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ZB Travel – Red Centre of Oz. Feb 23

Half a million tourists descend on Uluru every year. What’s the pulling power?

Ayers Rock ( Uluru) is unquestionably the letterhead for Australia’s Red Centre.  No other single rock structure in the world has magnetised the traveller quite like Ayers Rock.  If you arrive by plane, flying into pint-sized Ayers Rock Airport underscores the isolated splendour and the escape landscape that is the Red Centre.

No matter how many photos you have seen of the rock, nothing quite compares to admiring Australia’s monolithic poster-child, in person. In deference to the indigenous people, the landmark is now politely referred to as Uluru.

Did you climb the famous rock?

Like many tourists, I had every intention of attending to my tick-list by climbing the rock, but after seeing it in the flesh, (and noticing how challenging the walking path actually is, which has witnessed nearly 40 deaths by falling), my best laid plans were eclipsed by the overwhelming sense of spiritual and cultural reverence that Uluru evokes.

Why is it so spiritual?

Take a guided tour around the base of the rock and you will be enriched with a welter of mythological tales. For example, the Anangu people,  believe Uluru was built by two boys who played in the mud after rain. Now, that’s quite some mud-pie! Most guided tours are incorporated into the daily sunrise and sunset pilgrimages, which are supremely arresting. From the first crack of light that pierces the dawn horizon like a blowtorch, to the brushstrokes of a blazing sunset, Uluru and the surrounding desert dances daily through a kaleidoscope of colours.

What about the accommodation?

Voyages Ayers Rock Resort is the beacon of hospitality in the desert, boasting five accommodation options, catering to all budgets. For 5 star lux, Sails in the Desert is the top-end choice, with a special focus on Aboriginal heritage including the Mulgara Gallery where you can converse with Anangu artisans. The best mid-range choice is the Desert Gardens Hotel which is surrounded by magnificent  ghost gum trees desert shrub. Request a balcony room for a front-row view of Uluru. For budget travellers, the Outback Pioneer offers a range of low-cost options geared at the backpacker.

The Sounds of Silence dinner is a top draw, right?

Sounds of Silence dinner. Your journey begins in the late afternoon, as you are transported to a lone sand dune with an unblemished 360 degree view across Uluru’s desert canvas. As the sun sets in a blaze of reds, the haunting warble of the didgeridoo is performed, as your dinner party is served canapés and bubbles. Then you are escorted to your desert dinner setting, complete with crisp white linens, fine wines and a three-course buffet, followed by a guided tour of the glittering heavens. The stars glisten like opals, in the outback. Just awesome.

What about the Olgas?

Like Uluru, you will have to have a heart of stone not to be struck by the palpable sense of mystique and spirituality that permeates these domes..  Kata Tjuta is an uplifting thrill to explore, adding more texture and colour to your Red Centre getaway. 36 steep-sided domes of this remarkable rock formation loom large on the horizon, like a series of monster heads. In fact, Kata Tjuta is a local Aboriginal word for “many heads.” Weathered through millions of years of natural erosion, this sequence of rounded heads  appear to rise out of the desert sands, and the tallest peak is actually 200 metres higher than Uluru. Revered by the Anangu people and steeped in cultural tradition, many of their ancient stories about Kata Tjuta are deemed too sacred to be shared by the outside world.  A variety of sunrise and sunset viewing lookouts encircle Kata Tjuta, and admiring the silhouetted domes against a fiery sky is pure majesty. But the top drawer is undoubtedly the opportunity to undertake some of the dedicated walking tracks through the domes.

I hear there are superb walking tracks?

But if you have the time to harness your inner-explorer, beyond the shadow of Uluru lies a wealth of natural attractions in easy reach. The rapidly rising rock star is Kata Tjuta, which was previously known to the world as the Olgas. Like Uluru, the Olgas have been accorded a similar dose of cultural enlightenment with the Australian government, officially recognising its traditional Aboriginal name, Kata Tjuta. 32km west of Uluru, the The beginners track is the one hour return Walpa Gorge Walk. Walpa is an Anangu word for windy, and this 2.6km hike traverses a gently undulating rocky track through an ancient gorge that serves as a desert refuge for plants and animals. It ends at a flourishing grove of spearwood trees, hemmed in by two towering rock walls.  The ever-changing light show is hypnotic, as the filtered light on the rocky domes runs the gamut from rich red to iridescent orange and burnt yellow. Seasoned walkers with greater staying power should make a beeline for the Valley of the Winds Walk. 7km in length, the 3 hour trek does require having to negotiate some loose rocks, so sturdy footwear is de rigueur. The track is challenging and very steep in places, but provides an unspooling reel of pristine scenery, ranging from panoramic valley vistas to picnic-perfect creek bed settings.

What about flies? Were you the victim of fly strike?

Go prepared with plenty of water and a fly net, to ward off those ever-present pests on warm days.

WHEN TO GO.

Summer temperatures reach as high as 45C and can be oppressive, not to mention replete with flies! The cooler months from April to October are far more conducive to outdoor adventure.

HOW TO GET THERE.

If you’re travelling through The Ghan, you can leave the train in Alice Springs for several days, and take a side-trip to Uluru, before rejoining  the train on a later service. For full details go Great Southern Rail’s website. http://www.gsr.com.au

Alternatively, take a direct flight from Sydney or  Melbourne to Ayers Rock.

( As discussed on Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Saturday Morning Show.)

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