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Luminous night in our very own desert

It's pitch black in the middle of the Australian Outback. Yet it is impossible to feel alone, for two reasons.

04 Apr 2010

By Steve Meacham, Senior Features Writer, Sydney Morning Herald

It's pitch black in the middle of the Australian Outback. Yet it is impossible to feel alone, for two reasons.

Firstly, the sky above us is a dazzling canopy of constellations. There are countless stars, thousands more than you would ever witness from any Australian city, each one twinkling like a welcome beacon.

Surely somewhere up in the nocturnal heavens there must exist some other form of intelligent life, no matter how noisy?

Certainly, there are noisy life forms down here. The other reason it's hard to feel alone is the fact we've taken our young boys - aged seven and six - on an evening's astronomy tour, and they are now squabbling over who gets to use the telescope first.

It was my wife's idea to come to Uluru for a four-day short break. In fact, she had kept the destination secret from us, only telling us a couple of days before that she had booked some cheap flights for a mystery summer holiday.

There were only three clues. We wouldn't need our passports. We should only pack hot weather clothes. And we'd definitely require our bathers because ‘‘this place has a very big beach''.

We had been talking about taking the boys to see the Outback for some time, and I knew she wouldn't consider us driving far in the January heat. The thought of a few days in the desert sounded just the kind of mini-adventure she'd enjoy - but naturally I acted as surprised as my sons when we got to Sydney airport and joined the queue for Ayers Rock Airport.

The flight itself, across the Great Dividing Range, over the Western Plains and then over constantly changing desert country, is a memorable experience for anyone, let alone young children. But then, as our plane circled for landing and the boys got their first glimpse of the famous red icon, their whoops of exhilaration filled the cabin.

Picking up our hire car, we drove the 10 minutes to Voyages Ayers Rock Resort. The somewhat ageing complex now consists of five hotels and a campground, which covers most budgets. Annie had booked us into Sails in the Desert, the resort's premium accommodation; so named because of its arabesque sailed roof.

I'd quibble about its five-star rating simply because it is now a little tired. But our family room, with two king-size beds and a large verandah overlooking the pool and gardens, was more than comfortable. And Sails certainly has all the facilities you could possibly ask for in an oasis: a fine dining restaurant (Kuniya), the more casual buffet-style Winkiku, an artist in residence working away at the Mulgara gallery, the Red Ochre Spa - and that large pool which provides much needed refuge from the midday sun.

Like most visitors, we concentrated our excursions out of the hotel to the early morning and late afternoon/evening. Not only are the temperatures more bearable, but the desert also displays subtleties that aren't revealed in harsher light.

Each morning we'd wake at 5 am and drive the 15 minutes or so into the National Park to watch the dawn rays sweep on to Uluru, changing the colours and texture of the immense stone monument by the minute.

It's still legal to climb the Rock - Environment Minister Peter Garrett made that ruling in 2009. But it is not encouraged. Signs point out how many people have died attempting the climb, and that climbing upsets the local Anangu people because of its spiritual significance.

Anyway, as it turned out, the ascent was officially closed each of the three mornings we were there: first for storms, then wind.

One suspects such ad hoc closures are going to become ever more frequent, with rangers finding a reason to stop people climbing on a day-by-day basis, rather than imposing an outright ban which might deter backpackers from making the long trip.

According to official figures, of the 350,000 people who visited Uluru in 2009, only 38% chose to climb Uluru (compared to 74% 20 years ago). Japanese visitors are the most likely to climb it; German, US and Scandinavian visitors are the least likely.

Not that the closures worried us. There are plenty of other ways of enjoying both Uluru and Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas, as they used to be known).

A huge amount of money has been spent in recent years improving the viewing facilities. A new 8-km road loops around Uluru, but at a further distance away than the original, giving you a much better sense of perspective. There's also a new sunrise viewing platform which attracts more than 1,200 early birds each morning, with platforms, elevated walkways and decent shade. Similarly, part of the popular Uluru base walk has also been moved and upgraded - avoiding sacred Indigenous sites but including cave paintings and other objects of interest.

There is also now a decent visitor's centre at Uluru, with cafe, educational displays and shops selling Indigenous art.

Of course, you'll also want to visit Kata Tjuta, about 20 minutes drive from the resort. Armed with lots of water and snacks, we took the boys on a trek to see the Valley of The Winds.

But it was the 8.30 pm astronomy tour that most captured their imagination. As Trevor, our knowledgeable guide, used a laser torch to explain the stars of the southern hemisphere, they lapped up each snippet.  As city boys, they had never realised that the night could be so luminous.

Published: 04 Apr 2010