Australia's beating heart of stone

JENNY TABAKOFF
Last updated 05:00 30/07/2013

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In the early 1970s, tourists who had rattled 440km south from Alice Springs would pitch their tents at the foot of Uluru or stay in Nissen huts with scampering mice.

People ran up the rock, signed a book at the top, grabbed the obligatory sunrise and sunset shots, and bought "I've climbed Ayers Rock" t-shirts.

All fun, but fairly uncomprehending of Aboriginal culture (aside from bargain bark paintings and boomerangs bought on the roadside).

From the mid-1980s, visitors stayed in the new resort town of Yulara, outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Most people still climbed the rock, but left with an idea of its central place in Aboriginal culture.

Today's visitors get a deeper cultural experience, with plenty of opportunities to meet and mix with indigenous people and learn about everything from boomerangs to bush tucker.

Tigerair's recently relaunched flights to Alice Springs are a great chance to experience an attraction that's at Australia's geographic and cultural heart. And Uluru rewards a stay of a few days.

Visitor accommodation is at Yulara, in the multiple facets of Voyages Ayers Rock Resort. Yulara is about 20km from Uluru, meaning its vistas of the rock and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) are dramatic but distant.

To get a sense of Uluru's size and spirituality you'll want to get up close - and that means paying $28.6 to enter the national park. Rather than climb, take the 9.4km stroll around Uluru's base, taking in myriad Creation stories.

Tourists once trailed up Uluru's steep chain in an unbroken line. Only a fraction of today's visitors climb, daunted by the angle and signs explaining the indigenous locals prefer people to stay at ground level. When temperatures rocket or winds blow, the climb is closed.

It's not as killjoy as it sounds. The ascent was only ever a small part of this remarkable place. Uluru and Yulara do a good job balancing local sensitivities and visitor expectations.

Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Indigenous Land Council, manages Yulara. The accommodation options, off a compact ring-road, include the campground, family apartments and hotels including the five-star Sails in the Desert. (The ultimate, exclusive luxury of Longitude 131 is set apart, in splendid isolation.)

Voyages' indigenous employment program enhances the Uluru experience. Guests staying anywhere in Yulara can access a swag of free activities, most led by Aboriginal experts.

Take a boomerang- and spear-throwing class; stroll out at night to view the Milky Way through telescopes and hear star-stories; or watch dances performance by talented indigenous men. (Join in - and discover how hard it is to be an emu.)

You can pay to do a dot-painting class with a local Anangu artist, setting down your own story using traditional symbols. Maruku Arts sells indigenous artworks, including punu (desert animals carved from wood and incised with burnt-wire decoration), in Yulara's town square and at the park's cultural centre.

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Book a dawn camel-train ride with Uluru Camel Tours. That photo of you at dawn, atop a swaying, snorting steed, is bound to be the best of your entire holiday. And the cameleer who walks beside as the loosely tethered camels lope through the red dunes, is a font of knowledge about local flora and fauna.

(If you'd prefer your feet to be on the ground when Uluru and Kata Tjuta turn from black to pale pink and red, book the "Desert Awakenings" experience, which will whisk you to a secluded dune for one of nature's greatest light shows, with breakfast and billy tea thrown in.)

Whatever you do, don't sleep in: Uluru and Kata Tjuta are unmissable at sunrise. The middle of the day is when to catch up on sleep, cool off in a pool, or enjoy some art. (Yulara has an artist-in-residence program, and hotel foyers double as galleries.) Alternatively, have a facial or massage in the hushed luxury of the Red Ochre Spa, at Sails In The Desert.

As afternoon draws to a close, drag yourself away from the pools and pampering. Uluru also demands to be seen at sunset, when it dims from fiery red to purple and black.

For a memorable occasion (think significant birthday or proposal), there's the miracle of fine wining and dining in the desert with "Tali Wiru". It begins with champagne to the sound of a didgeridoo as Uluru and Kata Tjuta glow red in the sunset.

It ends with a star talk, storytelling and cognac or port by the fire. In between, you'll enjoy the sort of food and service you'd find in a three-hat city restaurant, delivered by white-jacketed fairies on a sand dune.

It's a wonderful way to wind up your Uluru stay. Now you're ready to hit the road for the rest of Central Australia: Kata Tjuta, Standley Chasm, Kings Canyon, Simpsons Gap and dirt roads that wind through a Namatjira landscape of ancient mountain ranges.

It's all there, waiting for you. Uluru is just the beginning.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Tigerair has direct flights to Alice Springs from Sydney and Melbourne. Uluru is about 440km from Alice Springs, but the speed limit in the Northern Territory is 130km/h and the roads are straight and good. Hire a car in Alice or book a tour to visit Uluru.

A three-day pass to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park costs $28.6, payable at the entrance or added to tour costs. Entry is free to children under 16.

STAYING THERE: Temperatures in Central Australia soar in summer. Daytime is most comfortable from April to November, but you'll need warm clothes at night.

All visitors stay at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara. Each of the accommodation options (Sails in the Desert, Desert Gardens, Emu Walk Apartments, Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge, and the campground) has a swimming pool.

PLAYING THERE: Guests staying anywhere in Yulara can access the resort town's wide range of free activities.

Uluru Camel Tours cost between $86 and $136.4 per person depending on the tour and time of day.

The writer was a guest of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, Tigerair and Tourism NT.

- AAP

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