What can you use as a dinner plate and toilet paper?

NEDA VANOVAC
Last updated 15:28 18/07/2014
Uluru
Tourism Australia

Dining at Uluru can be a magical experience.

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Outback

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What can you use as both a dinner plate and toilet paper?

Paperbark, says indigenous chef Mark Olive.

"I call it the outback alfoil," he explains.

"Also, if you go camping and get stuck for loo paper, it's very soft."

It's baking hot outside in the midday desert heat, but inside the Ayers Rock Resort I'm marvelling at the versatility of native Australian herbs and spices, learning a thing or two about trees and plants I'd never considered.

Later that night, Olive will serve up lemon myrtle barramundi wrapped and baked in paperbark, and I will marvel all over again at the complexity of flavours to be found in the outback.

Australian herbs and spices have been a huge hit in Asia, America and Canada, yet I'd never tasted them, and Olive wants Australia to wholeheartedly embrace what can be found in its own backyard.

Okay, so the central Australian desert might not be on the doorstep for most people, but a visit to Ayers Rock Resort is a great crash course in foods indigenous people from all around the country have been using for thousands of years.

I try black wattleseeds, which taste like coffee and chocolate and do well in desserts.

There's a complexity to the flavours of native spices that boggles my palate - native thyme, for example, manages to smell like both mint and oregano.

Native basil makes a good pesto, saltbush and pepperleaf are good for roasting and encrusting nuts, and I discover that finger limes are nerve-pinchingly bitter.

Quandong, or native peach "sounds like a latex product", Olive says cheekily, but makes a delicious jam, which was once very popular in the 1940s and 1950s.

I'm so wrapped up in the food I almost forget to raise my eyes to the sight I've travelled several thousand kilometres to see: Uluru.

That evening we drive for 25 minutes along the flat and winding Lasseter Highway from Yulara, the closest town to the rock, and into the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to sip on champagne and take in the subtly changing colours of the monolith as the sun drops and we dine on a three-course meal, while musician Shellie Morris sings and shares stories.

If you're still wondering what else there is to do but circle the rock, you shouldn't be - there's enough on offer to keep me occupied for a week.

One afternoon we visit Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta, Anangu for "many heads", reflecting the 36 domes that make up the uneven formation.

Often overshadowed by Uluru, about 35km west across the park, Mt Olga, the highest dome of Kata Tjuta, is actually 200 metres taller, and, to my eye, more impressive.

Stillness is something you have to embrace in a landscape this extreme, and as the heat begins to wane late in the afternoon we stroll along the gorge.

It's quiet and empty as we approach a thicket of spearwood at its centre, learning how indigenous men attached spearheads using kangaroo tendons as twine and spinifex resin as glue.

It's a reminder that this landscape only seems unforgiving to the untrained eye, but is full of tools for survival if you only know where to look.

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Although there's plenty to keep you busy for a few days in the national park, those who want to see a little more need only hop in the car and head three hours up the Red Centre Way to visit Kings Canyon in the Watarrka National Park.

We leave at dawn and seem to float across an unchanging landscape of stark silhouettes, acacias and spiky clumps of spinifex, and the desert oaks that look like they were plucked from one of Dr Seuss's acid-tinged lands, resembling a feather duster, or perhaps a closed umbrella.

Trees with electrified branches dot the terrain, a reminder of the fearsome, explosive power of desert lightning.

Lucky, then, for the eucalyptus-scented broccoli-like heath myrtle, clumped all over to act as a natural firebreak.

Unseasonably heavy rain earlier in the year means the semi-arid central Australian desert is as lush as it ever gets, and greener than you would expect.

Green, red, and blue is the theme of this land, especially at Kings Canyon itself, an enormous gaping gorge whose soaring 100-metre red walls are a reminder of how insignificant we are as we hike the rim.

The park is nearly deserted and the walk is beautifully silent, punctuated only by birdsong, the slide of gravel beneath my feet and my jagged breaths as I suck in another lungful of that dry, dry air.

There's not a cloud to be seen as I scurry up to a lookout across the Lost City, a network of beehive-shaped rock domes that offers dizzying views of the canyon's towering vertical walls.

I climb down along wooden bridges and ladders to the Garden of Eden oasis, a sheltered waterhole surrounded by ferns and centuries-old cyads that I have all to myself, before climbing back up to the canyon rim, looking down at collapsed rocks larger than my house.

Heading back to town, a stop at the quirky homesteads in the area will remind you that the outback continually vacillates between the sublime and the bizarre as do the characters that call it home.

Kings Creek Station, four times the size of Singapore, is home to Snowy the white camel, who once mated with a tent, and Bruiser the donkey that bumps into tourists on their way to gorge on hearty cooked meals served in a wooden shed.

At Curtin Springs' Wayside Inn, 84km from the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Mongrel the emu roams freely across the yards while all manner of native birds chirp and burble in an aviary out the back, surrounded by steer and camel skulls.

Out the back of the station stands the table-top Mt Conner, which has fooled more than a few into believing they've reached Uluru.

But that's central Australia: right when you think you've got it all worked out, it sneaks up on you, just like a head-butting donkey.           

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, 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, as well as offering a number of tours. Find out more at ayersrockresort.com.au.          

 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 (ulurucycles.com) or by camel (ulurucameltours.com.au), just for starters.

 AAT Kings runs a long daytrip to Kings Canyon from Yulara, taking in Kings Creek Station and Curtin Springs. It can also arrange for bus transfers to Alice Springs. guidedtours.aatkings.com.au    

The writer travelled courtesy of Voyages Indigenous Tourism and AAT Kings.           

- AAP

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