G'day from Australia's Red Center! Last week when we left off from Melbourne (here's a link to the archives), I promised we'd head to a very special, remote place. Now I make good as we pay a visit to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park!
Uluru/Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta are two huge sandstone formations in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (over 311,000 acres). Fifteen miles apart, they are located almost smack in the center of Australia (here's a map), in the Northern Territory. (Australia is made up of six states -- New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia -- and two territories: Australia Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.) Australia is only slightly smaller than the continental United States, but has way fewer people: only 20 million, compared to our 300 million. That's one attribute that makes Australia so amazing. Keep in mind, there are so few people not only because it's so far from the rest of the world, but also because most of Australia's interior is uninhabitable.
Why do I keep writing Uluru/Ayers Rock? Uluru is the rock's original name. It has no real meaning; it's just a family name. It comes from the local aboriginal people (who refer to themselves as Anangu), who are natives Australians - similar to American Indians. Archaeological work suggests that Aboriginal people have lived in this area for at least 22,000 years. Just like Native Americans, aboriginal communities from each region have different names. The aboriginals of the central Australian desert are traditionally called the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people (say that three times fast!). When surveyor William Gosse first visited the rock in 1873, he named it after Sir Henry Ayers, the chief secretary of nearby South Australia (he had a mad crush on Ayers' daughter). In the early 1900s the Australian government declared ownership of the land. In 1985 they returned ownership of Uluru to the local Pitjantjatjara, on the condition that they would lease it back to the National Parks and Wildlife service for 99 years, and that it would be managed jointly. In 1993 the name "Uluru" began to make a comeback. Uluru was officially reinstated, and the area had the dual name of Ayers Rock/Uluru. In 2002 Australia officially reversed the order, so now Uluru is listed first.
MELBOURNE TO ULURU / AYERS ROCK
The distance from Melbourne to Uluru/Ayers Rock is 1170 miles -- about the same as New York City to New Orleans. Over half a million people visit each year. Besides making a long drive from one of Australia's major cities, there's only one other way to get there: Qantas. The only commercial airline that flies to Ayers Rock Airport, Australia's flagship carrier offers daily service from Perth, Sydney, Cairns and Alice Springs. They fly four times a week from Melbourne. The flight took just under three hours, and the packed plane was a 737-400. The flight was really smooth, and at the very end -- when we flew over Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park - was very scenic. If you fly Qantas be sure to pack light, because they have strict baggage weight limits. Domestic economy class passengers are allowed to check only one bag, up to 70 pounds, which is pretty good -- but carryon bags can't weigh more than 15 pounds. That's not a lot, especially if you bring as much crap as I do on a plane. My computer bag weighed only a pound over the limit. Still, they made me put some of those belongings into my checked bag, and separate other stuff into another bag (I bought a cheap sack for $3 from the gift shop). Qantas: tel.: 1-800-227-4500.
Just after we landed, the flight attendant said the time change for the Northern Territory is 30 minutes behind Melbourne. She said it so nonchalantly, like it was no big deal. Australians might not think a 30-minute time change is much, but to me (and probably the rest of the world) it's huge. I'd never heard of such a thing -- a 30-minute time change?! (South Australia has the same time difference.)
IS IT JUST A ROCK?
I had heard many mixed opinions on Uluru/Ayers Rock. Those who hadn't visited said it's just a rock, while those who had seen it said it's so much more. They even went so far as to say that if you haven't been to the "Red Center," you haven't really been to Australia. I don't agree with the last statement, because that's like saying if you haven't seen the Grand Canyon, you haven't been to America. But now that I have been to Uluru, I agree it is a very special place.
It's a desert climate. The average high temperatures range from 66° F in July to 97 in January. Especially during winter, nights and mornings can get quite cool, so pack appropriate warm clothing. But don't forget sunscreen, a hat and solid walking shoes.
WHERE TO STAY
One company, Voyages, has made this barren place into an oasis in the Outback. Voyages named it simply Ayers Rock Resort. Almost all their lodging -- 4,500 beds -- are near each other (here's a map) in what residents call "town." It's similar to an attractive outdoor mall, with a few shops, hotels and a mini-market. Seven different accommodation options -- from two luxurious 5-star Hotels (Sails In The Desert and Longitude 131), to the 4-star Desert Gardens Hotel and the Emu Walk Apartments, to the 3-star modern Lost Camel Hotel and the 2-star authentic Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge -- meet everyone's budgets. The cheapest option is to camp, and Voyages operates those grounds as well. Camping rates start at $37AUD ($28 USD) per family.
VOYAGES LONGITUDE 131
The most incredible place to stay (and of course the most expensive) is Voyages Longitude 131. I stayed at this resort built on a sand dune. It has won many awards, including The Robb Report's Top Ten Haute Hotels in the World, and is eco-friendly. Voyages Longitude 131 is regarded not only as the best hotel in Uluru / Ayers Rock, but also one of the top hotels in all of Australia. It's definitely the most unique. Voyages Longitude 131 is modeled after a luxury Botswana safari camp, and cost $15 million Australian dollars ($11,500,000 USD) to build. The place burned down in 2003 after a bush fire, but it was quickly rebuilt and is now better than ever. There are only 15 luxury "tents" at this adults-only (over 16) palatial retreat. Thirty-three full-time staff members serve a maximum of 30 guests. As you can imagine, the service is excellent. It's located 10 minutes from Ayers Rock resort, 15 minutes from the airport, and is the closest hotel to Uluru (6 miles -- a 20-minute drive).
All 15 rooms (tents) are named after famous Australian explorers. The rooms have basically the same layout, but contain different artifacts of each explorer. I was in Ernest Giles' room. He led three major expeditions in central Australia (read more about him). The rooms are so incredible that I had to say "wow" when I opened the door. And when the bellboy said, "Welcome to your tent" I replied, "Now this is my kind of camping!" Each tent has mesmerizing views of Uluru. They can be enjoyed through an enormous glass wall that comes complete with a sliding glass door, and a screen for fresh air. Inside the room I didn't feel like I was in the Outback at all. There were marble floors, a very comfortable king-size bed, a desk, air conditioning, a large shower (with firm water pressure), and a mini-bar that was free for raiding (everything at the hotel is included in the price, except Champagne). Best of all, there were no bugs! Little touches included the bathroom mirrors, which slid to the side so I could stare out at Uluru while shaving or in the shower. And next to the bed, the light switch featured a remote control for the blinds. That meant each morning, when my dawn wake-up call arrived (so I could watch the sunrise), I didn't have to get out of bed. I just flipped the switch, opened the curtains -- and stared in awe.
The main building, the Dune House, is where the front desk is located, along with the dining hall, a 24/7 open bar with a good selection of Australia beer and wine, couches, chairs, and a computer with free but slow internet access (no wireless yet). Just in front of the Dune House is a small pool. Most guests come out to the Red Center for either two or three nights. Voyages Longitude 131 primarily attracts visitors from North America and Europe. However, I met a few Australian couples celebrating a significant birthday or anniversary. What's great about Voyages Longitude 131 is that everyone meets each other, because all the guests go on tours together and all three meals are communal. There is no room service.
At breakfast (6:15 to 10 a.m.) and lunch (12 to 2:30 p.m.), the dining room tables are split into threes. At dinner (usually around 8:15 p.m.), the tables are pushed together to make one gigantic seating. Before dinner the staff serves sunset drinks and h'ors d'oeuvres, either outside on the dune top or in the Dune House. If you're lucky and the weather cooperates one night (it is offered every other night), you can dine at table 131 -- outside under the stars. Unfortunately, the wind kicked up and I ate inside both nights. The food is excellent, and I enjoyed every meal. That's saying something, for a finicky eater like me. After dinner, a staff member well-versed in astronomy gives lessons on the Southern night sky.
Visitors can participate in a number of tours and activities. Guests staying at Voyages Longitude 131 don't have to worry about pre-booking or coordinating anything; it's all been arranged, and included in the rate. Everyone is free to participate in all or none of the tours. There are usually two tours a day (morning and afternoon). You don't want to miss them. They are either to Uluru or Kata Tjuta, the two places you came to explore. The guides provide cold water and fly nets (which can also be purchased in town); they also bring snacks and/or serve Champagne). A very cool Aussie couple from Melbourne laughed when I put my fly net over my head. They said they'd never wear one of those silly-looking things. About two seconds after they stepped out of the van, they went straight to the guide and asked if they could have theirs back. That's how bad the flies are. They go straight for the moisture of your mouth and eyes. Your only defense is the Australian Salute (you wave your hand frantically in front of your face), or the fly nets. Fortunately, when the sun goes down it's like someone flipped a switch. The flies disappear.
KATA TJUTU (THE OLGAS)
The first tour I took was an easy walk through Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta. Kata Tjuta is an Aboriginal word meaning "many heads." More than 30 rounded red domes rise from the desert floor. The tallest is 1,800 feet high. The English names for Kata Tjuta are Mount Olga and The Olgas. My boy Ernest Giles named it after reigning Queen Olga of Wurttemburg. Kata Tjuta is a 40-minute drive from Longitude 131. The rocks are amazing to see. The Anangu people and geologists have differing views on how the rocks were formed. I won't get into them here - it would take way to long -- but here's a link that will help.
ULURU - KATA TJUTA CULTURAL CENTER
The Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre is a good first stop for visitors. Thirty minutes is enough time to learn about the rock and see some videos (no pictures are allowed). You can read some of the Uluru creation stories. Known as Tjukurpa, they describe the travels and actions of Kuniya (Woma python), Liru (poisonous snake), Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) and Lungkata (Centralian blue-tongue lizard). The Uluru - Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre: tel.: 61-8-8956-1128; fax: 61-8-8956-2360.
ULURU (AYERS ROCK)
Uluru is Australia's most famous icon. From a distance it looks really smooth, but up close there are all kinds of holes, caves, tunnels, natural sculptures, and even paintings. There are even gray streaks running down the side. They are caused by waterfalls, which form when it rains (a rare occurrence). At 986 feet high and 5 miles around, Uluru is one of the largest monoliths in the world. It's made of arkosic sandstone, infused with minerals like feldspar. The rust color comes from oxidation. It's amazing to see Uluru and Kata Tjuta change colors (from the reflection of the sun) -- particulary at sunrise and sunset, when it appears to glow. It changes so many colors, it's mind boggling.
Because Uluru is of great spiritual importance to Anangu, they prefer visitors do not climb it. One reason is that the path where people climb was associated with important ancient ceremonies. The other is that if you get injured or die (36 people have been killed, including a German man last month), the Anangu believe your spirit will remain here forever. They will feel very badly if that happens. According to our guide, half of all visitors still make climb. I did not, not only because I don't want to disrespect the Aborginals (I don't need any bad karma), but because I'm afraid of heights. It's steep! In 1964 a chain was added to cut back on the deaths. Here's a highlighted map of the path to the top.
I visited Uluru up close twice. One time was a Sunrise Walk (5:45 to 8:45 a.m.). The other was a sunset tour. Both were amazing, but if I could only do one, it would be the sunrise tour. That's when Uluru is at its brightest and coolest (plus there are no flies). Walking around Uluru is very easy: a flat path that goes all the way around. It takes two and a half hours to make the lap.
Both Uluru and Voyages Longitude 131 can't really be described, only experienced. So the next time you make it to Australia, be sure to include a trip out to the Red Center. Voyages Longitude 131: rates $1,800 AUS ($1,300 USD) per tent per night (minimum two-night stay); includes all meals, beverages, touring and airport transfers. Tel.: 61-8-8957-7121.
Next week we travel to the oldest rainforest on earth!