Digging for Tjala

I’ve talked a couple of times about Reuben and his visits – that often result in day-long trips out bush where he shows us places, and talks about Anangu way. It’s truly amazing. 

Another weekend – it’s cooler weather now and it’s been raining, so we feel a little trapped at the moment. Plus we are all still getting over coughs and colds. Reuben pulls up in his trusty Troopy. His wife Judy gets out. I have so much time for this woman – she’s quiet and dignified and has so much wisdom. “We are going for Tjala and hunting for Malu! bring water, lunch for the kids… We’ll meet you at the shop!” 

So we met them at the shop. Got diesel, food and then followed them out of town. We drove to Mulga Park station, where the Pirinpa station-owner came out to see us. Reuben explained that we wanted to go hunting and look for Tjala and she reluctantly let us through. The irony of an Anangu man asking permission to enter Anangu land from Pirinpa station owners is not lost on Matt and I as we pass them.  A mob of Anangu in a white commodore pass us and pull over to explain that they’re going hunting Malu (kangaroo). Judy turns to me “they going hunting in that little car!” She laughs; the roads are pretty rugged up here, and while most Anangu don’t have 4wd, she seems to find this pretty amusing. 

So Reuben and Judy, Matt and I and about 6 kids all up, find a spot and pull off.  Judy disappears off into the bush and I quietly follow. She explains that she’s looking for the Tjala nests. Success! We find one. And we see the male Tjala around the nest. “This is good – it means that there are honey ants down in the nest – with the sacs full of honey.” She starts to take the top layer off the surrounding sand. “We can see the nest, and now we look for the hole that they come out of – and we dig there. They go in here, and they come out there.” 

 The Tjala Nest 

After taking the top layer of soil off of about a 5ft x 5ft area, we find the hole she’s looking for. It’s hard because digging around can easily obscure the hole.  She starts to dig. And dig. And dig. I’m genuinely surprised at how big this hole is getting. Reuben comes to help with the digging before giving the shovel to Matt and telling him where to dig. He explains he’s digging a seat for Judy to sit in while she digs for the ants; so this hole is massive before we even get to the ant-digging! Finally he decides he’s happy and Judy climbs in. It’s so huge it swallows her. 


Judy follows the path of the nest down further with a stick, and then finds a smaller sub-chamber. She raises her head from the red sand and asks for a small stick. I pass her one and she throws it away. “No, needs to be smaller!” She finds a tiny root and flicks some sand and Tjala out and picks them up. She holds out her fist to me and let’s a fistful of sand and fat Tjala ants fall into my cupped hands. I sort the contents – there’s about 3 ants with honey sacs of varying sizes.  By this point we’d been there for at least an hour and a half; for 3 ants! These delicacies are hard work to find!! She repeats this process; digging down and then using a small twig to flick out the ants.  “This your culture, Liz. You gotta learn this!” 


All up we got about 10 ants. I put them in a container – our hard earned bush tucker!! Judy decides it’s time to move to a different spot so we move on. All this time the kids are having an awesome time playing in the scrub. As Judy gets out of the hole, my two decide to hop in!  In this photo you can see the big hole; that’s where Judy sat, and then the smaller hole where she found the ants. 


Emmeline wasn’t impressed about having to leave.  

Judy and Reuben went to leave. “Do we just leave the hole? Should we fill it in?” “Nope just leave it!” She explained that filling it in can destroy the nest, and so that people will know that this next has just been dug. So we moved to a different spot and Judy again, took her shovel and disappeared among the Mulga Trees. We went searching for about 30 minutes but came up empty, and the light was starting to fade as day gave way to dusk. Matt and Reuben had picked up lots of firewood and Matt asked me to take a photo – I think he felt like a real bushman. Reuben just laughed at him.  We decide that it’s probably too late to hunt for Malu, and that it’s time to head back to Amata; it’s an hours drive home after all.

I considered my tjala, which I was holding in a travel mug. I ate one. There’s one of two ways to eat them – you can pull the honey sac off, and if you’re careful, you can pull it off without bursting it. Or you can leave it connected to the ant and just suck it out. Apparently if you leave it connected to the ant they can still survive – but they were all looking pretty dead to me, in the bottom of my cup. They taste amazing – and just like honey with a fruity hint to it; and obscenely sweet!! I try to convince Min to eat one – he refuses!! I try to explain that we may never get the opportunity again but he cannot be convinced! Emmeline enjoys one though, and looks to me for more. Matt seems significantly uncomfortable with eating one; “Ahhh… I’ll have one later!” I decide to give the rest to Rueben and Judy – after all, they brought us out here and did all the work. “No, no! They’re for you!” I’m speechless at how giving these two are. And once again I’m struck by this as we leave Mulga Park Station. Reuben pulls up along side us and rolls down his window: “I’m just a bit worried about those other fullas. (The ones in the commodore) They didn’t come back past us and the road is muddy – we gonna drive back and see if they need any help, Palya?”. After a days outing, selflessly taking us out bush, digging all day and then giving us the profits, they’re heading back, in the dark with a carload of kids to find some other people to make sure they’re okay. These two are amazing. So Matt and I reluctantly head back to Amata. 

I decide that rather than guts them all myself, I put the call out on Facebook to Pirinpa living in Amata that haven’t tried Tjala, to try some of ours, given how hard they are to source. I feel like paying it forward a tiny bit is the least that I can do. A couple of the teachers are excited to try them, and a couple of the playgroup kids finish them off. 

What an amazing weekend.


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