Unearthing Top End treats with chef James Viles

James Viles catfish and tea tree dish served to guests at Bamurru Plains.
James Viles catfish and tea tree dish served to guests at Bamurru Plains. Photo: Shaana McNaught

If Australia was a 12-course degustation, how would that feast look and taste? According to James Viles, celebrated for his pioneering, two-hatted restaurant Biota Dining in the Southern Highlands, it should depend entirely on which specific part of this vast land you're visiting.

Viles recently got his hands on a locavore chef's equivalent of a golden ticket. Invited to a property bordering Kakadu, he was tasked with letting his foraging legs (and palate) run wild in the name of unearthing tasty local treasures.

The idea was fostered by Wild Bush Luxury's Charles Carlow, who runs a tourism operation at Bamurru Plains – a 300 square kilometre pastoral property and the Northern Territory's largest buffalo farm. A tourism industry veteran, Carlow believes Australia's gastronomic resources are largely untapped. He employed Viles to bring Bamurru's animal and plant life to guests' plates in what will become an annual, luxury food safari.

Chef James Viles (right) and guests breakfast at sun-up.
Chef James Viles (right) and guests breakfast at sun-up. Photo: Shaana McNaught


"Ultimately what we try and do here is hook up guests with the outdoors and food is a really great way to do that." Viles was an obvious choice to make Wild Bush Luxury's two properties (Arkaba is near the Flinders Ranges in South Australia) foodie destinations and Carlow says he was amazed at what the chef managed to find.

The inaugural 'Tastes of the Top End' trip was held in May. The food safari began in intrepid fashion with a 25-minute light plane journey from Darwin and culminated in a lavish degustation featuring slow-cooked crocodile tail, Mary River mud crab, water lily, wild boar, buffalo rib, kangaroo jerky, catfish (infused with native flavours of tea tree and lemon myrtle) and a pandanus custard adorned with live green ants (a favourite with Kylie Kwong).

Crocodile tail cooked long and slow over coals at Bamurru's luxury lodge.
Crocodile tail cooked long and slow over coals at Bamurru's luxury lodge. Photo: Shaana McNaught

Guests accompanied Viles and guide John Cooper on several foraging trips across Bamurru's floodplains to source ingredients.

But while Bamurru is blessed with abundance (both native and introduced species) not all went to plan. Viles researched his menu earlier in the year. By the time May rolled around, the Northern Territory had experienced its warmest "wet season" on record, and some areas around Kakadu experienced their driest October-April in 40 years with just more than half the average rainfall.

Bamurru's floodplains weren't flooded, which left Viles needing to improvise and – as he freely admitted to guests – cheat a little. Barramundi, available on the earlier trip had to be sourced from Arnhem Land.


And while some guests might have fancied the opportunity to catch one of Bamurru's many crocs, Viles sourced farmed meat as hunting crocodiles is illegal (unless with a permit for management reasons).

Viles says his Bamurru menu will evolve as he learns more about its landscape, which could scarcely be more different from the forests that surround Biota.

"At Bowral we go and get some nice leaves from the side of the road. It's gentle. But if I need something at Bamurru it might be a three-hour exercise," Viles says.

Chef James Viles foraged up a feast for guests.
Chef James Viles foraged up a feast for guests. Photo: Shaana McNaught

"That whole Mary River system is so unforgiving. I've never seen a tide move so quickly... The ground is hard and there's divots everywhere from buffalo. The grasses there will tear your arms and legs apart.

"The good paperbark (which Viles used to wrap barramundi) is where there is a bit of water so you're up your ankles in mud and you don't know what's under you..."

Wild Bush Luxury shields guests from much of this, never taking them too far from the red gravel roads that criss-cross Bamurru. But for Viles getting dirty is a vital part of his mission to uncover Australia's "regional cuisine".

"I'd love to spend a whole year there to understand the seasons. You need to understand that before you can understand the ingredients."

The next Wild Tastes of the Top End food safari with James Viles will take place at Bamurru Plains 18-21 May 2017. Price: $3490 per person twin-share (four days). For more details see bamurruplains.com.

The writer travelled as a guest of Wild Bush Luxury's Bamurru Plains.