Uluru may have iconic status but it still has the power to surprise. And even softies can enjoy the experience of camping here.
The Southern Cross is rising in the night sky and a cold westerly wind is blowing the canvas over our heads. Through the darkness I can just make out the outline of Australia’s most famous natural icon – Uluru. I am feeling content after a gourmet meal by the light of the campfire. I sink into bed knowing that no matter how strong the wind gets I won’t need to wake my husband to check the tent pegs. This is camping at its most glamorous.
This is glamping at Voyages Longitude 131°. At the boutique Red Centre resort, fifteen tents are strung out across the top of a sand dune with an uninterrupted view of the world’s biggest rock. Below the white canvas roofs are travertine floors, marble vanities and most importantly toilets that flush. (Out here drop dunnies are the norm.) The walls are decorated with memorabilia from the 19th century explorers who mapped this remote area. There is no television, there are no kids and the mobile reception is patchy. In-room entertainment is restricted to admiring the light reflected off Uluru, which as it happens, is quite a show.
Visitors to Uluru are encouraged to respect the sacred Aboriginal site and refrain from climbing the rock. However thousands of tourists each year follow in the footsteps of the explorer William Gosse and complete the 1.6km trek to the summit. But even on a good day, the climb is not for the faint hearted. The red rock face falls away perilously on either side of the path. We’re told of a tourist who ran down the last stretch of the rock, fearing his tour bus was leaving. He tripped over a ledge and died a week later of internal injuries.
Aboriginal creation stories weave their way through the caves, indentations, outcrops and other features of the rock formations. We follow the path of mythical snakes and ancient battles as the setting sun turns Uluru a fiery red. The towering rock rises above us like the rusting hull of a great cargo ship. The last of the tourists scramble off the rock. The wind drops and peace descends on Uluru. We have the rock to ourselves.
Several kilometres away tourist buses are disgorging hundreds of amateur photographers, desperate for the perfect position to capture Uluru’s evening routine. Thanks to a special permit arranged by Longitude 131°, hotel guests enjoy the show just metres away from the rock.
The intimate front row experience is complemented by champagne and canapés. In the distance the 36 domes that make up Kata Tjuta stand solemnly just off stage, like Uluru’s understudy. The great pink domes may not have the iconic status of Uluru but they are spectacular nonetheless. We visit the outcrops in the early morning sun – their red form contrasts with the brilliant blue sky.
It is late autumn. The cold night has given way to warm sunshine, but a chilly breeze nips the air until we find protection between the great domes of rock. As we walk on, a deep valley of red opens up into a green oasis and we follow a path of yellow confetti dropped by wattle trees. River gums also cling to life along the narrow flood plain that runs through the middle of Kata Tjuta. Longitude 131 ° offers a 48 hour program of excursions, giving visitors the chance to enjoy Uluru and Kata Tjuta from all possible angles.
Every second night, dinner is added to the excursion itinerary. The hotel chefs pack up their produce and utensils, stoke up the camp fire and cook a meal under the stars. Our desert dining experience is shared with a band of international honeymooners – visitors from Spain, England, Italy and the United States. There are a handful of grey nomads taking a break from the dusty road as well as a few Australians celebrating age milestones. We sit side by side sampling fine food and sipping matching wine. There are murmurs of appreciation. There is not a can of baked beans in sight. After dinner and a guided tour of the night sky we head back to our tent. Our luxury campsite is just a short stroll away through the inky black landscape. A few honeymooners return to the bar for a night cap. But my fluffy Dooner is calling my name. After a day of roughing it in the harsh Australian outback, I’m beat. Camping is never going to be the same again.