Openness and silence. That is what makes the Red Centre special, according to architect Max Pritchard. "Even without Uluru," he says, the desert would be a special place. "The red earth, the desert oaks, those skies at sunset and sunrise, those stars at night: it is inspiring," he says.
Pritchard has been thinking about the Red Centre a lot lately, given that he is overseeing a $6 million upgrade of the area's most distinctive lodging. Longitude 131, a luxury tented camp, belongs to an exclusive set of lodges that allow guests to enjoy some of the most remote wildernesses in the world.
Whether they are located in the icefields of Patagonia, the cloud forests of Ecuador to the plains of Africa, these wilderness lodges must pull off a delicate balancing act, finding ways to deliver a luxe experience without damaging the delicate environments in which they are situated.
At Longitude, for instance, every aspect of the camp – from its location at the end of an unsignposted road to the solar panels on the roofs of its 15 tents – is designed to minimise both visual and environmental impacts. The low-slung tents have insulated floors to balance temperatures and reduce energy consumption, while waste water is pumped two kilometres to the nearest major sewerage plant.
However, in the fiercely competitive luxury market, properties have to reinvent themselves in order to survive. For many hotels, the easiest option is to upscale – adding more accommodation choices, for instance, or increasing the size of the existing rooms. However, Longitude's co-owner James Baillie says that for wilderness retreats, bigger is not necessarily better.
"Smaller is definitely preferable," Baillie says. "It creates a lodge that is more intimate and personal, and allows us to create a feel-at-home experience with first-name service."
Instead of upscaling, Pritchard and the Longitude team have therefore taken a creative approach to upgrading the property. The first step was adding a balcony with a fire pit to each tent, a feature that has been immensely popular since it was introduced earlier this year.
"Guests want to feel that they are part of the landscape," Pritchard explains. "By having decks out there on which you can sleep, we are heightening that experience."
Pritchard brings a light hand to the task of designing in the desert. "I try to fit in to the landscape as comfortably as I can," he says. "When you have dramatic sites, you don't have to have iconic architecture."
Pritchard's previous work – including his acclaimed design for Longitude's sister property, Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island – demonstrates this approach. He draws on a childhood spent in the wide open spaces of Kangaroo Island, as well as several years in his mid-20s spent travelling in Asia, the Middle East and South America. His travels exposed him to architecture that was very different from the cathedrals and castles of Europe that many of his contemporaries were exploring.
"I didn't set out to do an architectural pilgrimage, but I did learn a lot about Indigenous ways of living," he says. "I discovered how much climate determines design, whether you are living in the mountains of South America or in the Islands of Indonesia. It's a simple approach, using available materials and living in harmony with the environment."
That approach is evident in the second stage of the Longitude upgrade, which will commence next year. It includes just a handful of new elements, including a small spa and a two-bedroom Dune Pavilion, designed to cater for families or couples travelling together.
"We were lucky; there seemed to be one spot left where we could add in one more building while preserving the existing tent aesthetic – that's something we won't compromise on," Pritchard says. "And it's an amazing spot; from both bedrooms you have views of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta."
Rather than simply adding more elements, the upgrade focuses on enhancing the guest experience. The main lodge building, known as the Dune House, will be overhauled and given a new bar and a new entrance. At Southern Ocean Lodge, guests enter via a covered walkway which suddenly opens out to a spectacular view of the Southern Ocean. Pritchard is keen to make the arrival at Longitude an equally memorable experience.
"Guests get quite poetic about it," Pritchard says, about the dramatic vistas that greet them at Southern Ocean Lodge. "That sense of arrival blows people away."
Rates from $1350 per person per night twin share, including all dining, open bar, signature experiences and return airport transfers.
Ute Junker was a guest of Longitude 131.