Rock and loll

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

Uluru looms on the hori­zon, a great bul­bous boul­der seem­ingly painted by artists around the clock, pink and mauve in early light, red­den­ing at sun­set, still vis­i­ble as a shad­owy out­line on a deep-black night. This is a rare in­doors view of the mono­lith from one of the Deluxe Rock View cat­e­gory gue­strooms at Desert Gar­dens. This 4.5star prop­erty is part of the greater Voy­ages Ay­ers Rock Re­sort where Sails in the Desert, the largest and most ex­pen­sive ac­com­mo­da­tion, com­plete with the fra­grant sanctuary of Red Ochre Spa, steals the lime­light. But if you want to rock around the clock, as it were, then these top Desert Gar­dens cham­bers are the show-steal­ers.

The 218-room ho­tel has had a re­cent re­fresh and while the scat­tered ac­com­mo­da­tion has a mo­tel feel across two-storey blocks with out­door walk­ways, the ex­te­rior colours of ochre and or­ange sand echo the land­scape and the gue­strooms are light and spa­cious. Bed linen is crisp and white, there’s good over­head light­ing to read while propped on qual­ity pil­lows, a big flat-screen tele­vi­sion and seat­ing for two on the cov­ered deck. Stor­age and lay­out work well and cush­ions and throws made by cul­tural co-oper­a­tives add jolts of bright red and green. The Wiru toi­letries smell of bush botan­i­cals; the ex­fo­li­at­ing soap is made with wat­tle­seed.

But ly­ing down is not what you do in the red cen­tre so it’s up and out on sun­rise and sun­set ex­cur­sions, even such pur­suits as camel trekking, Har­ley-David­son rides and Seg­way rolling. Tour buses big and small, in­clud­ing re­pur­posed mil­i­tary-look­ing ve­hi­cles, pull up in lines at the porte-cochere to gather guests.

Those tourists with 4WDs, typ­i­cally stained with red dust, set off on more leisurely timeta­bles, but all tracks lead to Bruce Munro’s ex­tra­or­di­nary Field of Light in­stal­la­tion, orig­i­nally “planted” for a year’s run just out­side the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Na­tional Park but now ex­tended for a sec­ond sea­son, to March 31. There are early view­ings (set that alarm for 5am) with op­er­a­tor AAT-Kings from a ridge plat­form just be­fore dawn and then walk among the rows of more than 50,000 frosted-glass spheres, set on stems, as the sun rises and the sky light­ens.

I come across a se­cu­rity chap, padded in so many lay­ers he looks as if he’s wear­ing an in­flat­able sumo suit, and re­mark it is pretty cold at 4C. “You should have been here at 2am,” he replies with a grin. It was mi­nus two, love.”

For a sun­set peek, the best op­tion is the year-round, open-air Sounds of Si­lence din­ner, with didgeri­doo play­ers, a “star talker” on hand to de­code plan­ets and gal­ax­ies and time to wan­der around Munro’s im­mer­sive tri­umph.

Al­though Field of Light is not a fea­ture of the Tali Wiru din­ner ex­pe­ri­ence, this is the creme de la creme, limited to about 20 in one sit­ting from April 1-Oc­to­ber 15, and with Uluru ahead and the domes of Kata Tjuta (the Ol­gas) be­hind, the scenery is as­ton­ish­ing. Katu Tjuta means “many heads” in the Anangu lan­guage of the Western Desert, but our guide prefers the idea of Homer Simp­son ly­ing down, an im­age I now can­not shake.

You could be served a bar­be­cued snag out here and it would taste spe­cial but, wait, from a bush kitchen comes a four-course menu with matched wine, sil­ver cloches and su­perla­tive ser­vice. Add heat­ing and fleecy pon­chos, a stargaz­ing talk and then, around a camp­fire, co­gnac ap­pears and so does indige­nous ranger Leon in short sleeves (we are all wrapped like co­coons) to demon­strate how to throw a woomera and use a mulga-wood shield.

Din­ing at Desert Gar­dens is at the re­designed and groovy Man­gata Bistro, named for the Pit­jan­t­jat­jara word for desert quan­dong, and fea­tures such new-found tip­ples as a break­fast mar­tini made with green ant gin and mar­malade jam.

Town Square is a 10-minute flat walk past sis­ter prop­erty Emu Walk Apart­ments, which has also been re­furbed and fea­tures fab­u­lous emu-feather mu­rals and framed art by Ray­mond Wal­ters Ja­panangka.

Ca­sual eat­ing op­tions in this cen­tral meet­ing place in­clude Geckos Cafe, the cutely named Ay­ers Wok Noo­dle Bar and Ku­lata Cafe, staffed by trainees from the Na­tional Indige­nous Train­ing Academy.

CHECK­LIST

Desert Gar­dens, 1 Yu­lara Drive, Yu­lara, North­ern Ter­ri­tory 0872; (02) 8296 8010; ay­er­srock­re­sort.com.au.

TAR­IFF: From about $370 a night in­clud­ing break­fast for min­i­mum three-night stays; in­cludes free air­port trans­fers and Wi-Fi ac­cess. Some gue­strooms face the gar­denset swim­ming pool.

GET­TING THERE: Qan­tas and Virgin Australia have fre­quent con­nec­tions to Ay­ers Rock air­port; about 4½ hours by road from Alice Springs.

CHECK­ING IN:

Fam­i­lies and cou­ples; mix of Aus­tralian and in­ter­na­tional guests.

WHEEL­CHAIR AC­CESS: Yes, to ground-floor rooms; ramps in public area.

BED­TIME READ­ING: The Uluru Code by Ernest Dempsey; The Song­lines by Bruce Chatwin.

STEP­PING OUT: Check Min­giri Arts in the lobby for de­light­ful sou­venirs such as painted wooden Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions (platy­pus, bandi­coot, koala and oth­ers) from the Artists of Yuen­dumu; or buy your gue­stroom’s hand­painted and em­broi­dered cush­ion cov­ers de­signed by Daisy­bell Ku­lyuru for Bet­ter World Arts. The fee for

Many of the ac­tiv­i­ties for guests of all the re­sorts are free and in­clude talks by artists in res­i­dence at Win­tjiri Arts & Mu­seum; bush yarns, craft mar­kets and danc­ing on se­lected days; and ranger-guided Mala Walks that set off from the carpark at Uluru. I rec­om­mend an es­corted morn­ing Gar­den Walk from Desert Gar­dens or Sails in the Desert (or pick up a DIY pocket guide­book at the re­cep­tion desks) to learn about bush tucker and medicine.

Wan­der amid ghost gums, rough-barked coolibahs and yel­low-flow­er­ing in­un­tji (grey cas­sia) and then head to the lawned area of Town Square for a Bush Food Ex­pe­ri­ence class with indige­nous guest ac­tiv­i­ties am­bassa- pri­vate ve­hi­cles to ac­cess Uluru-Kata Tjuta Na­tional Park is $25, valid for three con­sec­u­tive days and pur­chased at the en­try sta­tion.

BRICKBATS: Poor wa­ter pres­sure in shower, no ex­trac­tor fan or hooks in bath­room.

BOU­QUETS: Smart young staff, many of whom have been trained at the Na­tional Indige­nous Train­ing Academy; Voy­ages says around 37 per cent of em­ploy­ees are indige­nous and the short-term aim is for at least 50 per cent. A free shut­tle de­parts about ev­ery 20 min­utes from Desert Gar­dens around the re­sort com­plex and to the camel farm. dor Leroy Lester and a re­sort chef. Lester de­mys­ti­fies indige­nous seeds, spices, fruits rich in vi­ta­min C and herbs, many of which are lib­er­ally used here in dishes high­lighted on menus with a nut and seed sym­bol and in mixed drinks such as con­coc­tions based on bush plums and honey. His col­league passes around sam­ples of de­li­cious wat­tle­seed short­bread and dabs of rosella jam.

Ex­ec­u­tive head chef Vanessa Grace speaks pas­sion­ately of the new Bush Tucker Jour­neys pro­gram to in­te­grate and in­fuse indige­nous in­gre­di­ents into her cui­sine — look for kan­ga­roo slid­ers in buns sprin­kled with toasted wat­tle­seeds, a hum­mus also made with wat­tle­seed and driz­zled with le­mon myr­tle-scented olive oil, and a bush dukkah of pep­per­berry, macadamia nut and salt­bush. Bush toma­toes, wild figs and honey gre­vil­lea are also key in­clu­sions on Grace’s menus. So, here’s the recipe — eat well, walk and won­der, sleep like a rock.

Su­san Kurosawa was a guest of Voy­ages.

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