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Uluru, beating heart of our land

 Uluru is the red heart of Australia. The first sight of it never fails to stop me dead in my tracks.

It rises in a lump from the flat desert of the Red Centre, seeming to pump energy through the continent.

Uluru is a tangible connection between ancient and modern versions of Australians. We can all feel its power, just as we always have. It is the continent’s ultimate natural talisman.

And, for just a few days, this year, it is less than a three-hour direct flight from Perth.

For Holidays of Australia took a punt, chartered a 95-seat plane, and took its first group of Western Australian travellers out to Uluru last weekend, me among them.

We leave Perth’s T2 at 7am on Friday, arriving just over three hours later.

Now armed with boxed lunches, we are met at the airport by two AAT Kings air-conditioned coaches and taken to Uluru — straight to the rock — to drive around the base, walk in to the Mutitjulu Waterhole, and hear the traditional stories.

It is hot. But then, it is the Red Centre, and it is summer — and the warm desert wind fans some of the flies off.

We arrive at Sails in the Desert, part of Ayers Rock Resort, in the mid-to-late afternoon — some heading to their rooms to rest and nap and cool off; others to the bar; a fair few to the big swimming pool.

The package, sold under Holidays of Australia’s NT Now brand, includes two nights, with breakfast. And those who had added it on go out that evening to the Sound of Silence dinner, first watching sunset, drink in hand, on a deck overlooking Uluru, before settling in to a fine dinner in the dunes.

Saturday is left free for guests to make their own arrangements. There are free activities around the resort (bush yarns, bush food explained, a didgeridoo workshop, a guided garden walk), but many set off back to the rock — some on foot, some on Uluru Segway Tours ($159 for four hours, including transfers), some on helicopter or light plane scenic flights.

Some hire a car (Hertz, Thrifty or Avis) and others booked AAT Kings or SEIT Outback Australia tours.

I get going early, to walk around the rock. On hot days, walk paths around the rock and at Kata Tjutu (which some still call “the Olgas”) may be closed at 2pm; on very hot days at 11am.

Holidays of Australia had included a $25, three-day pass for the Uluru-Kata-Tjutu National Park.

At 9.15pm on Saturday evening, despite the rain that had already come, we are picked up by coach and taken to artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light — a fantasy garden of 50,000 colour-changing spindles of light.

It rains more in the night, and I hastily arrange a car, to drive back out to Uluru and Kata Tjuta on Sunday morning, before leaving Sails at 2.30pm for the flight home, which arrives in Perth an hour late, after 6pm.

It had rained 16.3mm, enough to streak down the rock in the early morning light, as it sat under a frown of cloud.

What an extraordinary weekend adventure … made better by the excitement of it raining on the rock.

A learning cave is explained at Uluru.
Camera IconA learning cave is explained at Uluru. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

NEW DEPARTURE easter weekend

On Monday, Holidays of Australia’s NT Now announced a new departure, for the Easter weekend, leaving Perth on April 2.

It is the same itinerary, with a direct charter flight between Perth and Yulara, two nights at Sails in the Desert with breakfast, Uluru touring with lunch on the day of arrival, Field of Light Experience, all accompanied by a tour host. The package is going to be $2199 per person — but is on sale for $1999 per person until February 28.

The inaugural trip, last weekend, and a second in February, sold out quickly.

Book online now at ntnow.com.au or email deals@ntnow.com.au.

Or phone 1800 854 897 from 6.30am on Monday (Holidays of Australia is based in Adelaide, which is 2½ hours ahead of WA).

Phone during South Australia office hours, Monday to Friday.

The mesmerising Field of Light, Yulara.
Camera IconThe mesmerising Field of Light, Yulara. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

COMMENT Ground-breaking weekend

It was a weekend for pioneers …

First, for pioneering Holidays of Australia, under managing director Ben Mead, which had come up with the plan for the weekend, and then backed themselves to pull it off. New departures are priced from $1999 per person — and that’s good value for the flight, two nights with breakfast at Sails and the inclusions.

This first trip had challenges for the organisers — it was a “first”, for the charter flight, and for the resort, which has been COVID-closed for six months. Ayers Rock Resort is usually populated by up to 5000 mostly international guests. Just now, there are few. So, the weekend trip also helped to reignite the resort, and employ its staff.

The charter plane and crew stayed all weekend.

Holidays of Australia had four staff at the resort, helping guests.

Holidays of Australia will work to smooth out any logistical issues that arose.

The unexpected rain added other challenges — but I commend the Holidays of Australia staff on the way they met those challenges.

Second, the other pioneers were the travellers themselves. They crossed the line, took up the adventure; mixed, chatted, shared stories, embraced the place and the experience.

And, in this shutdown world, it was truly liberating.

ABOUT THE ROCK

For the Anangu people local to Uluru, life revolves around tjukurpa (sometimes incorrectly called Dreamtime). For them, this is when the world was being formed, and at Uluru, Kuniya (a woma python) and Liru (a poisonous snake) are among the important ancestors. The python came to Uluru from way east, and lived in the rocks there, where she fought the poisonous snakes, Liri.

Geologists tell us Uluru is composed of arkose, a coarse sandstone. It originally eroded from granite mountains and settled in the shallow sea of the Amadeus Basin depression. About 500 million years ago the water receded and, later, the floor lifted and folded in what is called the Alice Springs Orogeny (a rock band name, surely). The vertical layers we see in Uluru today are horizontal layers of that seabed, canted over to about 90 degrees.

The composition of nearby Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas) is different. These are conglomerate — pebbles, cobbles and boulders cemented by sand and mud.

If Kata Tjuta is a fruit cake, Uluru is a sponge cake.

Doing the Base Walk at Uluru.
Camera IconDoing the Base Walk at Uluru. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

WALK ROUND THE ROCK

… all aspects of this most remarkable place are in my mind as I set off on Uluru’s 12km Base Walk.

I had left the hotel at Yulara at 4.30am on the Uluru Hop On Hop Off ($49 return), which first stops at a lookout for sunrise, then drops us off at the rock, picking us up again at 10.30am.

It’s more than enough time to amble the 12km Base Walk. I’ve taken a few snacks and a little water, and the 41C seems to complement the endeavour and complete the picture. This is the Great Central Desert of Australia. This is summer, after all.

I chose to set off and get picked up from Mutitjulu Waterhole, just passed Mutitjulu Cave — a “teaching cave” where practical and cultural knowledge was passed on to children.

Mutitjulu is on the south side of Uluru and, by doing this, and walking anti-clockwise (“up the east side, down the west”), I’m still in a fair bit of shade in the later morning.

As the rock heats, air is sucked in, and wind roars into the gulleys, rattling the mulga trees.

Rainbow bee-eaters wheel in the wind, flashing their wings against the blue sky, zebra finches meep in the morning, and I spin when I hear the chatter of budgerigars, to see a flock flying high.

Ducks in a row overtake (helmeted humans on Segways) and a couple with two young children smile away the complaints (“this is a moment to focus, Abbie”).

Personally, I’m lost in some gentle odyssey, with plenty of time and background purpose — just perambulating, cogitating; lost in geology, spirituality and the bliss of just being, in the heart of Australia.

WHY ULURU IS RED

There’s a blue-grey line up Uluru, eroded by footfall, where once there was a chain and people used to climb the rock. That stopped in October 2019, out of respect for Anangu law and culture.

But today, this thin line still hints at the base colour of Uluru.

For fresh arkose is a grey colour. The red of the rock is caused by the rusting of the iron in that arkose.

The rock’s colour changes, from dawn to high sun to dusk, a result of the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere on the incoming sun rays.

Dust particles and water vapour filter out blue light more at some angles, allowing the redder light through.

In the morning and evening, when the sun is low, its rays travel through more of the Earth’s atmosphere and the light reaching the rock surface is mainly from the red end of the spectrum. Its reflection from the rock adds to the colour seen.

When the sun is overhead at midday, rays pass through a smaller thickness of atmosphere, minimising the filtering affect.

Drinks before the Sound of Silence dinner, with Uluru in the distance.
Camera IconDrinks before the Sound of Silence dinner, with Uluru in the distance. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

RAINING ON THE ROCK

Rain hammered on the roof on Saturday night in the Red Centre of Australia near Uluru.

And there I am, lying in comfort at Sails in the Desert, part of Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara.

I’m filled with excitement and anticipation.

It’s raining on the rock.

It had rained during the evening, but in the early hours it came down, dropping a total of 16.3mm.

It was enough to streak down the rock in the early morning light, as it sat under a frown of cloud.

Along with 94 other people from WA, I had flown on Holidays of Australia’s direct charter from Perth to Yulara on Friday morning. A tour around the base of Uluru and lunch was included. As part of the package, there were two nights’ accommodation at Sails in the Desert resort, with breakfast, a visit to the Field of Light, and tour host.

What an extraordinary weekend adventure … made better by the excitement of it raining on the rock.

KATA TJUTA

Walking at Kata Tjuta, less than 50km away, is a different experience, as visitors penetrate the site itself, walking up Walpa Gorge and then Valley of the Winds. I headed out there on Sunday, and walked Walpa with spits of rain. It is a moderate “there back walk” — about an hour for the 2.6km. The Valley of the Winds walk is brilliant, but rated moderate to difficult. It is 7.4km return, and Parks Australia recommends taking four hours.

Kata Tjuta is sacred to Anangu men.

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