Dwarfed by Uluru

NEDA VANOVAC
Last updated 15:32 06/06/2014

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The Milky Way is spread out, a dazzling blanket far over my head and extending as far as the eye can see on this cool desert night, my head tilted so far back to drink it all in that my seat teeters dangerously on the red dirt of the sand dune.

"In the observable galaxy scientists estimate there are more galaxies than there are grains of sand on this planet," our astronomy guide tells us.

"If you're not feeling small yet, let me assure you: you are."

Oh I'm feeling small, all right.

Out in the night of central Australia, I feel dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape around me, and its not just the galaxy overhead that's doing it.

I suspect it might be the vastness of Australia's arid heart, spanning the bottom half of the Northern Territory.

Or it could be that as the sun was setting I could see both Uluru and Kata Tjuta peeping above the low rolling dunes, the red rock monolith and the "many heads" of what were formerly known as the Olgas, overlooking a landscape that is stark but never dull, as far as the eye can see.

In this place you're confronted by time, from the stars billions of years old above you to the earth hundreds of millions of years old beneath your feet.

And no matter how many times you see the rock on TV, nothing beats making the pilgrimage to see it up close - and it is indeed a pilgrimage, for the sheer distance covered no matter where you come from (Alice Springs, the closest big town, is 460km away), and the stillness of the desert no matter which way you turn.

Like an elephant's hide, what from a distance seems like a smooth, solidified cascade of rock is in fact craggy and weathered, the outdoor exposure turning its natural arkose grey sandstone that famous orange.

Over several days I approach the rock in as many different ways as possible and each time I'm left breathless: first the new, on the back of a Harley-Davidson during a leisurely midday ride through the desert, the dry wind whipping at my hair.

Then the old, on the back of a camel in the pre-dawn darkness, trudging through the sand as the sun slowly rises in front of our convoy. Things haven't changed much in the past century or so since Afghan cameleers traversed this landscape with their "ships of the desert" accompanying expeditions across uncharted landscapes, eventually giving their name to the Ghan railway that runs straight up through the heart of the country from Adelaide to Darwin.

In fact, the pre-dawn darkness quickly becomes familiar as I learn that Uluru is best experienced in the early morning and at sunset, when the colour of the rock changes most dramatically and when temperatures are still low, before the mercury soars at midday.

One morning we head out to sit by a campfire atop a sand dune - a dune that has shifted very little in the past 30,000 years due to the tufts of spinifex grass anchoring it - and watching the inky black line of the horizon lighten degree by degree as the sky is tinged with orange before the sun explodes upwards, so brilliantly white you have to look away.

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We drink tea and eat the best - and only - bacon and egg damper sandwich I've ever tasted as the birds begin to trill, the sand still cold under our feet.

During the day, it's a relief to return to the resort and take shelter from the relentless sun, sitting in the poolside garden shade at the newly-refurbished Sails in the Desert, where guest rooms back right out onto those red sand dunes.

There's plenty of ways to while away your time here: as well as more than 60 tours that take in Uluru and Kata Tjuta from every conceivable angle, the resort offers a number of free daily activities, from indigenous art markets, Aboriginal cultural and historical storytelling sessions, guided garden walks, and dance and music workshops.

And yet I just can't keep away from that rock.

There's a track that runs around it so it can be examined from every side, but as the sun rises ever higher, I opt instead for a short walk to the Mutitjulu waterhole, home to the Wanampi ancestral watersnake.

The wind dies off and suddenly it's very, very still, and finally I hear that silence I've been waiting for.

I recall the words of Anangu traditional owner Vincent Nipper, who I met in this place just a few days earlier.

"The spirit is alive here," he said.

"Mutitjulu waterhole is a healing place. If you go in there and are able to sit in silence ... you will find part of that spirit strength will enter into you."

A hush comes over my group as we watch the sun peep through the crevices above the waterhole, inching higher and higher.

Whether the spirit entered me or not, I don't know, but if your eyes are open and you listen to that silence, leaving Uluru unchanged is an impossibility.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly directly into Ayers Rock Airport at Yulara, the closest town to Uluru, from Sydney, and from June 29, Jetstar will introduce a new four times weekly return service from Melbourne.

Qantas operates daily flights to Yulara via Alice Springs from Sydney, and also offers direct flights from Cairns and Alice Springs. All three airlines offer connecting flights from most capital cities to Yulara.

Yulara is about 460km south-west of Alice Springs.

STAYING THERE: Ayers Rock Resort manages all accommodation available at Yulara, from campsites and dormitories to four-and five-star hotels and serviced apartments. Find out more at ayersrockresort.com.au.

It also offers a number of tours to the rock, such as Desert Awakenings by the campfire in the early morning.

PLAYING THERE: You can hire a car at the airport to explore the region at your leisure, or choose from one of over 60 trips to take you to Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon, on motorcycle or by camel , just for starters.

The writer travelled as a guest of Voyages Indigenous Tourism.

- AAP

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