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Even with increasing tourist numbers at Uluru, you can still marvel at the great rock in peace, writes Naomi Arnold.

IT’S NOT surprising that William Edward Harney, the first ranger at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, was something of a poet. He was also a drover, soldier, labourer, fencer, sailor, fisherman, and yapper; above all, a classic Aussie bushman. Harney wrote 100 tourist permits in his first year on the job; by the time he retired six years later in 1962, the numbers had swelled to 4000. To Ayers Rock and Beyond is one of a dozen books he wrote about his remarkable life; another is a cookbook giving recipes for baked snake, stingray pie, witchetty grub kebabs, baked goanna eggs, and roast flying fox. That was published posthumously; he died of a heart attack at his home, Shady Tree, in Queensland’s beachside town of Mooloolaba, on New Year’s Eve 1962, a few months after leaving the Outback. Harney is one of the 15 pioneers celebrated at Longitude 131, Uluru’s premier accommodation complex skirting the edges of the national park. The hotel last year celebrated its 10th birthday, and the food and accommodation has moved on slightly from baked goanna eggs and a tent, Harney’s preferred place to sleep. His little red memoir of his time spent as ranger is on Longitude 131’s library bookcase, tucked into a room of dark wood, comfortable chairs, memorabilia, and shelves groaning with luxury accommodation awards. ‘‘It’s the coolest room in the house,’’ a staff member explains. That is important; when I visit in early November, Outback temperatures have already reached the low 40s, the earliest since records began in some places. Staying at Longitude 131 puts you in impeccable company. It has hosted such guests as Oprah and Usain Bolt, as well as many other celebrities whose names the staff won’t reveal. From the helicopter transfer to the in-room iPads loaded with haunting traditional music and complimentary mini-bar, it’s the most exclusive place to stay when you visit the Red Centre – so exclusive that there are no road signs – and your hosts are focused on keeping you away from the hordes of tourists who can clog much of the rest of the park at peak times. Longitude 131 originally opened in 2002 but burned a year later during a bushfire, reopening in 2004. Bushfires are frequent – indeed, on our last night a small one rages across the horizon, shocking orange against the navyink of the sky. In such a sensitive

Degrees of separation

Red centre: Longitude 131’s 15 rooms each look out at a pristine view of Uluru.

environment, Longitude 131 prides itself on eco-sensitivity. Each tent has its own solar panel for hot water and airconditioning, and waste is piped 2 kilometres to the main resort of Yulara. Just as the paprika-coloured sweeps of desert beyond the library windows are much more lush and varied than you could imagine, the facilities at all-

There are no roads, no high rises, no tour buses – only wind rustling the desert oaks and the occasional squawk of a bird somewhere off in the dunes. inclusive Longitude 131 exceed expectations. There’s an open bar, although squadrons of staff are there to assist should you need it. The 15 ‘‘rooms’’ each celebrate an early settler or pioneer, and create an arc of white-pointed domes tracing the closest sand-dune to the park. Each room is really a tripletented, glass-fronted cabin, outfitted with leather lamps and colonial furniture with unimpeded views of Uluru, 10km away across the soft red sand. Although it’s a suffocating walk from the main lodge along reddusted paths to get to each, once inside they are cool and refreshing, with a suspended, cocoon-like feel. If you wake while it’s still dark, as I do – the area is 41⁄2 hours behind New Zealand during daylight saving – a bedside button

rolls up the blinds, lowers the flyscreen and opens the windows so you can watch the sun rise slowly, light spilling across the horizon and making the great rock glow. There are no roads, no high rises, no tour buses – only wind rustling the desert oaks and the occasional squawk of a bird somewhere off in the dunes. ‘‘I come every day and I’m still amazed,’’ says one of our guides, Nicole, on our first sunset view of Uluru that night. She equips us with champagne and canapes and takes us up a sandy path to the end of a dune so we can gaze at the Outback equivalent of Sydney’s Opera House. The ants run up our ankles as we watch the light bleeding from the sky and warming the surface of the rock. When the stars come out that night, we drive along a corrugated dirt track to Table 131, an outdoor dining space surrounded by tiki lamps. We’re sitting back with wines poured when the Wakagetti dancers arrive. Painted in white, the three men are entrancing, coming close to us and challenging, then dropping back, performing the local Anangu dances they’ve traded with their own. It’s athletic and enchanting, and we stare transfixed. Then the christmas beetles arrive, dropping on to the tablecloth, crawling on the butter, and foiling the arrival of the celeriac soup, wagyu beef and dark chocolate tart. We’re whisked back on the bus for dinner at the resort. It’s not uncommon; the beetles come and go with the wind. Later that night we’re treated to a stargazing talk, the sky like a great dark up-ended bowl, salted with stars on its underside, and Uluru looming muscular and blue on the horizon.

In this heat, most sightseeing happens in the mornings and evenings. The next day we’re up early for a trip to Kata Tjuta, a local Pitjantjatjara word meaning ‘‘many heads’’, which appears as a cluster of mounds on the horizon, its rocks parting in places such as Walpa Gorge, allowing us to walk through and marvel at the sheer sides. It used to be open to initiated men only, but Anangu have relaxed their laws to allow tourists. Though our guide, Trevor, can’t tell us all the stories he knows, he is a storybook of knowledge, explains the nebulous concept of tjukurpa, a word that makes the land seem like a giant map with creation, knowledge, and survival written in the shape of the hills, the sand dunes, the creek beds. ‘‘The more I learn, the more fascinated I become, and the

The ants run up our ankles as we watch the light bleeding from the sky and warming the surface of the rock. more I realise there’s not much I know at all,’’ Trevor says. He drops in titbits of early European history and the Robert Falcon Scott-of-the-Outback types who suffered so much to push through desert roads for the white man in the early 19th century. After lunch we mount camels for a one-hour trek along desert paths. ‘‘It’s either hot or bloody hot,’’ our Outback Camel Tours guide Mick explains. Today it’s just hot, and my camel, Spinifex,



Alice Springs

seems to have a temper as nasty as its spiky namesake, yawling and gurgling when asked to get up. Still, he provides a gentle, rolling stroll with wonderful views of Uluru. In the afternoon Nicole takes us to Uluru itself, and we traverse the Mala Walk as she explains the significance of each site, before entering the serene stillness of the Kantju Gorge where the wind drops away in an immense redwalled cathedral. This close, it seems as though a bone of the earth has been thrust through the earth, its surface rusted and scored from centuries of rain rushing away particles of sandstone. ‘‘I never tire of looking at the great dome of rock rising up above me,’’ Bill Harney wrote in that little red book. ‘‘How nice to watch the stars drop down behind as though they were weary from sleep.’’ In the middle of Australia’s desert, a place that at first seems to be a uniform red, it’s astonishing how much becomes new as the light changes, when you take a few days to stop, stay and see. Naomi Arnold travelled to Uluru courtesy of Longitude 131 and Tourism Australia. 2.0

Degrees of separation - Sunday Star Times  

Even with increasing tourist numbers at the great red rock, you can still find silence.