Uluru, other things to do in the region: Beyond the Rock

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There is so much more to the Red Centre than just Uluru. Try a canyon bursting with cycads and palm trees for starters, writes Ute Junker.

Hidden treasure: Kata Tjuta

Some treasures remain hidden even when they are in plain sight. The beehive domes of Kata Tjuta are familiar to every visitor to the Red Centre; in fact, they feature in almost as many sunset and sunrise shots as Uluru itself. But surprisingly few people take the time to travel out to the site, around 30 kilometres west of Uluru; most of those who do limit their experience to the easy stroll through Walpa Gorge. They are missing out. Kata Tjuta is home to one of the Red Centre's best walks, the Valley of the Winds trail. Winding its way through the secret spaces between the steep domes, places that include sites sacred to the Anangu men, this seven-kilometre walk reveals a very different side to the desert. This unexpected landscape of rocky plateaux and grassy flats, scored by creek beds lined with ancient mulga trees, has a palpable sense of tranquillity. It is also a haven for wildlife. Finches and budgerigars flit from one bush to the next, while wallabies hop amid the rocks. Take some time to rest in the shade of an overhanging ledge, and soak up the stillness.

Deadly beauty: desert salt lakes

Early in the day, they glow pink with the rising sun. At night, moonlight transforms them into a glittering expanse of silver. Despite their beauty, however, the salt lakes of the Red Centre – their waters twice as salty as the sea – are treacherous expanses. Step onto hard crust that covers their surface and, amid the rough grains of sand, you will see the desiccated bodies of countless insects. Once they alight on the salt surface, the crystals leach all the moisture from their bodies, leaving their corpses trapped there forever. Lake Amadeus, the area's largest salt lake – estimated to contain up to 600 million tonnes of salt – dashed the dreams of explorer Ernest Giles. The man who named Ayers Rock only spied Uluru and Kata Tjuta from a distance, unable to find a path across the 180 kilometre-long salt lake which barred his path. It was not until a later expedition that Giles found a way around the lake. There is so much more to the Red Centre than just Uluru. Try a canyon bursting with cycads and palm trees for starters, writes Ute Junker. Lake Amadeus is not easy to explore – you will need a four-wheel drive and permission from the Central Lands Council – but half a dozen salt lakes lie within Curtin Springs Cattle Station, and can be explored as part of SEIT Outback Australia's half-day Mount Conner 4WD Outback Adventure.

Fooling around: Mount Conner

GW, april 30 - NT Tourism+Voyages reverse booklet

Let's turn for a moment to the Red Centre's other monolith. You heard right; contrary to popular belief, Uluru is not the only big red rock towering above the desert. Few visitors ever catch a glimpse of the flat-topped Mount Conner; those who do – usually on the drive from Alice Springs – tend to mistake it for Uluru. The locals find this endlessly amusing; that is why they have come up with another name for Mount Conner: Fooluru. One of the reasons so few people visit Mount Conner is because it is located on private property. Sign up for SEIT's Mount Conner 4WD Outback Adventure, however, and you can admire the monolith from up close. Along the way, you will also pick up some insights into life on the land. Mount Conner is part of Curtin Springs Station, which has been run by the Severin family since 1956. When the Severins bought the property, they had no idea it was the start of a drought that would last another seven years. The story of how they survived this – and all the other challenges thrown their way – will give you a new respect for the farmers' life.

Desert oasis: Kings Canyon

GW, april 30 - NT Tourism+Voyages reverse booklet

Probably the last thing you would expect to find in the harsh desert of the Red Centre is a verdant forest of palm trees and prehistoric cycads. But that is precisely what lies at the bottom of Kings Canyon, a steep sandstone gorge about three hours' drive from Uluru. An easy walk along the canyon floor takes you past the weathered rock formations of the Lost City as well as the waterhole known as the Garden of Eden. This permanent water source helps maintain a micro-climate that supports more than 600 species of plants and animals, many unique to the area. The first white man to lay eyes on it, Ernest Giles, rhapsodised that "could it be transported to any civilised land, its springs, glens, gorges, ferns, zamias [cycads] and flowers would charm the eyes and hearts of toil-worn men". While the canyon depths teem with life, things looks very different on the sun-baked surface, where the six kilometre Rim Walk offers panoramic views. This strenuous trail requires moderate fitness; allow around three hours and start early in the morning to avoid overheating.

Art and soul: Cave Hill

Since the days of ancient Greece, Europeans have looked up at the constellation known as the Pleiades and told the story of seven sisters, fleeing the hunter Orion, whom Zeus lifted into the heavens and preserved as stars. The indigenous Australians who looked up at those stars told a very similar story: seven sisters fleeing the persistent attentions of the hunter Wati Nehru, forever hot on their heels. The Seven Sisters songline is possibly the longest in Australia, stretching from Queensland's Gulf Country to the Great Australian Bight. One of the key sites in the story, Cave Hill, is also home to some of Central Australia's most vivid rock art, images that blaze with colour and movement. Thanks to SEIT Tours, you can explore the site with an Anangu guide, who shares the stories that belong there. It is a full-day trip south from Uluru, but with plenty of goannas, budgerigars and, in season, wildflowers to spot along the way, the ride is never dull.

For more information visit www.ayersrockresort.com.au

PLAN AHEAD

Book yourself in for one of these events to enjoy a truly unforgettable desert experience.

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Field of Light

When: April 1, 2016-March 31, 2017.

What: Field of Light is an art installation featuring tens of thousands of glass spheres, which light up the desert

with a tide of colour washing across the night-time sands. One way to experience this astonishing spectacle is via "Field of Light Sunrise": rise early to immerse yourself in Field of Light in the pre-dawn darkness, then watch as the rising sun transforms the spheres into shining silver globes. Alternatively, attend "A Night at Field of Light" and you will savour a three-course bush tucker inspired dinner upon a sandy dune as Field of Light softly twinkles into being. An after-dinner stroll through the artwork is a magical end to the evening.

Price: Field of Light Sunrise $89/$45 (children 2-15);

A Night at Field of Light $235/$117.50 (children 10-15)

More information: ayersrockresort.com.au/fieldoflight

Leica Akademie Uluru

When: June 17-22, 2016.

What: Hone your camera skills with this five-night photography workshop led by celebrated lensman Nick

Rains. Both beginner and advanced photographers will find themselves inspired by the rare shooting opportunities on offer, including a helicopter flight for aerial photos. Night shoots will allow you to capture the sight of the full moon rising over Uluru and the brilliance of a glittering desert starscape. As well as hands-on instruction, a series of seminars will help you hone your skills at post production and Lightroom cataloguing.

Price: From $4495 including workshops, meals and accommodation

More information: ayersrockresort.com.au/events

Australian Outback Marathon

When: July 30, 2016.

What: You don't have to be a track star to take part in this unforgettable event. The Outback Marathon, organised by Travelling Fit, features four separate events including an 11-kilometre and a six-kilometre fun run. The course follows unsealed roads, bush tracks and soft sand trails, with only a few mild inclines and stellar views along the way. Pre- and post-race activities include helicopter and camel tours.

Price: Packages range from 3-6 days, with a choice of accommodation options. The Red Earth package includes two nights' accommodation, race entry, transfers and a range of optional activities. From $880 per person.

More information: ayersrockresort.com.au/events

Uluru Astronomy Weekend

When: August 26-28, 2016.

What: Take part in a space odyssey of a different sort at this totally cosmic weekend. Presented in partnership with the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO), the Uluru Astronomy Weekend is an opportunity to learn more about a galaxy of subjects. As well as talks and lectures, there will be plenty of opportunities for star spotting and astro-photography under the clear desert skies. Hosted by Robyn Williams of the ABC's Science Show, this weekend will appeal to all astronomy fans.

Price: Charges apply to Signature Dining Events and Outback Sky Journeys; other activities are free.

More information: ayersrockresort.com.au/events

This article brought to you in association with Ayers Rock Resort and Tourism NT.

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