Thomas Marks

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - GRAHAM ERBACHER

Ev­ery hol­i­day, don’t you just hope for the “how dif­fer­ent is this from what I’d usu­ally be do­ing” mo­ment — the wow fac­tor? Try this on for size: I am sit­ting on a camel and we are wait­ing for the sun to rise in a near cloud­less sky. It’s brisk and in the soft pre-dawn light all around me is a fresh olive green. Hey, this is the Red Cen­tre (doesn’t that mean desert?) and as the light strength­ens so does the vi­brant colour of the sand, but it has been a wet­ter than nor­mal sea­son and the lo­cals say the land­scape is at its liveli­est green in 20 years.

The sun is up. Scan the panorama from our dune van­tage point and take in ma­jes­tic Uluru (Ay­ers Rock), said to be more than 600 mil­lion years old, and its more ir­reg­u­larly shaped com­pan­ion Kata Tjuta (the Ol­gas). Al­low me the proper use of that over­worked word, awe­some. Our camel train is stock still as we ab­sorb the mo­ment and click away. My dro­madery is a beau­ti­ful beast with dole­ful eyes; he chews away through­out the Uluru Camel Tours out­ing, but I have heard about the di­ges­tive habits of camels and their pro­jec­tile vom­its (mis­un­der­stood as bad-tem­pered spit­ting), so I am glad he’s on his best be­hav­iour. He has a proud her­itage, a de­scen­dant of the an­i­mals brought here from the 1840s to the end of the cen­tury to do the heavy lift­ing for out­back ex­pe­di­tions (Burke and Wills’s be­ing per­haps the most no­table) and white set­tle­ment. They were tended by “Afghan” cameleers (al­though of­ten from what is now Pak­istan) or Ghans, whose im­mi­gra­tion ended with the in­tro­duc­tion of the White Aus­tralia Pol­icy in the early 1900s. There are loads of in­ter­est­ing sto­ries, pictures and mem­o­ra­bilia at the Uluru Camel Farm.

I am on a short break to Uluru, my first visit rather late in life. I’m pleased it’s hap­pen­ing now; if I’d been here decades ago I’m sure I would have seen the Rock as a ge­o­log­i­cal for­ma­tion, fan­tas­ti­cally beau­ti­ful, but just that. In re­cent years much en­deav­our has been made to place Uluru in its cul­tural con­text and my visit is the richer for it. I know I am skim­ming the sur­face of the sto­ries of the tra­di­tional own­ers, the Anangu peo­ple, but I come away with in­sights and a de­sire to learn more.

On an­other morn­ing (ex­pect starts be­fore 5am), I am on a Desert Awak­en­ings ex­pe­ri­ence with tea and damper at dawn on a dune and the mag­nif­i­cent vista. Guide Sere- na, like many of the staff here, is young, en­thu­si­as­tic and knowl­edge­able. As we head in our enor­mous off-road van to­ward the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Na­tional Park Ser­ena talks about the ge­ol­ogy, veg­e­ta­tion and wildlife of our sur­round­ings. And as we reach Uluru for a cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion she tells us Anangu sto­ries be­hind shapes on the rock sur­face (al­though th­ese are selected sto­ries; some oth­ers are “not mine to tell”, she says).

We stop at the rock climb­ing trail. A sign says, “Please don’t climb. We, the Anangu tra­di­tional own­ers, have this to say. Uluru is sa­cred to our cul­ture. It is a place of great knowl­edge. Un­der our tra­di­tional law climb­ing is not per­mit­ted.” But vis­i­tors do, al­though on this par­tic­u­lar day the climb is closed be­cause of high winds. In any case, one look at the steep as­cent and de­scent on sheer sand­stone with only a chain to hold on to, makes me think, well, you’d have rocks in your head to try.

We pass the old, closed camp­ing ground from which Azaria Cham­ber­lain dis­ap­peared (like the rest of us, I am cu­ri­ous to see it) and stop at the Mu­titjulu wa­ter­hole with its an­cient rock paint­ings. The tour ends at the cul­tural cen­tre which, in its ar­chi­tec­tural pods, has great his­tor­i­cal

dis­plays and of­fers an op­por­tu­nity to meet lo­cal artists, watch them at work and buy their pieces (I’d like to be more ad­ven­tur­ous but set­tle on an ex­quis­ite book­mark).

I have been stay­ing at Voy­ages Ay­ers Rock Re­sort’s top-line Sails in the Desert ho­tel. Other re­sort ac­com­mo­da­tion of­fer­ings in­clude the newly re­fur­bished Desert Gar­dens Ho­tel, Emu Walk Apart­ments, Out­back Pi­o­neer Ho­tel & Lodge and Ay­ers Rock Camp­ground. My gue­stroom is spa­cious and com­fort­able and I adore the splotches and swirls of the Parched Earth car­pet in­spired by the art of Fred Wil­liams.

The re­sort has cre­ated in­dige­nous cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences for guests and runs a col­lege to train young Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in hos­pi­tal­ity skills and man­age­ment.

Bush tucker is the theme of the mo­ment. Ex­ec­u­tive head chef Vanessa Grace greets my group on ar­rival for a pri­vate tast­ing of in­dige­nous-in­spired dishes avail­able on menus at restau­rants across the re­sort. A kan­ga­roo ter­rine is a taste sen­sa­tion, but so too are the flavours of the bush plum, bush tomato and quan­dong.

I am part, too, of a small group “road-test­ing” a new, free Bush Food Ex­pe­ri­ence for re­sort guests, of­fer­ing tast­ing and ed­u­ca­tion on na­tive in­gre­di­ents and a cook­ing demon­stra­tion (one-more-thanks wat­tle­seed cook­ies). I’m a wat­tle­seed con­vert now and love a healthy sprin­kling of it on ice cream, with its nutty, cof­fee taste.

Aunty Ali­son pre­pares a witch­etty grub, but I baulk at try­ing it and then am an­noyed by my timid­ity.

Other daily free ex­pe­ri­ences in­clude bush yarns at the Cir­cle of Sand, dance per­for­mances, gar­den walks and as­tron­omy ses­sions.

There are two more “wow” mo­ments of the stay and both are sun­set din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. The first is A Night at Field of Light. With views across to Uluru as the sun sets, we en­joy a glass or two of bub­bly and then move on to a three-course, bush tucker-in­spired buf­fet. The land­scape is trans­formed after dark by the light in­stal­la­tion by Bri­tish artist Bruce Munro, a sea of 50,000 so­lar-pow­ered glass spheres through which we stroll after a fine din­ner.

Then, on my last night, it’s the sea­son launch of the Tali Wiru (beau­ti­ful dune) Voy­ages Sig­na­ture Out­door Din­ing Ex­pe­ri­ence (un­til mid-Oc­to­ber). A didgeri­doo wel­come her­alds sil­ver ser­vice un­der the stars of the uni­verse (with as­tron­omy talk). Think More­ton Bay bug with pick­led muntries (a na­tive cran­berry), wal­nut emul­sion and coastal greens. Or wagyu beef fil­let, salt baked cele­riac, pa­per­bark smoked onion and mush­room. And rosella and ly­chee petit gateaux. All ac­com­pa­nied by selected wines.

The staff is friendly and in­for­ma­tive. We are kilo­me­tres from any­where in the cen­tre of the con­ti­nent. The ex­er­cise is a culi­nary mar­vel. There’s just time for a nightcap Desert Sparkle cock­tail, us­ing lemon myr­tle and desert lime, back at my ho­tel, or an Aus­tralian Green Ant Gin at the chic new bar in Desert Gar­dens.

Uluru or Ay­ers Rock, The Ol­gas or Kata Tjuta? Lo­cals seem re­laxed about the name choice. Uluru seems to roll off Aus­tralians’ tongues th­ese days. English-born Sir Henry Ay­ers was a pre­mier of South Aus­tralia in the 1860-70s. Olga of The Ol­gas (named in 1872) was Queen of Wurt­tem­berg, who had just cel­e­brated 25 years of mar­riage to King Charles I of Wurt­tem­berg. It’s a com­pli­cated story. Start prac­tis­ing your Kata Tjuta.

We are kilo­me­tres from any­where in the cen­tre of the con­ti­nent. The ex­er­cise is a culi­nary mar­vel

Uluru camel train, top; scenic stop on the road to Kata Tjuta, above left; Ter­race Room at Sails in the Desert, Ay­ers Rock Re­sort, above

Uluru’s Field of Light, top; out­door din­ing over­look­ing the light in­stal­la­tion, above; bush tucker, above right

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