The Courier-Mail - QWeekend

Desert awakening

Put this on your bucket list. At the top. It’s a place everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime

- JANE ARMITSTEAD

sand dunes, under the stars of a clear Australian outback sky, we’re dining in what has to be one of the most unique dinner settings in the world. After a threecours­e meal and free flowing drinks, all lights are turned off and we’re given the chance to truly revel in the twinkling beauty above us. The night sky comes alive with a blanket of stars. Most of us city slickers live where there’s too much light pollution to ever see such a sight. But here on the sand dunes of the central Australian desert, the Milky Way is shining brightly.

An astronomer explains constellat­ions and points out visible planets with a laser beam. There’s Jupiter, over there is Mars and just up there is Saturn.

The incredible scene is not lost on us as we nibble on our dessert, sip our drinks and admire what our country is capable of.

You don’t even have to travel oceans to get to Yulara, where you’ll find Uluru. Yulara is largely made up of Ayers Rock Resort, an Aboriginal-owned initiative with accommodat­ion and restaurant­s. While there are some shops, art galleries and a day spa, the main attraction­s are the rock formations within the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, with the entry a 10minute drive away. With the heat burning outside, we take a day to indulge in what the resort has to offer including a massage from the Red Ochre Day Spa and free activities such as the Bush Food Experience, Bush Yarns and Guided Garden Walks. Among the highlights was a didgeridoo workshop where we formed an even deeper appreciati­on for the instrument that soundtrack­s Australia.

With the town still reeling from the pandemic, many restaurant­s and shops are closed, including The Cultural Centre within the national park which is home to an art gallery. But just near the didge workshop two Indigenous women paint in the park. They’re selling their pieces to passers-by and the didge teacher smiles.

“They haven’t been here since March (the start of the pandemic), it’s nice to see them back,” he says.

Each piece has a story to tell, much like the landscape that surrounds us.

On our third day we’re ready to explore Kata Tjuta, the neighbouri­ng rock formation in the national park about 45 minutes’ drive away from Uluru. They’re known as The Olgas in English and are a group of dome-shaped rocks, and among them is the Valley of the Winds walk.

It’s classed as Grade 4 and even though it’s only 7.4km, it’s challengin­g. Guides say allow four hours to complete and while it only took us half this time, it is tough.

Red boulders and scattered piles of rocks create an other-worldly feel. This is the closest I’ll get to walking on Mars.

The ground is unsteady, you’re scaling small rock faces and it can be steep, it’s not to be taken on lightly. But there are options. You can walk to the first lookout, Karu lookout, which is 2.2km return and moderately difficult and turn back or, if you want the full experience, keep going onto Karingana lookout. The further you walk, the less crowds there are. At times, it feels like you have the valley to yourself.

The silence is broken only by the sound of the wind and, of course, the buzzing of the relentless flies. It would be wise to pack a fly net and keep it with you for such times. You look ridiculous but it’s a lifesaver.

For any walk in this area, where the heat is this fierce, it’s suggested to take water breaks every 15 minutes and drink a litre of water for every hour you’re walking. The only issue with this is there are no toilets near this walk, the facilities are only at the sunset viewing area.

With every step you take on this walk, you can feel the magic.

This site is culturally sensitive to the Anangu Aboriginal people. These rock formations hold knowledge and stories that can only be passed down by elders or cultural authoritie­s in person on location to the right people at the right time.

It’s for this reason it’s sacred and the Anangu ask no photos or videos be taken for commercial purposes. The official advice is you can take happy snaps but don’t upload them to social media.

The chance to put down your camera is refreshing. Stop. Take a deep breath and realise where you are. In pre-pandemic times, more than 250,000 visitors a year from across the world would be swarming these sites and perhaps even more after it was last month named in Lonely Planet’s top three best places to see in the world.

But with travel restrictio­ns still in place, it’s the quietest it’s been in years. A blessing and a curse according to some locals. The town needs tourists to survive but many are secretly revelling in the fact they can feel the spirit of Uluru again. It took a pandemic for me to travel through my own country and it’s a place everyone should experience once in their lives.

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