Rock and loll
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.
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.
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.