SHE, like many Australians, has had the Red Centre on the 'to do' travel list for many years. SHE's visited Alice Springs on numerous occasions, but has never quite made it 4 hours up the road to the place known as the heart of our country. The excuse not to visit was usually about cost. SHE, like so many others, found it cheaper to go to Bali, Thailand, Fiji - pretty much anywhere but the very heart of our country. And let's be honest...it's not 'cheap' to come here, but SHE's so very glad to have had the opportunity to visit - finally. A passing suggestion to a client 'have you considered Ayers Rock?' evolved into the beginnings of a 4 day program for a small group of lucky, hardworking resellers. So it's off to the Rock SHE goes, leaving any real expectations behind on the tarmac in Melbourne. It's a fact finding mission so SHE's taking an open mind, a sense of humour, and warm clothes!
Straight up it's worth mentioning (& clarifying) the names of where we are: the early explorers were responsible for the naming of the Olgas and Ayers Rock in Central Australia, as you do when you're an explorer trekking to god knows where to find god knows what. The local indigenous people refer to Ayers Rock as 'Uluru' and the Olgas as 'Kata Tjuta'. SHE henceforth follows suit in respect to the local traditional owners.
The centre of our country is pretty much 3 hours from Sydney, Brisbane or Perth. Qantas and Virgin Australia can get you here. A connection from Melbourne meant an early start (7.30am flight - not too bad) and arrival into Uluru at around 1pm. From the left hand side of the plane SHE had fabulous views of the salt lakes (who knew?) and that rock. Jeez...that's a big rock! A snappy luggage-on-baggage-carousel delivery (good work boys) and a 10 minute transfer to the hotel sees the beginning of the experience. The Ayers Rock Resort is the only option for accommodation if you want a room, hot shower, running water - oh, and a hairdryer! And it's pretty good: SHE stayed at the Desert Gardens Hotel - the 4.5 star version. Very comfortable, a room on the first floor (that's as high as it goes thankfully) overlooking the Rock. Admittedly its a fair way in the distance but absolutely no doubt that it really does exist! There are plenty of other accommodation options: SHE also liked the self contained apartments; nice to be able to whip up a meal if that's your thing. Sails in the Desert (the 5 star option) is soon to undergo a room refurbishment; looks flash and a nice choice. Note: no rock view from here.
The Resort has plenty of facilities: the supermarket pretty much sells everything (there's the self catering option checked). Prices are reasonable given the remote location. Restaurants: SHE visited the Red Rock Deli (ahhh... good coffee, surprise!) and Geckos for dinner one night - excellent chicken schnitzel. The pizza and pasta also looked great. Service staff were friendly, efficient, chatty, and happy to recommend their favourite thing in and around the Rock. How refreshing to see hospitality staff who enjoy the place they work in.
And now for the highlights...'this town revolves around sunrise and sunset'. Yep - sure does! There's a flurry of activity as bleary eyed tourists meet for a 6am departure to watch the sunrise over Uluru. It's hard to find a quiet space amongst all those tourists but a chat to your local guide will see you sharing it with fewer than a dozen. It was freezing (2 degrees) and the temperature dips as the sun rises (holy s...). Thermals, 3 layers, gloves, beanie - little defence against the icy wind that picked up post sunrise. Memo to travellers: be prepared if visiting in winter!
The Cultural Centre at the base of Uluru is well worth a visit. SHE tracked along with a small group gradually defrosting; a breakfast at the cafe following sunrise was light, tasty and warming. From here it was off on a guided walk with Anangu Tours, an Aboriginal-owned company providing tours at the Rock. Our guide, Sarah, spoke in her local language, using another guide to translate to English for us. It was fascinating and surprisingly entertaining: body language remains the universal communicator. Our tour ended at the base of Uluru, and it was here the sheer size and scale of the monolith quite literally took our breath away. SHE loved this tour, a great introduction to the area and the local people. And the biggest surprise of all was just how green the area is. Our guide told us that due to the amount of rain in the Centre, plant and flora varieties not seen in 14 years are raising their beautiful heads. The colours are amazing and so vibrant against the clear blue sky: reds, yellows, purples, and the rich ochre. Truly the colours of Australia.
SHE would visit the Cultural Centre again, take some time to walk around, and then complete the base walk of Uluru (a flat, easy 2 - 3 hour walk). Oh - folks...no climbing the Rock. Locals won't say it like that but just don't. It's not appropriate or safe. If you want to climb something, go to the Himalayas.
Sunrise at Kata Tjuta also makes the 'must do' list; another early morning that's worth dragging yourself out of bed for. SHE joined the wonderful people from SEIT Tours: small groups and personalised attention is this company's point of difference. And you'll find some options here no other company is offering. SHE thinks it good to share the love around the Red Centre.
And yes, the Sounds of Silence dinner is everything its cracked up to be. More relaxed than SHE had expected, and very social (travellers do love a chat don't we?). Run like a well-oiled machine in true laid back Outback fashion, without any stress or drama. Pre dinner drinks with the accompaniment of a didgeridoo as the sun set over Kata Tjuta - wow. (Nice photo on the left hey?! SHE's very proud of it!) A walk down a pathway through the glorious red sand (don't pack the white runners if you want to see that colour again!) reveals white clothed tables and a dinner buffet. Service, again, was friendly and didn't miss a beat. No shortage of drink service made for lively conversation with new friends.
Following dinner, the limited lighting was dimmed completely and, in darkness, Emma, our stargazer (love that for a job title), explained those amazing twinkly planets and stars to us. Fascinating. SHE now knows how to find true South, a very handy skill to have just in case SHE's ever lost in the desert, or out on a very dark night! A peek through a telescope revealed Saturn - wow. And for those who've never been to the Outback - the stars alone are reason to get out here.
SHE saw the sun rise (2 mornings in a row - couldn't get enough!), only right to see it set...this time on the back of a camel with the boys (and girls) from the Camel Farm! Fabulous. SHE's been on a camel in Central Australia before but this experience topped them all. What a treat to plod through the desert - Uluru on the right, Kata Tjuta on the left, as the sun dipped over the horizon. Could you ever get tired of seeing that?
3 days and 2 nights just weren't quite enough. SHE's very much looking forward to getting back to the Red Centre next year, adding an extra day and night to pack some more amazing experiences into. There really is something special about this place, and it's hard to put it into words. It's the heart of our country.
For first time travellers to the Centre SHE has some tips for your consideration:
- Forget about how much everything costs and just get amongst it. In this place sits our history and our culture, right here in this incredible part of the world. You'll regret scrimping and scraping. And that's what credit cards are for.
- Drink water, travel with water, don't leave the Resort without it. There's plenty of places to fill your bottle. 5 times dryer than any other Australian destination, dehydration is a very real issue here.
- If you're a dirty rotten smoker could you please not smoke in the middle of a pristine environment with real fresh air? Or while the rest of us are having dinner in the middle of the desert? And if you have to, pick up your damn butts. Honestly - get a patch.
- In the warmer months: buy Desert Dwellers insect repellant from the local Information Office (all natural and the only thing that works; apparently the pesky flies find Aerogard very tasty). Accept that heat, flies and red dust are all a part of it, and stop whingeing. Its boring.
- Invest in the ultimate fashion item - the fly net hat thingy. You'll look like a daggy tourist but honestly - do you care?
- Travel in winter if you don't want to deal with the flies. Do anticipate the freezing temperatures and pack accordingly. Yes - it really is cold and shorts and tshirts are SO NOT appropriate at 6am! Bring them out around midday for some of that stunning sunshine and blue sky we love so much...and other countries can't quite believe is real. Lucky us.
In the words of that well known jingle written by local identity Barry Skipsey for Northern Territory Tourism all those years ago: 'you'll never never know if you never never go'. Go on...get out there.