GENOA: RICH LITERARY PAST
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