Northern Territory: The spirit of the rock

By Jenny Tabakoff

A visit to sacred Uluru offers a deep cultural experience, writes Jenny Tabakoff.

The ascent of Uluru was only ever a small part of this remarkable place.
The ascent of Uluru was only ever a small part of this remarkable place.

In the early 1970s, tourists who had rattled 440km south from Alice Springs would pitch their tents at the foot of Uluru or stay in Nissen huts with mice.

People ran up the rock, signed a book at the top, grabbed the obligatory sunrise and sunset shots, and bought "I've climbed Ayers Rock" T-shirts.

All fun, but fairly uncomprehending of Aboriginal culture.

From the mid-1980s, visitors stayed in the new resort town of Yulara, outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Most people still climbed the rock, but left with an idea of its central place in Aboriginal culture.

Today's visitors get a deeper cultural experience, with plenty of opportunities to meet and mix with indigenous people and learn about everything from boomerangs to bush tucker.

Visitor accommodation is at Yulara, in the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort. Accommodation options include the campground, family apartments and hotels, including the five-star Sails in the Desert. (The ultimate, exclusive luxury of Longitude 131 is set apart, in splendid isolation.)

Yulara is about 20km from Uluru, and to get a sense of Uluru's size and spirituality you'll want to get close - and that means paying A$25 to enter the park.

Rather than climb, take the 9.4km stroll around Uluru's base, taking in myriad creation stories. Only a fraction of today's visitors climb, daunted by the angle and signs explaining the indigenous locals prefer people to stay at ground level.

When temperatures rocket or winds blow, the climb is closed. It's not as killjoy as it sounds. The ascent was only ever a small part of this remarkable place. Uluru and Yulara do a good job balancing local sensitivities and visitor expectations.

Guests staying anywhere in Yulara can access a swag of free activities, most led by Aboriginal experts. Take a boomerang- and spear-throwing class; stroll out at night to view the Milky Way through telescopes and hear star-stories; or watch talented indigenousdancers. (Join in and discover how hard it is to be an emu.)

You can pay to do a dot-painting class with an Anangu artist. Maruku Arts sells indigenous artworks, including punu (desert animals carved from wood and incised with burned-wire decoration).

Book a dawn camel-train ride with Uluru Camel Tours. That photo of you at dawn, atop a swaying, snorting steed, is bound to be the best of your entire holiday. And the cameleer who walks beside as the loosely tethered camels lope through the red dunes, is a font of knowledge about local flora and fauna.

The "Desert Awakenings" experience will whisk you to a secluded dune for one of nature's greatest light shows, with breakfast and billy tea.

Whatever you do, don't sleep in: Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) are unmissable at sunrise. The middle of the day is when to catch up on sleep, cool off in a pool, or enjoy some art. (Yulara has an artist-in-residence programme and hotel foyers double as galleries.) Alternatively, have a facial or massage in the hushed luxury of the Red Ochre Spa, at Sails In The Desert.

Uluru also demands to be seen at sunset, when it dims from fiery red to purple and black.

For a memorable occasion, there's the miracle of fine wining and dining in the desert with "Tali Wiru". It begins with champagne to the sound of a didgeridoo as Uluru and Kata Tjuta glow red in the sunset. It ends with a star talk, storytelling and cognac or port by the fire.

In between, you'll enjoy the sort of food and service you'd find in a three-hat city restaurant, delivered by white-jacketed fairies on a sand dune.

It's a wonderful way to wind up your Uluru stay. Now you're ready to hit the road for the rest of Central Australia: Kata Tjuta, Standley Chasm, Kings Canyon, Simpsons Gap and dirt roads that wind through a landscape of ancient mountain ranges.

Uluru is just the beginning.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Sydney and Melbourne, from where Tigerair has direct flights to Alice Springs.

Uluru is about 440km from Alice Springs, but the speed limit in the Northern Territory is 130km/h and the roads are straight and good. Hire a car in Alice or book a tour to visit Uluru. A three-day pass to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park costs A$26, payable at the entrance or added to tour costs. Entry is free to children under 16.

Accommodation: Temperatures in Central Australia soar in summer. Daytime is most comfortable from April to November, but you'll need warm clothes at night. All visitors stay at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara. Each of the accommodation options (Sails in the Desert, Desert Gardens, Emu Walk Apartments, Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge, and the campground) has a swimming pool.

Playing there: Uluru Camel Tours.

Explore more at: myaustraliapassion.co.nz.

The writer was a guest of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, Tigerair and Tourism NT.

- AAP

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