One month in Oz – 20. Sunset over sacred land

Post 20 of a series detailing our Australian adventure. Access the full series here.

Today we awoke in our gorgeous room in Desert Gardens Hotel, Ayers Rock Resort, full of excitement to visit Uluru for the first time.

But before that we had our first breakfast in the hotel’s White Gums restaurant, with its very intriguing “live egg station”! This turned out to be a facility for requesting made-to-order dishes made with eggs, including not only eggs every way but also dishes such as eggs benedict, omelettes and pancakes. These were ordered by ticking boxes on a small paper menu found at our seats every morning, which we then simply placed in front of the kitchen. Five minutes later we’d have plates of delicious, hot, fresh food delivered to our table. We found this pretty amazing, and made sure to try something different every day (I can particularly recommend the Italian omelette)!

These dishes are extra to the largest and most diverse breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen. Possibly the only one where you’ll find traditional ‘British fry-up’ components alongside not only continental cold meats, cheeses, pastries, yoghurt and fruit, but also Asian noodles, fried rice and even sushi with all the trimmings! There were not enough days in our stay, nor enough room in our stomachs, to take full advantage of this feast.

Below: the Desert Gardens Hotel gardens and the path to its restaurants complex
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Indigenous insights

We had some spare time before picking up our rental car in which to discover Ayers Rock Resort‘s various Aboriginal Cultural Experiences. The ones in which we participated took place around the resort at various times, and were completely free for anyone to turn up to – it was such a lovely touch to staying at the resort.

First we came across a Bush Yarn session, taking place at the ‘Circle of Sand’ besides the small Aboriginal crafts market on the grassed area near the town centre. We sat down on two of the tree stumps making up the circle and listened to one of the Aboriginal resort guides tell us about traditional hunting within his culture: that of the Anangu people. Our storyteller was so informative and expressive; he really brought the traditions of the Anangu to life and we learnt so much. We even got to hold and feel the traditionally made weapons as we learnt how they were used.

Next, Steve had the chance to try playing didgeridoo! There were Aboriginal guides playing didgeridoos in the town square – it sounded great – and inviting male guests to have a go themselves. Having read up about it beforehand, I knew that female guests weren’t invited as it’s against Anangu culture for women to play. Unfortunately, others had not and we witnessed a rather awkward exchange between a middle-aged couple and one of the guides on this point! The ban freed me up to film Steve playing the instrument with the friendly instruction of one of the guides. He said it was more difficult than it looks, but he was pretty good at it nonetheless! Watch his performance here.

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Driving to Uluru

The time had come to pick up our rental car, so we went to the Hertz desk inside the Information Centre. The woman said we were eligible for a free upgrade, from the car we’d ordered to a much larger ‘ute’. Ute, for the uninitiated, is an abbreviation of ‘utility vehicle’. It’s like a 4×4 with an additional cargo tray on the back for logs, heavy machinery or whatever your remote rural business requires. “What a ridiculous suggestion,” I thought, “Driving around in the outback will be daunting enough as it is; the last thing we need is a giant, unwieldy pickup truck for transporting just the two of us.”

“I’ll take the ute thank you!” said Steve. Never under-estimate the powerful draw between boys and their toys.

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Keys in hand, we walked into the car park to find our vehicle. It wasn’t difficult to spot: it was the largest thing there and had an orange warning light on top of it! The difficult part was convincing ourselves that this monster was genuinely what we’d be driving around in for the next few days. Steve was ecstatic to discover that it was a Toyota Hilux, which was famously featured on Top Gear for being virtually indestructible. We climbed into the towering passenger cab and discovered off-road controls we’d never seen before, as well as a communications radio and a media system that enabled us to play the music on our MP3 player flawlessly. Thankfully it didn’t take Steve long to get used to the controls, and with the large, mostly empty outback roads there was a bit of room for error!

We easily found the entrance to Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park by following the signs. That and the fact that it was one of very few directions to take! At the entrance we paid A$25 each for three-day passes into the park and a park map, before continuing down the road towards Uluru. It was a much longer journey than we’d expected but an immensely enjoyable one, especially with Franz Ferdinand pumping from the stereo. Uluru never left our sight, growing larger and more impressive as we drew closer. We couldn’t resist stopping by the side of the wide, empty dirt road to photograph it in its imposing entirety. It’s easy to see why the Anangu see this large red rock as a sacred landmark shaped by their gods; even I, a non-religious sceptic, felt profoundly moved by its powerful and somehow spiritual presence.

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Introduction to the rock

Following the advice in our map, we stopped at the Cultural Centre to acquaint ourselves with the history and cultural significance of Uluru before seeing it up-close. Visiting the centre is an experience in itself: it’s beautifully designed to reflect the natural environment and contains pretty much everything there is to know about the landscape and the Anangu people. It tells the many stories the Anangu have about different sections of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and thus imparts a deep understanding of why visitors should not climb the revered rocks – even if every landform can be otherwise explained by geological processes. Another highlight is a fascinating video documentary about Uluru’s discovery and how it became a tourist destination. There’s also a gift shop, art gallery and cafe here to chill in – and I mean literally. The cool environment of the visitor centre makes it a blissful escape from the unforgiving heat of the outside.

We had just enough time for a short walk to Uluru before sunset. We decided to do the Kuniya walk, which is just a kilometre’s stroll up to the rock’s Mutitjulu waterhole from the Kuniya car park. This short walk allows you to admire the rock’s towering surface up-close, taking in both stunning geological weathering and aboriginal cave art. We were told that the Mutitjulu waterhole is usually dry, but thanks to the previous night’s storm it was full of water and reflections.

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DSC02560-1-2Seeing that the sunlight was beginning to soften, we got back in the Hilux and drove to the sunset viewing spot shown on the park map called Talinguru Nyakunytjaku. We joined the few people there already, found the best viewing spots on the constructed platform and waited, enjoying the near-silence of the outback. The sun slowly sank below the land to the far left of the rock, enflaming the horizon. The clouds enshrouding Uluru prevented it from being a ‘postcard sunset’, but created hazy blue shadows against the orange-yellow glow that were picturesque in their own way. The atmosphere was so perfectly tranquil and absorbing that barely anyone spoke until the sun had disappeared.
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A spectacular supper

We drove back to Desert Gardens Hotel in the twilight and checked into Arnguli Grill restaurant for our dinner reservation. This is the formal, fine-dining restaurant of Desert Gardens Hotel, and is as expensive and luxurious as you’d expect. It’s housed in the same large, high-ceilinged room as the White Gums restaurant, but in a smarter lower section decorated with Aboriginal art and circled by floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the swimming pool. We could only afford to dine there one night of our stay, so we were going to ensure we made the most of it!

We were shown to a pristine table in the middle of the restaurant and ordered two glasses of Australian sparkling wine, followed by a large glass of Rosé for me. Before our starter arrived we were brought freshly baked bread and an amuse-bouche each – I can’t remember what it was, but it was delicious!

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Having examined the menu earlier we knew what our starter would be already – in fact we’d been looking forward to it all day. It was called the Tastes of Australia platter and comprised small portions of the four main indigenous meats – kangaroo, wallaby, emu and crocodile – cooked in different, complimentary ways. The crocodile was on a skewer with a mango-lime dressing; the wallaby smoked between puff-pastry layers with a bush-tomato marmalade; the emu sliced with braised red cabbage; and the kangaroo rolled with a salsa verde. The variety and exquisite presentation of the food made it a real treat to eat, and the meats tasted so much better cooked in these carefully considered ways (as opposed to sausages the previous night). It’s definitely up there as one of my favourite-ever meals!

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Our second courses fell short after the magnificence of the starter. Steve enjoyed his fancy fish dish but I was a bit disappointed by my French onion soup, which I found too watery and strongly flavoured. Perhaps I just picked the wrong dish.

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Thankfully, the standards picked back up again for desert. We both ordered the chocolate one, which comprised the amazing combination of a rich chocolate brownie on a cheesecake base, with caramelised figs, hazelnut ice cream, a wafer and solid chocolate streaks. It tasted just as good as it looked! Paying the bill at the end was a little painful but we both agreed it had been worth it for the starter, dessert and impeccable service. Besides, we deserved a treat in preparation for the challenge we’d set ourselves for tomorrow: the Uluru base walk!

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