mention. But look a little closer and you may be surprised by the rich bounty of bush tucker and ocean fresh seafood waiting to enliven your palate.

The very mention of Arnhem Land, the vast wilderness area neighbouring Kakadu in the northeast corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, conjures visions of rocky escarpments, dizzying gorges, crocodile-infested rivers and spectacular seasonal waterfalls. The traditional landowners, the Yolngu people, can trace their occupation of these sacred lands back at least 65,000 years.

The Yolngu and the many Indigenous communities of the Top End have become infinitely attuned to the delicate variations of the weather and what this means when it comes to native ingredients. Europeans know the ‘wet’ and the ‘dry’, but the Indigenous custodians recognise six seasons, taking into account experience gained not by advanced meteorological forecasts, but by tens of thousands of years of living in this capricious realm. This delicate cycle of life dictates when to harvest particular fruits and vegetables, heralds the arrival of certain animals, and directs when to make sure your larders are full.

Well-known among the secret society of fishers, the rich waters of Arnhem Land have long been a goldmedal destination. In fact, it was the Makassar people from modern-day Sulawesi in Indonesia who first bookmarked these waters, thanks to the abundance of trepang (sea cucumbers). It is thought these ancient seafarers began hunting along Australia’s northern coast as long as 500 years ago, trading and interacting with the Indigenous population.

More recently, Arnhem Land has been promoted widely on just about every television fishing show anyone can think of, with the likes of Rex Hunt, Andrew Ettingshausen and Scott Hillier all setting out to land one of the legendary barramundi, recognised by seafood connoisseurs for its smooth, buttery, and ever-so-slightly-sweet flavour.

A notoriously elusive quarry, this prized fish is a true icon of the Top End, with spawning grounds all through the steamy mangroves of Arnhem Land, themselves a crucial marine ecosystem underpinning the aquatic health of the entire northern region. The waters of Arnhem Land have earned the saying “fishing so good, you have to bait your hook behind a tree!” It may be something of a larrikin phrase, but in truth, the coastal waters and estuaries of Arnhem Land are literally brimming with fish. So, even if the barramundi evades you, you’ll still return with a bag full of delicious finds, like giant trevally, queenfish, Spanish mackerel, cobia, black jewfish, golden snapper, red emperor or coral trout, to throw in the pan.

“This delicate cycle of life dictates when to harvest particular fruits and vegetables, heralds the arrival of certain animals, and directs when to make sure your larders are full.”

“It’s not entirely mainstream, but it’s fair to say that Arnhem Land’s smorgasbord of bush tucker is a culinary treat for the adventurous palate.”

There is no better place to try your luck than at the Arnhem Land Barramundi Lodge. With spectacular views over the Tomkinson River floodplains, this luxury tented camp near Maningrida features 12 luxury tented safari suites, each blending unobtrusively with the surrounding bushland.

As the name suggests, the Arnhem Land Barramundi Lodge specialises in angling adventures, with its own resident fishing expert and a fleet of superb, state-of the-art Ocean Master boats. Not only is all your kit and tackle supplied, so are the relevant licences. The fish will just about catch themselves, and perhaps best of all, the chef will be waiting with a hot pan to cook your bounty to perfection and serve it on the open-air deck while one of Arnhem Land’s spectacular sunsets unfolds before you.

If fishing is your bag and you’re ready for more seafood consumption, Seven Spirit Bay should be high on your list, with an exclusive half-day fishing adventure to Trepang Bay on offer, aboard the lodge’s modern and comfortable boats. The jewel in the crown of the Cobourg Peninsula Sanctuary and Marine Park, this exceptional lodge has been a flagship remote luxury safari camp for more than 30 years, garnering accolades from the world’s most respected reviewers and publications for both the lodge and the fine-dining restaurant, the Wawidada Pavilion.

Fish aside, meat also features in the Top End bush tucker lexicon. Crocodile is a firm favourite, with a consistency and flavour that many describe as being akin to chicken, or sometimes more neutral, like a cross between seafood and chicken. You won’t be hunting your own crocodile for a croc-burger lunch though – the meat comes from farms where they are also bred for their skins. Wild crocodiles are actually protected and their numbers are increasing, so while you can’t hunt one, there’s a good chance you’ll spot one or more on a river safari from the lodge.

Water buffalo were introduced into Australia in the 19th century, as both a beast of burden and for meat. Now strictly a feral pest, their meat is nonetheless nutritious and described as “Top End Wagyu” by the cattlemen who muster the beasts. Harvesting these wild cattle, which can weigh more than a tonne apiece, is also a useful environmental control, so there’s no shame in tucking into a juicy buffalo steak.

The flora of Arnhem Land also provides a vital food source and several plants are increasingly finding their way onto the tables of fine-dining restaurants. One such delight is the humble green plum, the fruit of the tree Buchanania obovata, which is a favourite of locals due to its sweet taste. Other species that are finding their way into innovative Australian menus and are important to the Yolngu people include acacia, native peanuts, wild peaches and yams.

It’s not entirely mainstream, but it’s fair to say that Arnhem Land’s smorgasbord of bush tucker is a culinary treat for the adventurous palate. Even the less adventurous are likely to see more of these tasty treats appearing on modern menus. Move over saltbush, it’s time to share your place on the contemporary Australian plate.

Taste the flavours of Arnhem Land on a 13-day Arnhem Land Wilderness Adventure with Outback Spirit. This small-group all inclusive journey through the heart of Arnhem Land follows an exclusive touring route that immerses guests in the world’s oldest surviving culture. Starting from $14,350 pp twin share, 2023 tours operate from May to September with dates filling fast. Click here to book your Arnhem Land tour today.

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