Wirras and Honey Ants – collecting bush food

On a lazy and hot afternoon two Anangu women, Marble and Andy’s wife walked through the riverbed and passed my campsite. They carried their digging sticks and I was anxious to find out where they were going and what they were up to. I quickly followed them and asked them if they had any objections if I joined in.

Woman crafting coolamons
Marble and Andy’s wife

They did not speak a lot of English but after some hand signs I understood they were looking for a root to make wirras (wooden dishes). They use these wirras for everything: to carry food, as a drinking bowl, to put babies in, etc. After some digging, they found a root of a big Red River Gum that could pass their judgement. At the hottest part of the day they started to cut a 30cm thick root with a little hand axe in smaller parts to fit the size of the wirras they wanted to make. I assisted them in cutting but after some ten minutes I was exhausted while they went on for at least another hour. Once the right sizes were in a rough form, they took them back to their camp sites to finalise the work and to decorate the wirras. This was done with some hot irons, which results in a nice black pattern in contrast with the light coloured wood.

Cooloman made for me by the women of Angatja
Wirra made for me by the women of Angatja

Marble also told me about one of their bush foods gathering trips. She wanted us to taste the honey ant. These animals, however, are very hard to find. Small, black ants could be an indication that some 50cm under the earth honey ants would have their nest. Honey ants never appear above ground.

To find these little creatures, Marble before she went out to gather food (she only told us afterwards) had done the honey ant dreaming. And it had worked because during the trip she did find the ants with their huge honey filled abdomen.  We immediately feasted on this delicacy we had to pick them up, holding them on their little black body while sucking the honey out of the ball. She also kept some of the ants in their wirras for the people back in the camp.

The same day, Nganyinytja had collected mulga seeds in her wirra and back in the camp she showed us how to make dough which she baked into flat pancakes.


The Ngintaka Dreaming – a journey into the Dreamtime

Pitjantjatara TOC