Emily Gap is deserted. Leaning against a warm wall of rock under the shade of a river red gum, gazing at an ancient but incredibly vibrant gallery of rock art just a few metres away from the main road, it's hard to believe that I have this place all to myself. I'd had a similar experience the day before, wandering down the empty river bed to the waterhole at the base of Simpsons Gap, to stand alone beneath the towering cliffs, not another soul in sight.
A desert is deserted by definition I know, but these quite magical places, with their picnic tables, toilets, car parks and walking tracks, are hardly secrets – their photos are plastered in all tourist brochures and they are only a few minutes' drive from Alice Springs on good sealed roads. It's a weekend in the middle of school holidays at the beginning of the tourist season, so you'd expect to see other people here.
Times have been tough in the outback lately, especially for tourism operators. Visitor numbers travelling to central Australia are down more than 7 per cent, according to the latest figures from Tourism Research Australia, and it seems that the high Australian dollar enticing Australians to travel overseas in record numbers, combined with expensive domestic airfares, is largely to blame.
But that may change now that Tiger Airways has resumed flights from Melbourne – and introduced flights from Sydney – to the Red Centre, effectively halving fares on a route previously monopolised by Qantas.
JetStar, part of the Qantas Group, has also announced plans to begin direct flights to Uluru from Sydney next month, replacing the Qantas planes that currently service the route and bringing down airfares in the process.
But affordable flights are not the only reason to head outback this year. Ayers Rock Resort, which was taken over by the Indigenous Land Corporation in 2011, has had a makeover, with A$30 million spent refurbishing the rooms and building a new conference centre at the five-star Sails in the Desert Hotel. The family-friendly Emu Walk Apartments are next. Gone are the days when a trip to Uluru was all about climbing the monolith, snapping a photo or two at sunset and ticking it off your bucket list.
Despite the hysteria on some social media sites, you can still climb the world's largest monolith on days when the weather is right (the climb is closed when temperatures rise above 40 degrees or wind conditions at the summit make it unsafe, which is quite often) but most people now respect the wishes of the traditional owners, who do not want you to climb, choosing to explore the many walks, waterholes and rock art galleries around the base instead. Twenty years ago almost three quarters of visitors to Uluru scaled the rock – now figures hover close to 20 per cent and Parks Australia have indicated that if numbers continue to drop the climb may be permanently closed in the future.
And you can still jostle with the crowds in the car park at the sunset viewing area, but there are now plenty of other options if you would like a more intimate experience.
Ayers Rock Resort has been running the popular Sounds of Silence dinners for many years, taking busloads of diners out to a sand dune to watch the sunset light up Uluru and a buffet dinner under the stars. A new tour, called Tali Wiru, takes it to a new level, catering for just 20 at a time, serving champagne and a four-course dinner with matching wines followed by port and cognac around a fire while listening to indigenous stories.
For early risers there's the new Desert Awakenings Tour, which starts before dawn at the same private dune as Tali Wiru, watching the sun rise over Uluru and Kata Tjuta followed by a guided tour of some of the highlights around the base of Uluru, including Mutitjulu Waterhole. But it's the new focus on cultural activities that is the big change at Ayers Rock Resort. You can now join a dot painting class with Aboriginal artists, learning about what the symbols mean before painting your own life journey on a board. There are new indigenous art markets in the town square, and free daily activities such as guided garden walks, didgeridoo playing, spear and boomerang throwing, storytelling and the daily performance of the Wakagetti Indigenous Dance troupe. They might sound cliched but the dancing and painting workshops in particular have been getting rave reviews from guests. After dark, there's a new star-gazing tour that meets in the town square.
Three hours down the road, Kings Canyon Resort is set to launch a brand new Under a Desert Moon outdoor dining experience in a location away from the bright lights of the resort, with better views of Kings Canyon and star-gazing without any light interference. For those who prefer to have someone else do the driving, Wayoutback Australian Safaris has opened a new safari camp in a remote corner of Kings Creek Station with a hot wood-fired shower, a loo with a view and hard-floored permanent tents, although swagging out around the campfire still seems to be a favourite with most guests. World Expeditions has also just upgraded its campsites on the Larapinta Trail, a six-day guided walk through the West MacDonnell Ranges. These too have hot showers and a heated dining tent and you swag out under the stars on a raised sleeping platform.
Back in Alice Springs, there's a new celebrity in town. Chris "Brolga" Barnes has found unexpected fame since the BBC television series about his animal rescue missions and kangaroo sanctuary, Kangaroo Dundee, became one of the highest rating animal shows in Britain. The 36.5-hectare wildlife sanctuary, established in 2009, was closed for a year during filming, but reopened in April for tours on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. So far it's mainly Brits (and mostly women) who join the 2½-hour sunset tours, excited at the chance to meet Brolga and his mob of orphaned joeys.
"Many of our British guests say they have come to Australia just to see Brolga," says Tahnee Passmore, assistant director of the bus company that operates the tours. "But we are starting to get more inquiries from Aussies since the show was on the ABC here in March." Alice's best lodging option, Lasseters Hotel Casino, is receiving a much-needed facelift. A new hotel wing has just opened, featuring spacious rooms with original artworks from local Aboriginal art centres. Also new is the large resort-style heated pool. Next door, the Crowne Plaza Alice Springs has been rebranded as DoubleTree by Hilton Alice Springs, with renovations planned later this year.
Lee Atkinson was the guest of Tiger Airways, Ayers Rock Resort and Tourism NT.
Beyond the Red Centre: what's new
The Top End
Luxury Cicada Lodge, which is 100 per cent indigenous owned, opened in Nitmiluk National Park near Katherine Gorge in March and offers a range of cultural and sightseeing tours. cicadalodge.com.au.
Further north near Kakadu, Wildman Wilderness Lodge, which offers five-star en suite safari tents and eco-style cabins on the edge of the Mary River Wetlands, has a new Air Boat tour. wildmanwildernesslodge.com.au.
And if all goes to plan, you will soon be able to stay with indigenous families in some of the most spectacular corners of Arnhem Land under plans to host guided tours of Yolngu homelands. The monthly tours, which are expected to start in July and will depart from Nhulunbuy, will allow visitors to witness dance and ceremony, help gather and prepare bush foods, learn about Yolngu art, language and kinship, participate in hunting and fishing expeditions and visit locations rarely seen by outsiders. lirrwitourism.com.au.
The newest luxury lodging option in the Kimberley, Berkeley River Lodge is accessible only by sea plane from Kununurra. Twenty suites sit atop a coastal dune with views of the Timor Sea and the mouth of the Berkeley River. berkeleyriver.com.au.
For those exploring the Kimberley by car, long-time favourite El Questro is now accessible by a newly sealed road from Kununurra to Emma Gorge (the last two kilometres are still unsealed, but fine for two-wheel-drive vehicles) and has a new lookout over Chamberlain Gorge called Buddy's Point (in memory of local El Questro legend Buddy Tyson, who died in 2011). The resort also opened new ultra-luxe cliff-side retreats at the Homestead last year, each offering uninterrupted views of Chamberlain Gorge. elquestro.com.au.
The new Age of Dinosaurs Museum on the outskirts of Winton (179 kilometres north-west of Longreach) houses the bones of three dinosaurs found in the area. The star attraction is Australovenator wintonensis, found on a local property in 2006. Nicknamed Banjo (Banjo Patterson wrote Waltzing Matilda while visiting friends near Winton in 1895), it's the largest carnivorous dinosaur and the most complete theropod skeleton yet found in Australia. Also on display are the bones of the 15-metre long plant-eating Matilda (Diamantinasaurus matildae) and an as yet scientifically unnamed sauropod (nicknamed Wade) found in 2010. australianageofdinosaurs.com.
In Longreach, the Stockman's Hall of Fame will be holding the inaugural Outback Horse and Heritage Expo in July, a new four-day annual event showcasing the three uniquely Australian horse sports of campdraft, polocrosse and bronco branding, as well as the APRA Queensland State Championship Rodeo. outbackheritage.com.au.
Also in Longreach, Kinnon & Co, which runs very popular Cobb & Co stagecoach rides, has just launched a new sound and light show about cattle duffer Captain Starlight, a rather grand finale to the sunset cruise aboard the Thomson River. kinnonandco.com.au.
Explore the Gulf Country on a new three- or four-day guided tour from Mount Isa to Lawn Hill National Park, departing weekly. adelsgrove.com.au.
If you're looking for the next big thing you'll find it in Lightning Ridge. "Stanley the Big Bird" is an 18-metre-high emu made from scrap metal, including three Volkswagen bodies and rusting satellite dishes. It was officially unveiled on May 4. A new "geotourism" operator based in Balranald is specialising in tours to Mungo National Park and the floodplains and wetlands of Yanga National Park. outbackgeoadventures.com.au.
For those on an outback road trip, there's new riverfront caravan and camping accommodation available between Cobar and Broken Hill, three kilometres from historic Wilcannia, called Warrawong on the Darling. warrawongonthedarling.com.au.
Air Wilpena has a new five-night photography tour with photographer Peter Elfes, which includes two days of touring the Flinders Ranges by air and two days by four-wheel-drive. airwilpena.com.au.
Sleep under the stars in an old horse-drawn carriage in Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safari's new "Swagon" accommodation – it has a small outdoor deck and a queen double mattress inside. gawlerrangessafaris.com.
Tiger Airways has four return flights each week to Alice Springs from both Sydney and Melbourne. Fares are $119 (Sydney) and $109 (Melbourne) each way, but check the website for specials. tigerairways.com.
Rooms at Sails in the Desert start at $400 a night. Other accommodation options range from $45 for a non-powered camping site or $198 for a budget room without bathroom at Outback Pioneer Hotel, to $340 for a one-bedroom Emu Walk Apartment or a standard room at Desert Gardens Hotel. ayersrockresort.com.au.
In Alice Springs the new premium rooms at Lasseters Hotel Casino start at $160. lhc.com.au/hotel.
Sounds of Silence dinner $185; Tali Wiru dinner $295; Desert Awakenings Tour $163, $126 kids; Astro stargazing tours $39.50, kids under 15 free. ayersrockresort.com.au.
Maraku Arts Dot Painting Workshops $69 adults, $35 kids, book at your hotel.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park entry fee $25 (kids under 16 free) and valid for three days. environment.gov.au/parks/uluru.
Four-day Wayoutback camping safaris priced from $875. wayoutback.com.au.
Larapinta Trail from $2195. worldexpeditions.com.
Kangaroo Sanctuary tours, $99, $59 kids. kangaroosanctuary.com.
- Sydney Morning Herald