Australia’s Red Heart

Lonely Planet Asia

1 March 2016

 

Rising from the desert, Uluru is one of Australia’s most iconic sights. The geological landmark holds great spiritual and cultural significance to the traditional owners of the land, and a visit here promises an unforgettable experience, writes Tatyana Leonov.

Dusty yellows, burnt oranges, deep browns and rich reds any way we look. Sometimes it’s just sand and dirt, other times we see patches of scrubland and the occasional bright wildflower in bloom. We stop frequently to take photos, to plunge our toes into the hot red sand and laugh about how red our feet get as the holiday advances.

Starting at Alice Springs and heading towards Uluru, my husband and I have been driving our trusty Apollo motorhome for a few days. We’ve been breaking up the endless white line of the tarmac as much as possible – invigorating swims in ancient waterholes, picnic lunches overlooking salt lakes and sand rivers, long leisurely walks with no set route or place to be, road shop breaks to sample local delicacies like camel burgers. And every night we unfold our portable camp chairs for cheese and wine as dusk washes over the desert.

One of the most remarkable stops is Kings Canyon, where we stay a couple of nights. We trek the Kings Canyon Rim Walk, climbing to the top of the canyon and then trailing its edge, relentlessly gawking into the ravine dazed by its beauty. Half way into the hike the Garden of Eden makes for a pleasant sojourn. This lush green space, where galahs and finches squawk amongst the thriving vegetation, really does feel like its namesake. We only just make it back to the campsite in time for sunset and quickly scramble to get what’s become our customary cheese and wine out in time.

Sunset is an ethereal time of day when neon pinks and flaming oranges roll over the peculiar vastness that is the Red Centre wilderness. The many reddish-pink hues of the sky and land intertwine, and just before the sun sinks below the horizon it becomes mystifying as to where the land ends and the sky begins.

The day we first see Uluru is one of the most memorable days of our journey. As children we learnt about this sacred Aboriginal site. As adults we dreamed of setting foot here. It’s that quintessential Australian journey that has to be done by every Australian at some stage in their lives.

Formerly known as Ayers Rock, the gargantuan sandstone boulder is the world’s biggest rock monolith. At it’s highest point it stands 348 metres above the ground and has a circumference of 9.4 kilometres. Expectedly, it attracts tourists from far and wide, with over 250,000 people visiting and staying at Yulara (the township where Ayers Rock Resort is located) each year. Although most people stay two to three days, we stay for four.

There’s plenty to do and see in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – home to the main attraction – Uluru – but also to the domed Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas) rock formation. It’s the kind of place you want to take it slow and soak up every moment.

Archeological findings suggest that Aboriginal people have been living around Uluru for at least 22,000 years and that both Uluru and Kata Tjuta have long been places of ceremonial and cultural significance to a number of Aboriginal clan groups.

The Anangu people are the traditional custodians of Uluru and the surrounding land, and today some members of the clan group are involved in aspects of tourism. If you can book a tour lead by an Anangu guide you’re in luck!

We luxe it up and stay at the recently refurbished Sails in the Desert Hotel for a few nights, one of five accommodation offerings at Ayers Rock Resort (managed by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia – a business enterprise which runs tourism and resorts on behalf of the Indigenous Land Corporation).

Committed to increasing and supporting Indigenous employment, the last few years has seen significant growth in the number of Indigenous staff employed at the resort. To put it in perspective, in 2010 there were just two Indigenous workers onsite, whereas now there are over 200.

We join Anangu man Leroy Lester, who heads up the resort’s guest activities team, for a stroll around the resort’s native gardens. He sports a dusty brown hat and a wide smile that reveals gleaming teeth. Our group of five follow him around like puppy dogs, wanting to be nearby so we don’t miss anything he has to say.

Leroy walks as he talks, explaining which plants can be used for bush medicine and which ones can be used for food. “My grandparents and aunties used to collect plants. They lived off the land,” he says bending down to point out a native fig. “That’s an ili. And over there we have kampurarpa. That’s what we call a desert raisin. And these are the arnguli. You know em as bush plums. Good for jams,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Exploring Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is getting to know the people whose ancestors have lived here for thousands and thousands of years and acquiring somewhat of an understanding about the importance of the scared area. Although climbing the rock was once a climax tourist activity, the Anangu people discourage it because it’s culturally insensitive to climb something so sacred – and it’s not always safe. Instead visitors can walk the 10 kilometres around Uluru, hire a bike and cycle the loop, or simply enjoy sunrises and sunsets (there are plenty of tours and culinary events to choose from) while gazing the marvel.

We decide to cycle the around the rock first thing the next morning and scout out the best spots for photographs, leaving the walk until the last day. We meet one of the Outback Cycling team members, Adam Palmer, bright and early to rent the bikes so we can hit the track.

Affable and chatty, Adam has lived all over the Northern Territory and cherishes his work time at Uluru where he oversees the bicycle program from March to November. His energy is infectious and within minutes we are on our bikes making our way around the mammoth rock. Early morning is a lovely time to pedal. There’s a very slight breeze and the flies are not out at full force yet. Neither are many of the other tourists.

That night we attend the impressive Sounds of Silence dinner. As gastronomic experiences go, this is a highlight of our stay. A bus collects us from Sails in the Desert Hotel, and along with a cluster of excited people we are whisked away to a private sand dune where cheery staff greet us with just-popped Champagne and trays of delectable hors d’ouvres.

What follows is one of the best nights of our holiday. As the sun begins to set on another magical day, all eyes are on Uluru. The colours dance on the sandstone monolith – first an escalating series of oranges and reds, then a deep russet, finally when the sun sinks below the horizon the famous sandstone hulk becomes a dark bulge as fiery oranges, rich reds and rosy pinks light up the sky.

After the sun has set we shuffle to another sand dune platform where we’re treated to a bushtucker-inspired buffet dinner. I pile my plate high with unusual delights, like myrtle chicken thigh, wattleseed-infused sausages and pepperberry kangaroo, and enjoy my meal while watching an Indigenous dance performance.

Later that evening an astrologist provides a captivating southern night sky commentary. The lights are temporarily turned off and we all gaze at an inky black sky flooded with stars lost in our own version of space.

And so our days and nights become an amalgamation of amazing adventures. Sure, Uluru is the star of the show, but a visit to Kata Tjuta is a must do too. We jump in our trusty Apollo motorhome and drive the 50 kilometres or so from our hotel to the Kata Tjuta car park where the hiking trails start.

Apart from bulging out of the desert like a bodybuilder’s bicep there’s not a great deal of similarities between Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Uluru is a monolith, while Kata Tjuta is made up of 36 bornhardts. From afar the domed rock formations look connected, but close up we discover that you can walk around them and the passages that knit their way through open up another world.

We head to the viewing area first, then hike The Valley of the Winds Walk, the longest and most challenging trek – four hours and 7.4 kilometres of bliss. Wispy white clouds hurdle across the sky, odd-looking trees jut out in unexpected spots like crooked teeth, nothing is what we thought it would be here and we take our time exploring this otherworldly landscape concealed within the bornhardts.

When it’s too hot to be out in the bush we visit the Uluru Camel Tours farm, the largest camel farming operation in the Southern Hemisphere. The camels are marshaled from the wild and used for camel rides. “Without camels the whole of central Australia would not have been opened up,” explains marketing and sales manager Lisa Evans shooing a fly away. “Explorers used camels to navigate, then when the railway was being constructed the camels were used to transport the building materials. After the railway was completed the camels were released into the wild and they throve in the arid environment.”

Today it’s estimated that there are over one million wild camels roaming Australia’s deserts. The ones mustered and sent to Uluru Camel Tours farm can count themselves lucky. “They have an all-you-can-eat hay buffet here,” Lisa laughs. “They are definitely living the camel high life! Some of the other wild-caught camels get sent to the UAE. Australian camels are beautiful and disease free and many people don’t realise how in demand they are.” 

Although I don’t jump on a camel for a ride, I meander around watching farm life playing out, admiring the intricate hand-made saddles and spending a bit of time hanging out with the gentle giants.

Time is the best accessory to pack. Although some would argue a few days is enough, it quickly becomes evident to us that the best activities are the ones where you aren’t doing much – sunsets of glorious hues while nibbling on crackers topped with melting brie cheese, bubbly Champagne under a starlit sky, long slow strolls.

Walking around Uluru is one of our highlights and we leave this until the last day. Having cycled around the rock we know which parts we want to photograph, but even so find ourselves taking longer than anticipated. Every curvature beckons; a sporadic waterhole twinkles like shimmering diamonds in the sun; little hidden pockets of greenery and shade are welcome surprises; and ancient rock art transports us to another era.

We try to imagine what life might have been like a long time ago here. With not much else except Ayers Rock Resort (which you can’t see from Uluru), whichever way you look is probably very similar to what it might have looked like a century ago… and a century prior to that one and that one and that one.

Wanting to find a great spot for our last sunset we drive around searching for the best panorama and decide on a sunrise viewing area – so that we can see both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Some groups have snacks set up and cameras ready to go, others are just arriving, scanning the car park for empty car spaces and deciding where they might get the best shots.

As the day nears its end I look around and notice just how diverse the crowd gathered around us is. To our right three backpackers are sprawled out on their car bonnet chatting intensely to each other; to our left a mother chases her raucous twin girls; about 30 metres away from us a group of 20 retirees are engrossed in something their charismatic guide is saying; a lone photographer slides in front of a bush, noticeably surprised he was able to snag such a good spot with so many people around.

We all watch the sun reel away and as the sky darkens people begin to leave. Eventually it’s just us staring up at the blanket of stars watching nothing and everything go past all at once. The park closes soon after sunset and we know we need to get going… but Uluru is the hardest place we’ve ever had to leave.