Last weekend, I had the extraordinary privilege of spending three days at Uluru. I thought I could write it up in a quick, pithy post not unlike a museum shop review, but this post is almost three thousand words long, and how can you reduce such an amazing and awe-inspiring place to a score out of five?
(Five out of five cork hats, though.)
Uluru challenges the eye. The perspective feels all wrong — you’re kilometres away, but seeing it in such great detail that it looks fake, like a matte painting background in the original Star Trek.
Then you get close, and realise how much more detail there is, how you are absolutely insignificant compared to this vast monolith.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
BFF of No Award Amanda works in the travel industry, and late one night last year, I received a sliiiightly inebriated text message: she was at an industry event, she had won a trip for two to Uluru in the raffle, did I want to come?
Quokkas, I have to confess that going to Uluru has never once crossed my mind. Sure, it’s an important and iconic part of Australia, but it’s also, you know, in the middle of the continent. In a desert. I am a small, pale person who likes to be close to large bodies of water. And I don’t drive.
But it was free (or, in parts, heavily discounted). And there was a five-star resort involved.
So I said yes.
It’s a three and a half hour flight from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport (more on nomenclature in a moment). Here’s a tip: if you’re on the right-hand side of the plane and it’s morning, especially if you’re in a window seat, bring extra water. I had packed a spare water bottle in my checked luggage, but that was for the visit to the Rock itself the next day. The litre bottle I usually carry ran out fast, and while the Virgin staff were on hand to top up our complimentary tea, coffee and water, it wasn’t enough.
It was hot when we landed, too, but the air was so dry that I barely felt it. Fourteen percent humidity is amazing. My hair has never been sleeker — at least for the three seconds between stepping outside and putting on a hat.
Welcome to Anangu Country. Please stay hydrated.
That’s basically what the Anangu bus driver told us: “Welcome to my Country, please drink one litre of water an hour if you’re outside, especially when visiting Ayers Rock itself.”
Note how he used the old name? I’ve always worked very hard to avoid saying “Ayers Rock” ever since the name changed, but there’s a lot of legacy signage around the resort, and older people, even Indigenous people, used both.
The resort itself is called Ayers Rock Resort, but it actually contains six separate accommodation facilities, ranging from the five-star Sails in the Desert, where we stayed, to the campground, which was marked by signs that said “Beware of dingos”. There is also a glamping facility in the area, but we didn’t go near it.
For tourism nerds, the resort has an interesting history. By the 70s, there were so many motels and campsites in what is now the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park that the ecology was being seriously damaged. The Northern Territory government bought them all, shut them down, and replaced them with the Ayers Rock Resort. A small town, Yulara, was also built to accommodate the staff and other permanent residents — we caught glimpses of Yulara here and there from the shuttle buses, but a lot of its facilities are integrated with the resort.
Some changes of hands later, the Ayers Rock Resort is now owned by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, a company which claims to invest its profits in Indigenous communities. (I say “claims to” because I haven’t actually sat down and read the annual reports, I’m just going by the puffery on their website.)
Despite being a five-star resort, Sails in the Desert is only somewhat glam. Mostly because, hey, it’s in the desert, and you can grow all the lush, green grass you want, your buildings still need to be rugged and weatherproof, and you can’t control the bugs. Highlights from the TripAdvisor reviews include lots of people complaining about insects, especially flies.
I say all this, not to whinge (it was a free trip!), but to manage expectations. The lobby is large and elegant (and has carpet that can take a heavy daily dose of red dirt), the reception and restaurant staff were all wonderful, and the ants in our bathroom were, apparently, par for the course.
The important thing (when you’re as pale as I am) is that, in the hottest part of the afternoon, half the swimming pool is in the shade.
A note about staff: most were great. Especially Samantha, who checked us in, and told us about her life as a trainee. It was her second week on the job! Hospitality and tourism trainees from around the country fight to get places at Ayers Rock Resort, where they work for part of the year while living in shared accommodation in Yulara. If that doesn’t sound like a Werner Films series waiting to happen, then I don’t know what does!
A lot of staff were Indigenous, of course, but staff were also from around the world. (You could tell, because they had flags on their badges indicating their origins, just like at Ikea.) I got talking on our final morning to a really nice woman from Korea, who had worked at Ayers Rock Resort for a couple of years, became homesick and went home, but found she missed the desert so much that she returned.
On Friday night, we were booked for Sounds of Silence, an “evening of dining under the sparkling outback sky”. This costs $199 per person, but we had a fifty percent discount. And that’s good, because, while it was definitely amazing, I’m not sure it was two hundred dollars of amazing.
Don’t get me wrong — the food and service were great, the wine was copious, the view was spectacular. We stood on top of a sand dune and watched the sun set over Uluru while three Anangu men performed a traditional dance, and then walked around the dune to the dining spot, overlooking Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas.
We ate kangaroo and crocodile (which, it turns out, has a slightly fishy taste but the texture of chicken, and is quite delicious). We were at a table with strangers, but, in what I can only call Peak Brisbane, one of the women went to school with Amanda, albeit two years behind. Dessert options included pastries with desert lime, a close relative of the finger lime but with a sweeter, stronger taste.
When it was completely dark, all the lights were extinguished, and a local amateur astronomer took us on a guided tour of the night sky via the local creation story. I can now navigate south via the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds, so if we’re ever in a pinch that can only be solved by heading south: don’t worry. I got this.
I suppose what kept me from throwing myself into the night was my sense that this was very much a theme park Outback experience. The dancers were the only Indigenous people present, the food was served at a buffet, the astronomer retelling the creation story was white. It was in many respects performative, and I had a better time when I was thinking about the food or the wine or the stars, and not the wider meaning of it all.
Of course, the ridiculous thing is that I know perfectly well that I couldn’t have enjoyed a “real” Outback experience, and what does “real” even mean when culture, capitalism and colonialism are combined? In the end, I gave up, and settled for drinking a glass of water for every glass of wine I finished.
(And I did not have a hangover the next day, nor was I even very drunk that night, so go me.)
The important thing is that I got to overhear a lot of English women complaining about the compost toilets, and I found that deeply entertaining.
The next day, we visited Uluru itself.
I mentioned the scale of the Rock, right? It’s quite large. And, like an iceberg, only about thirty percent of it is above ground.
The walk around the base is about thirteen kilometres. Now, it was quite hot — the forecast was for thirty-six degrees — and we didn’t want to be out in the afternoon, but it was also Amanda’s birthday, and for some reason she wasn’t eager to get up at dawn. Weird, I know. So we visited Uluru around mid-morning, and only stayed until 12:45. This gave us time to explore the Cultural Centre, aka the all-important museum shop(s), then walk 2km to the base and do a quick 5km stroll.
Once you’ve seen Uluru, it’s easy to understand why it’s such a sacred place. It’s not just the shock of it, this vast edifice exploding out of the flat desert landscape, it’s the life of the place. We arrived just a few weeks after the rains had come — floods, in fact — but Uluru’s surrounds are fertile for most of the year.
The other reason it’s easy to understand why it’s so sacred is because there are lots of signs telling you so. Starting at the Cultural Centre, with a sign asking visitors not to photograph a particular area, and out to the Rock itself. There’s really no excuse for going, “Oh, yeah, I found this rock, looked like no one was using it, so I thought I’d give it a bit of a climb.”
But I digress.
The Cultural Centre features a small museum, with murals by local artists depicting the discovery of Uluru by Indigenous people, and its place in their culture. There was also a video, which we didn’t stop to watch, and a display about the geology of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Fairly basic stuff, dating — I would guess — back to the establishment of the national park.
Then there was the art gallery, aka MUSEUM SHOP ONE. This was the shop for serious business Indigenous art, and home to workshops and (I think?) artists in residence. There were lots of carved wooden animals, and I was very taken by a small wooden wombat, but I was afraid that my cat would claw it. (Feral cats: a major cause of ecological destruction at Uluru.) So I settled for a postcard.
MUSEUM SHOP TWO was more your straight up tacky souvenir shop. The place to go if you needed a spare hat or back-up water bottle or emergency bottle opener with boobies.
…speaking of back-up water bottles, here’s my lifehack: I brought two, put one in the fridge the night before, and half-filled the other then put it in the freezer. Filled it the rest of the way before we left in the morning, and voila! Cold water for an hour and a half!
(It would have stayed cold for three hours at home, did I mention it was hot?)
The walk from the Cultural Centre to the Rock itself was gorgeous. We are not plant people, so there was a lot of “I wonder what that is?” and “Is that meant to be grey-purple, or is it dead?”
(Answer: it is meant to be grey-purple, but I can’t remember what it is.)
There was also a lot of “I wonder what animal lives in those tiny holes we keep seeing, and if it will kill us?” Don’t worry, they turned out to be desert mouse holes.
We also got to know some flies. We knew, of course, that they’d be out there, and we brought insect repellant, but we underestimated their tenacity. All over the resort, shops sold fly nets — soft mesh hoods that you wear over your hat to keep the flies off. Oh, how we laughed, how we swore we’d never wear them.
We regretted that choice. Some flies were eaten that day. It wasn’t pretty.
Our walk took us to the base of the climb. We were prepared to be mad at people climbing Uluru, but luckily (for them), the climb was closed due to the heat.
But truly, I don’t understand the mentality of a person who goes, “Hmm. Well, everywhere I look, there are signs asking people not to climb Uluru, and explaining why … but it’s here, so why not?”
And setting aside the cultural issues … that climb is steep! People have died ascending Uluru! HOW CAN THAT POSSIBLY BE FUN?
Especially when there are so many other cool things to do, which don’t involve CLIMBING A VERY STEEP, VERY SACRED ROCK. We walked less than a third of the circumference, and we saw:
- paintings on the wall of the cave where young men were taught the Law
- a sacred cave where women went to teach the young girls the Law (with signs along the path asking people not to take photographs)
- a permanent water hole with algae on the side of Uluru (and a sign that says “No swimming” because some people need to be told)
- a cave used as a kitchen, with marks in the rock from the cooking tools
- a cave with a blackened ceiling from the campfires, and art drawn on the walls and in the ceiling, where the old men would hang out
And this was just walking — for $45, you could hire a bike for three hours, and for a hundred and something dollars, you could do a Segway tour.
(But we overheard the Segway tour leader saying, “Yeah, Parks’ll take any excuse to close the climb, it’s a real shame, people should have the right to climb,” so maybe it’s not worth the money.)
(I’m still pretty sad we didn’t hire bikes, though, even though it was outside our budget AND would have been terrible for Amanda’s bad knee.)
After all that, we were slightly exhausted. Imagine how tired we’d have been if we had tried to walk around the whole of Uluru!
We returned to the resort for lunch and a nap, and then hit Wintjiri Arts and Museum. This was a bit disappointing — we were much too tired to appreciate the art, and the museum was extremely old school. Which is to say, it was full of dead animals in glass cases.
Much later that evening, we had one final adventure: a trip to Field of Light, an art installation nearby. We were very lucky to be able to get a ticket to this, and it was easy to understand why: the installation is, essentially, a vast sea of lights, arranged seemingly at random, set in the middle of the desert.
It has been set up around the world, but was originally inspired by the artist’s visit to Uluru as a backpacker, and it felt very natural in this setting. I would have liked to know how the local wildlife coped with the lights and cables, but I didn’t think to ask at the time.
I got up early on Sunday morning and walked to the resort’s look-out to watch the sun rise over Uluru. It was very beautiful, and I appreciated the absurdity of having lots of people with noisy cameras exclaiming happily about the peace and tranquility.
(And I don’t exempt myself there, I wasn’t exclaiming about anything, but I did have my phone, and managed to get a panorama shot that was only slightly terrible.)
Then we packed, checked out, killed a couple of hours in the breakfast buffet, and began the long, slow journey home.
Even though I went more or less on a whim, I’d love to go back. Preferably with a car this time — or, since I don’t drive, a friend with a licence who can rent a car — so we’re not at the mercy of shuttle buses, and we can visit Kata Tjuta, which we didn’t have time for on this trip.
A random list of things I tried, learned, thought or did:
- I made it through the whole weekend without making a single tasteless joke about dingoes and babies, and I am proud
- the breakfast buffet was an excellent opportunity to try new things, so now I know that I like century eggs, and I’m still working out the ideal ratio of soy sauce to congee
- I was not prepared for the number of white people in safari suits I would see
- I had a lot of trouble finding an appropriately terrible gift for Stephanie, but don’t worry, I got something awful
- I discovered that my very best friend in the world thinks that emus are “nice” and “have kind faces”, so there are a lot of things I need to reassess, apparently
- it turns out that magpies and butcherbirds are a lot alike, and I cannot be trusted to properly identify birds and shouldn’t try
- four words: desert. lime. melting moment.
- I had a cocktail that contained finger lime and gin, and it was amazing and I think I need a finger lime tree. And maybe also a gin tree.
- Brisbane really is a big country town