I WANT TO CLIMB THE ROCK
Where have you been lately? On another planet? Atop a rock somewhere (not Uluru, we trust)? As of this weekend, climbing Uluru is officially no more. The ban is designed to respect the wishes of the local Indigenous Anangu people who are the traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta and oppose the practice on spiritual and safety grounds. Despite assertions to the contrary, the closure is not a question of political correctness but a simple matter of respect for the monolith's traditional owners and a recognition of the undeniable safety risks. There have been about three dozen deaths recorded on The Rock over the years, along with countless injuries and other health emergencies, including heart attacks. Just like the monolith itself, the climbing issue, like it or not, is ancient history.
I WANT TO KNOW ABOUT OTHER ACTIVITIES
Since the climbing ban was announced, the operators of the aboriginal-owned Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia Ayers Rock Resort have been building a portfolio of great experiences, reportedly now up to about 100 activities. Certainly, more than enough to keep non-climbing visitors – which now, of course, means everyone visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – enthralled for short or extended stays. And there is also another sacred site to explore – the haunting domes of Kata Tjuta, once known as the Olgas.
I WANT TO EAT GOOD TUCKER
Nowadays, tucker, good tucker, including bush tucker, plays an important part in any Uluru holiday and you'll be surprised at the quality in one of Australia's most isolated locations. You can even get a city-standard coffee everywhere, including at the cafe in the resort's town square which doubles as a training school for Indigenous staff (see below). The best restaurants at Ayers Rock Resort are inside the upscale Sails in the Desert and Desert Gardens hotels. But your most memorable food moments are likely to be the signature outdoor dining experiences (see below) in spectacular desert settings.
I WANT TO MEET INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
There was a time – and not that long ago – when it was possible to visit Uluru and fail to meet a single Indigenous person. Fortunately, that's changed with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians from across the country employed by the resort which also operates a landmark hospitality trainee program for young Indigenous Australians, many of whom have gone on to work in hotels and resorts or in cultural tourism. You'll also meet Indigenous Australians on the extensive selection of free and paid tours available in the area, ranging from bush food talks to guided walks through native gardens.
I WANT TO SEE AND BUY INDIGENOUS ART
You will usually find members of the local Anangu people offering their dot paintings for sale on the lawns of the resorts leading into the town square. You can also head out to the rather tired-looking National Parks-operated visitor's centre near Uluru and meet Indigenous artists, most of whom are women, at work in a large gallery-cum-studio. The works on display are usually for sale. Back at the resort, for a charge, you can also join dot painting workshops that provide an introduction to Indigenous art by a local Anangu artist.
I WANT A LIGHT BULB MOMENT
One the biggest draw-cards at Uluru – as the operators strive to add more attractions to compensate for the climbing ban – has been the extraordinary Field of Light Uluru, a massive immersive art installation that extends across the equivalent of several football fields, designed by Bruce Munro. Resort management recently announced that the open-air exhibition has been extended indefinitely, with $1 million being spent on the work's refurbishment. This will include the replacement of each stem of light – and there are 50,000 of them – as well all the fibre optic cabling, to renew the vibrancy of the display for visitors.
I WANT TO SEE ULURU AT DAWN
There's a plethora of places to watch the sun rise above Uluru but one excellent and specific way to avoid the crowded vantage points, such as the carpark beside The Rock, is to take the Desert Awakenings tour. This small group tour leaves before dawn in time to reach a private sand dune from which you can witness not just another day's fresh rays but also partake in an Australian-style breakfast, including homemade damper and syrup, bacon and egg rolls, coffee and tea, and cold drinks. After the fortifying breakfast, the tour group re-boards the minibus to take a closer look at Uluru, including rock art viewing and short walks around the Rock's base.
I WANT TO SPEND TIME UNDER THE STARS
The now long-established Sounds of Silence is Ayers Rock Resort's signature outdoor night time experience and one of its most renowned and groundbreaking attractions. It includes a three-course dinner, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and a mesmerising night sky presentation below the Milky Way, which in the desert is completely unpolluted by man-made lighting. It's possible to combine Sounds of Silence with Field of Light for a truly memorable night out. Foodies with a little more cash to splash may opt for Tali Wiru (meaning beautiful dune). It's a sophisticated al fresco fine-dining experience with top-notch service from congenial Indigenous wait staff. The dinner takes place atop a sand dune with arresting dusk views over Uluru and Kata Tjuta to be savoured along with the cuisine.
I WANT TO SEE THE ROCK FROM ABOVE
Do try to book a window seat if you're flying in or out of Ayers Rock Airport, for the chance to spot Uluru and Kata Tjuta from above. The contrast between the red dirt and the black tarmac of the runway on landing can be thrilling, too. Once you're firmly on the dusty, crimson terra firma, there are plenty of helicopter and fixed-wing aerial sightseeing tours from which to choose for even more spectacular scenes of The Rock and the seemingly endless, billiard-table flat desert country surrounding it.
ONE MORE THING
The average duration of a stay at Uluru is about two nights but consider staying three or four days in order to more fully appreciate the wonders of the Rock and its surrounds. If you're visiting in the warmer months, whenattractive deals are often on offer, avoid the heat of the day by relaxing by the pool or in and around your hotel, and schedule your main outdoor activities for early and late in the day, and in the cool of the night.
I WANT THE FACTS
The official population of Yulara, the name of the tiny village-cum-township where Ayers Rock Resort is located is 1099 but the numbers can swell to as many as 4000 at the peak times for visitors. The population of Mutitjulu, the community at the eastern end of The Rock and home of the Indigenous Anangu is 323. Formal permission is strictly required to visit the community.
Uluru, which is situated in the Northern Territory close to Australia's geographic centre, is about three hours' flying time direct from Sydney.Jetstar operates daily direct flights from the NSW capital, and four times a week from Melbourne. Alice Springs, the nearest major population centre by road, is a five-and-half hour drive away. See jetstar.com
Ayers Rock Resorts offers accommodation for every budget, from campgrounds to five-star luxury. There are often good deals available such as a four-day three-night Uluru Short Break Package for $360 a person. The package includes accommodation, breakfast, return Ayers Rock Airport transfers, access to Indigenous activities such as bush food and story-telling experiences, and more. The offer is available for travel between November 6 until March 26 next year. See ayersrockresort.com.au
The best time to visit Uluru, with its arid desert location, is in the cooler months (May to September) but do rug up since many of the most favoured activities take place in the chill desert mornings and nights.
The resort was sympathetically-designed by the leading Australian architect Philip Cox and remarkably, considering it opened in 1984, remains largely undated and refurbishments have been undertaken regularly. The most lauded building in the resort itself is Sails in the Desert, a five-star hotel characterised by the creative use of sail-like shadecloth, a ground-breaking feature of the original design.
Anthony Dennis was a guest of Voyages Ayers Rock Resort.