My first glimpse of Uluru was through the airplane’s window. The giant rock formation—a wall, really—is impossible to miss as it rises from the desert in a blaze of red and golden-brown. (A Google search will tell you that the monolith is also called Ayers Rock but everyone in the know rightly refers to it by its Aboriginal name.) The scale is hard to visualize, despite the plentiful availability of Internet images, until you see it from this vantage point. Smack dab in the ”Red Centre” of Oz, it’s an awesome sight, but nothing compared to viewing it at ground level. That’s when the magnitude of its dimensions—1,000 feet tall, 2.2 miles long and 1.5 miles wide—really sinks in and you start to feel very, very small.
The JetStar flight from Sydney (Qantas and Virgin Australia also offer flights that depart from a range of Australian cities) took about three-and-a-half hours. (Flights from Melbourne and Cairns each take three hours; the flight form Alice Springs is the shortest at two and half hours.) Most of the local resorts facilitate transfers from Ayers Rock Airport, including Longitude 131, my ”base camp” for Uluru exploration. The luxe resort is comprised of windowed white tents set up right in the sand dunes. Its proximity to the famous rock site (and sister attractions Walpa Gorge and Kata Tjuta) is exceptional and the layout of the place is centered on dazzling you with the most gorgeous scenery imaginable. I was there for three days and never tired of gazing at Uluru; ultimately I’d get to see it from every possible angle.
There are a number of ways to do so: The resort provides sunrise and sunset bus tours. A helicopter ride gives an even better perspective and offers unbelievable photo opportunities. Getting to ride on the back of a Harley—under a cloudless blue sky, in the middle of the Outback—was exhilarating and my favorite Uluru excursion by far. Driven by a capable guide from Uluru Motorcycle Tours, our bike was the only one on the road that winds around Uluru and we arrived to find the parking lot completely empty. It was the height of the midday heat (tour buses tend to pack in at sunrise and sunset) and yes, my tour guide and I were the only two people at the site. Getting to experience the rock sans other tourists made the trip for me.
It’s hard to convey the spiritual, meditative atmosphere of the site, a deeply sacred one to the Aboriginal people who believe that the spirits of their ancestors live within the rock formations. Or the inexplicably fascinating holes and grooves that add a unique texture to the rock’s surfaces, the result of gazillion years’ worth of rainfall and weather erosion. Or the colors of the rocks, which change from red to pink to magenta and brown, depending on the light, a different display every time you look up and out.
Our final sunset tour of Uluru further elevated the experience to ”trip of the lifetime” status. It culminated with a dinner arranged by the resort, a ritual called ”Table 131” where you venture into the sand dunes near Uluru and dine by candlelight beneath a canopy of brilliant stars. A city girl at heart, I’ve never seen stars so stunning—or enjoyed a meal so exquisite: I remember the cauliflower and camembert soup with beetroot dust fondly; ditto a dark chocolate tart with sous vide strawberries, Davidson plum gelato and pink peppercorn glass and the Muscat from Rutherglen, Victoria, Australia. It was like being in a planetarium after hours… only you’re in the heart of the desert. In Australia. It’s just something that you have to experience in person.
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This article was originally published by Jetsetter under the title Discover Australia’s Northern Territory.
(Photo: Tourism NT)