The Red Centre is a captivating mix of legends and landscapes you'll want to add to your wishlist when the bubble is in place, writes Rob McFarland
Leon Althouse is brandishing a curious wooden object shaped like a large tick. Called a Number 7, it's a type of non-returning boomerang used to hunt emu. Hurled from close quarters, it's designed to hook around the emu's legs. "If you were lucky," he says, "you might even get two."
It's one of an impressive range of handmade weapons used by the Indigenous people of Australia's Western Desert. "Every hunter has his favourite," he explains. "I used a spear until I was 13 but then switched to a .22 calibre rifle." He grins. "Much easier."
This entertaining bush yarn is part of a free programme of Indigenous activities available to guests at Ayers Rock Resort, a sprawling complex 20km north of Uluru in the Northern Territory. Since Voyages took over the resort in 2011, there's been a renewed effort to expose guests to the culture and stories of the land's traditional owners, the Anangu people, who've lived in the region for at least 30,000 years.
After the talk, I grab a coffee from nearby Kulata Cafe, which is staffed by trainees from the National Indigenous Training Academy. More than 600 students have graduated from the school and many now work at the resort.
I'm staying at Sails in the Desert, the swankiest of the resort's seven accommodation offerings (uber-luxe Longitude 131 is a separate entity). Named after its distinctive canopy of 99 white sails, the 228-room hotel re-opened in August with swish new granite bathrooms and spruced-up communal areas. It was part of a $50million (NZ$53.5million). refurbishment that also saw upgrades to the resort's campground and Ayers Rock Airport.
Sails' bright, high-ceilinged lobby features colourful Indigenous artworks and a raindrop-inspired lighting installation by British artist Bruce Munro. Rooms are spacious and sleek with either a terrace or balcony overlooking a manicured garden of towering white ghost gums and an outdoor pool.
Of course, the main reason most people come here is to see Uluru, the majestic monolith that dominates the horizon at every turn. One morning I rise at the rather un-holiday hour of 4:30am to join a sunrise excursion with Uluru Camel Tours. I'm partnered with Boof, a gurgling 900kg dromedary, who plods stoically through the pre-dawn chill as the sun creeps over the horizon. Previously an inky silhouette, Uluru suddenly floods with colour, the dramatic outcrop glowing a deep rust red. It's a Hallelujah-inducing moment that deserves a rousing trumpet fanfare. Instead, Boof noisily regurgitates last night's meal and continues chewing.
Until October 2019, visitors could climb Uluru, a culturally insensitive and downright dangerous endeavour that claimed the lives of more than 37 people. Today, you can rumble around it on a Segway, explore sections from conveniently located car parks or circumnavigate it on foot. I choose the last option, setting off at 7am while it's still cool to tackle the 10km base walk. In some places, the gravel path hugs the mighty rock, allowing you to reach out and touch it, while in others, it veers away to reveal it in its majestic entirety. Up close, the surface is surprisingly rough and textured, like the first draft of a clay model. Some slopes are scarred by dramatic fissures; others are stained black by rainwater run-off. Every facet brings an intriguing new feature – a yawning cave, a hidden waterhole or a colossal boulder.
Many caves still have the remnants of Indigenous artworks and blackened ceilings from ancient fires. On the popular Mala section of the walk, you can enter a kitchen cave and feel the smooth rock surfaces worn down by thousands of years of grinding seeds. Other areas are considered sacred by the Anangu, and signs request that photos not be taken.
There's limited interpretative signage along much of the route so it's worth hiring an Uluru Audio Guide from the resort beforehand. This GPS-triggered system delivers relevant historical and cultural information throughout Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and is full of illuminating facts and stories.
One notable closure during my visit is the park's Cultural Centre, which normally offers free ranger-guided walking tours. It was shut to protect the local Indigenous community from the pandemic and currently has only partially re-opened. Check the Parks Australia website before you visit to get up to date opening details.
While Uluru is the Red Centre's most famous drawcard, Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) is another superlative-sapping spectacle that shouldn't be missed. Located a 45-minute drive west of Uluru, it's a sprawling formation of 36 towering rock domes (the highest standing 546m above the plain), which have been sculpted by millions of years of wind and rain.
Intrepid hikers can tackle the Valley of the Winds walk, a challenging 7.4km trail that snakes through this otherworldly terrain. Start early to avoid the heat (the hike closes at 11am if temperatures are predicted to exceed 36C) and take plenty of water and snacks. For most of my walk, the only sounds are the occasional chatter of birdsong and the constant whistle of the wind. The circular route weaves through a plunging valley hemmed in by sheer rock walls before returning via a parched landscape of white gum trees and spinifex grass. The shorter Walpa Gorge walk is an easier, albeit less-spectacular option if you're less able or short of time.
From the ground, both these geological wonders seem staggeringly grand. However, from the air, they're rendered curiously insignificant by the vastness of the rust-red desert surrounding them. On a sunset flight with Professional Helicopter Services, we soar over Kata Tjuta before watching the colour drain from Uluru in the fading light. The only other major discernible landmark is Mt Connor, a 300m-high flat-topped monolith 140km away. The pilot explains that the three outcrops are in an almost dead-straight line – as if they've been carefully placed by some giant hand of creation.
Hidden among all this natural splendour is one equally beguiling man-made spectacle. Bruce Munro's Field of Light is a mesmerising multi-coloured carpet of 50,000 hand-blown bulbs that explodes in a riot of colour every night. When it first opened in April 2016, it was only intended to last six months, but it's recently been refurbished and extended indefinitely. Sign up for the Field of Light Star Pass and you can enjoy sunset drinks and snacks on a nearby dune before strolling through the kaleidoscopic installation.
Sails in the Desert proves to be a welcoming haven in which to recharge and refuel at the end of each dusty day of adventure. After a rejuvenating dip in the outdoor pool, I retire to the Walpa Bar for one of its signature lemon myrtle mojitos and snacks incorporating local ingredients such as saltbush leaves and desert limes. The hotel also has a fine-dining restaurant, Ilkari, which serves one of the best chocolate fondants I've ever eaten. Pleasingly, the local Indigenous culture is woven into the very fabric of the property, from the artwork on the walls to the design motifs on the furnishings. Even the bathroom amenities feature native ingredients including wattle seed and quandong.
For my last night, I join one of the resort's most popular dining experiences, Sounds of Silence. After being transferred to a remote dune with sweeping views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, we watch the sunset with wine, snacks and a hypnotic soundtrack of didgeridoo. Dinner is a sumptuous three-course affair served on white-linen tables under a vast sky crowded with stars. After dessert, the lights are extinguished and a guide points out a flurry of planets, constellations and galaxies.
He finishes by sharing the Indigenous belief that when a person dies, they row along the Milky Way in a boat until they find a place to camp. They then light a fire, creating a new star, and return the boat to Earth as a comet for the next person to use. It's a fitting finale – a reminder that these ancient stories and beliefs are as integral to this mystical landscape as the red rocks and dirt.
Located 8km from the airport, Ayers Rock Resort has seven accommodation offerings, from a well-equipped campground to the 5-star Sails in the Desert. ayersrockresort.com.au
WHEN TO GO
Although the best times to visit are the cooler months of May to September, October to March's hotter temperatures bring spectacular storms that replenish waterholes and create dramatic waterfalls.
Check border restrictions before travelling. northernterritory.com
Please check the latest border restrictions in each state and territory before travelling. For more information visit australia.com