It starts with a touch of eavesdropping at Uluru. A couple standing near me are admiring the monolith. "I can't believe we mistook the other rock for this one," one of them says to the other.
Sorry? There's another rock?
Everyone knows the Red Centre has two big attractions. There is Uluru and there are the domes of Kata Tjuta. When I ask a local about the mysterious third rock, she nods sagely. "Mount Conner," she says. "Fools a lot of tourists. We call it Fool-uru."
Apparently it is mainly visitors driving up from Alice Springs who spot the mysterious Mount Conner, which appears on the horizon at some point during the long drive. After a surge of excitement and a flurry of photos, it eventually dawns on most of them that this rock actually looks quite different from Uluru's famous silhouette.
Enchanted by the idea of another big rock hiding out in the desert, I'm keen to see Mount Conner for myself. There is, however, a hitch. Mount Conner is on private land. If you want to do more than admire it from a distance, you need to book on a tour, which is how if find myself in a four-wheel-drive with a guide, Brett, heading off on a desert day trip.
As we drive, Brett explains that most of the land around Uluru is either national park or run by the Central Lands Council. Mount Conner sits on the nearest private lease to the rock, which belongs to Curtin Springs Station, run by the Severin family since 1956.
The Severins didn't get off to the most auspicious start. Locals love telling the story of how Peter brought his wife, Dawn, and infant son, Ashley, up to the property, which at that time had no habitable shelter, and proudly showed them their new home.
Dawn turned to him and said, "I've got news for you, and it's all bad."
The Severins stuck it out, although it's hard to grasp the isolation of those early years. Uluru was not yet a tourist destination, and few people travelled the unsealed road to their property. In their first year, the Severins had just six visitors: two stock agents, two family members and two intrepid travellers.
Another thing that was lacking was rain. After a small amount of rain in the first year, there was not a drop for the next seven years.
Fortunately, the Severins are stayers. They found other ways to generate income. Dawn's decision to offer Devonshire teas for the rare traveller who did pass through ultimately changed the way they ran their business.
Pull up at Curtin Springs station today and you will find a flurry of activity. Cars are standing at the fuel pumps out the front. Two coaches are in the parking bay. A couple of travellers are heading for the shower block. Also on site are accommodation, a shop, a bar, an alfresco dining area and aviaries filled with parrots. There is even an emu called Mongrel scratching around in the dust, trailed by a group of excited overseas visitors.
Not far from the homestead, we turn off the main road and onto a small track. Brett unlocks the gate, and we follow the rich, red dirt road deeper onto the property.
Mount Conner is not the only natural wonder on Curtin Springs' 1 million acres. After a short drive, we pull up at the shore of Lake Swanson. There is no water to be seen – just a salty crust, tinged with pink. Lake Swanson is a salt lake, one of seven on the property. This salt mass, stretching to the horizon, is an eerie sight.
"The longer you go without rain, the wider the lake grows," Brett says.
We walk out on to the cracked crust, feeling the rough salt grains through the soles of our feet. The lake is twice as salty as seawater. Pointing out the desiccated corpses of insects stranded in the salt, Brett tells me that because of the high salt content, when insects land, all the moisture leaches out of their bodies. Their corpses are left trapped amidst the salt crystals.
The Severins have just launched walking tours around the lake, but our goal today lies further afield. We drive off again, to where a mountain is steadily looming larger on the horizon.
As we drive, I get some insight into how an outback cattle station operates. The Severins run 1500 head of cattle on this arid land. Only about 15 per cent of the vegetation is edible for the animals. As a result, each one needs about three hectares of land to survive. Unsurprisingly, we don't see much livestock, apart from an occasional calf, startled by the sound of the engine, bolting off through the scrub.
We pass a simple fence separating two paddocks, although I'm not sure whether the word paddock can be properly applied to an area of 10 square kilometres. According to Brett, the fencing materials alone cost $150,000. Running a cattle station is not cheap.
We pull over at the cattle mustering yard, part of an ingenious mustering system. There are 14 bores across the property, each of which can be turned off remotely. When it's time to start the muster, the furthest bore is turned off, prompting the cattle to move to one of the closer bores. Then that bore is turned off. As the pattern is repeated, the cattle move closer to the mustering yard, which houses the final functioning bore. Once they enter the yard, a system of one-way gates ensures that they can't leave. I'm impressed by the simple genius of it.
Throughout our cattle conversation, we are drawing closer to our ultimate goal: Mount Conner. It's surprising that anyone would confuse it with Uluru. Their shapes are so different. Mount Conner has a distinctive flat top with a separate top layer, like icing on a cake. Their sizes are about the same. Mount Conner is a few metres shorter than Uluru, but covers a larger area.
Unlike Uluru, Mount Conner was once part of a broader mountain range. The sandstone on either side of it was worn down by the elements. Thanks to its protective layer of hard conglomerate rock on top, only Mount Conner survived.
As we circumnavigate the rock, we see that one side of it is heavily eroded, giving it a horseshoe shape. We stop for a pre-sunset drink to admire the view and check out the animal tracks.
The shadows are lengthening and the kangaroos are stirring as we head back to Curtin Springs, where a freshly grilled steak is a fitting end to an illuminating day.
FIVE MORE DESERT HIGHLIGHTS
There's a lot more than rocks to see in the Red Centre.
Cave Hill The colourful paintings at Cave Hill make this one of the most significant rock art sites in Central Australia. Members of the local Anangu tribe will lead you through the site, sharing the story of the Seven Sisters or, at least, the part of the song line that lies within this site.
Valley of the Winds From afar, the rocks of Kata Tjuta look stark and inhospitable. Follow the eight-kilometre circuit that winds through these striking domes, however, and you will find grassy valleys and mulga-lined riverbeds. You may even spot a wallaby.
Kings Canyon Take a day trip to this oasis in the desert. The 300-metre-deep canyon is home to more than 600 species of plants, as well as zebra finches, honeyeaters and buzzards, drawn by the presence of life-giving water.
Camel trekking Watch the sunrise from the back of a camel on this memorable tour. As the desert slowly comes to life, you will learn about local flora and fauna, before enjoying a freshly baked breakfast.
The Sounds of Silence Dinner under the stars is an unforgettable experience. One of Uluru's signature experiences, this alfresco event includes a buffet dinner and a stargazing talk.
Jetstar flies daily to Uluru (Ayers Rock) from Sydney, and four times a week from Melbourne. See jetstar.com.
The five-star Sails in the Desert is Ayers Rock Resort's premium accommodation option. Rates start from $368 a night room only, with a two-night minimum. A three-night package, including breakfast, is available for $322 a night. Phone 1300 134 044.
Ayers Rock Resort has a variety of dining options, from upscale to casual. At Sails in the Desert, Ilkari Restaurant offers buffets for dinner and breakfast, while the Walpa Lobby Bar has a selection of light meals, from pasta and burgers to seafood. Also worth checking out are the Bunya Bar at Desert Sands Hotel, and the Arnguli Grill, which showcases indigenous ingredients.
SEIT Outback Australia runs several tours across the Red Centre. See seitoutbackaustralia.com.au.
The writer travelled courtesy of Ayers Rock Resorts, SEIT Outback Australia and Jetstar.