The centre of attention
A stirring symphony under the stars at sacred Uluru
THERE was a triple road train bursting with stage and lighting equipment and a charter j et full of fine classical musicians.
Jazz supremo James Morrison said it was the biggest concert ‘‘hall’’ he’d ever played. Didgeridoo master William Barton’s playing of his great booming instrument sounded like approaching thunder, all but stealing into our bones. We spectators could boldly claim we’d never been surrounded by so many stars. Coloratura soprano Emma Matthews arrived aboard a camel named Meryl (whose jaunty top hat almost wobbled off as the redfrocked diva dismounted with enviable elegance) and our combined audience of about 1500 clapped and whooped like mad things over two star-spangled nights at Uluru last weekend.
What an inspired idea to take the Darwin Symphony Orchestra to the desert, to add talent of the international ilk of Matthews and tenor Peter Egglestone for an evening of Verdi, and to follow 24 hours later with a Sounds of Australia tribute starring Morrison and Barton. Fire trail 37 and the erstwhile helipad of Ayers Rock Resort, about five minutes by bus from the main tourist facilities, formed the site for the stage. There were ranks of white plastic chairs for the enthusiastic audience and little canopied stalls selling drinks and a wide variety of well-priced food, from Asian and Italian to vegetarian and a desserts booth that did a thumping trade in ice cream cones during interval on both evenings.
The Ayers Rock Resort complex (managed by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, a subsidiary of the Indigenous Land Corporation) was at full capacity over the weekend, a test for any property. But the young and vivacious hospitality staff, some of whom are graduates of the resortbased National Indigenous Training Academy, coped with great patience and good humour.
What’s so exciting about concerts of this ambition and audacity is the potential for more such events in the shadow of Uluru. It’s hard to imagine a more stirring setting — orange-red dust, world’s best-loved rock turning rose to mauve to grey to black as the sun dips and stars start to twinkle in a seemingly limitless sky unsullied by neon or pollution.
Event tourism is an enormous drawcard for Australian cities and regional centres and Voyages has announced a range of red-centre spectaculars for 2014, including the Tjungu Festival of indigenous music, design and dining experiences (April 24-47) and the Uluru Camel Cup (May 3-4). Throughout most of the year, Ayers Rock Resort offers desert dining options at Sounds of Silence pop-up sites and Tali Wiru, an open-air restaurant with menus featuring native ingredients (of the likes of quandongs, finger limes, lemon myrtle, bush pepper, bunya nuts and macadamias) served against the moonlit backdrops of Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
None of this would work, however, without the right infrastructure and Ayers Rock Resort is the complete deal, with accommodation for all pockets from a camping ground and budget lodge to the tented pavilionstyle Longitude 131, recently acquired by Baillie Lodges and about to relaunch with a luxury upgrade.
Priced between are the selfcontained Emu Walk Apartments and pretty Desert Gardens, with its exceptionally good Arnguli Grill restaurant; the name means desert plum and indigenous produce is key to dishes such as an appetiser of kangaroo carpaccio with wattleseed-flavoured oil and wild lime pickle.
A notch above is Sails in the Desert, looking chic after a $43 million revamp of its 228 guestrooms and public areas in conjunction with the resort complex’s extended Indigenous Guest Experience program. Activities include Wakagetti cultural dance performances, spear and boomerang-throwing workshops, dot-painting classes and one-hour shows of the Dreaming story of the eagle, cockatoo and crow at the Mani Mani Indigenous Cultural Theatre.
At the close of last weekend as hundreds of guests prepared to fly or drive home, Darwin Symphony Orchestra conductor Matthew Wood, concertmaster and lead violin Tara Murphy and the orchestral caravanserai were on their way to Alice Springs for a performance at the golf club.
Not missing a beat, NT Tourism Minister Matt Conlan pointed out his government had contributed $110,000 towards the Uluru event, describing its role as ‘‘instrumental’’. It was a wellarticulated piece of spin. ayersrockresort.com.au dso.org.au
James Morrison and William Barton perform at Uluru