There’s a faint breeze blowing, but I’m perspiring nonetheless. Flies buzz overhead like a halo. But these trifling irritants are worth enduring in the Red Centre of Australia’s Northern Territory—where beauty is anything but banal. An expansive view over the red desert unfurls before us—like an ornamental placemat. In the distance I hear voices ooh and aah as the sun sets over the huge red monolith that is Uluru (Ayers Rock)–one of the world’s most iconic rock faces of arkose sandstone, rising like a phoenix some 348 metres above the desert sand.
But while the Ayers Rock and the National Park that contains it are formidable, the ostensible reason why writers from different parts of the world have assembled is for the opening of British artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light. For those who came in late, Munro, best known for producing immersive light-based installations, was inspired into new creation on a visit to Uluru in 1992.
It’s the sheer scale and execution of his work that has our eyes at the edge of their stalks. 50,000 slender stems crowned with radiant frosted-glass spheres, spread over an area the size of four football-fields, and illuminated by solar power, hypnotise us as they come to life by the fading light of the sun. Shimmering in shades of pink, white and green, under a sky blazing with southern stars, one gets an immediate feel for the artistic muse that the Outback can be.
For those who haven’t hired 4WD vehicles to get around, there are plenty of guided tours. Most of these lead obviously into the National Park. Even without the additional spiel of Uluru being one of the world’s natural wonders and the 36-domes of Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) with its deep valleys and gorges, having aficionados run superlatives ragged—it’s the obvious draw.
As the days unfold, it’s easy to see how the Outback becomes poetic space to those who approach it with the right disposition. Having breakfast-out, as part of a Desert Awakenings tour, for instance, doesn’t imply heading to a fancy café, but rather being seated at a raised elevation on a sand dune in the desert, with only the stars and the moon for illumination. Gorging on ‘damper’ (a traditional soda bread made of seasonal grains and nuts, cooked traditionally by aboriginal women in the ashes of a fire), accompanied by a steaming mug of coffee, the only sound we hear—apart from the appreciative murmurs at the repast—is the sound of silence. Riveting in its purity, it’s easy to understand why saints and sages make the hajj to the desert.
Then, like a magic trick, the sun rises— and Uluru and Kata Tjuta arise abruptly out of the red sand and spinifex, a tough, spiky, tussock grass endemic to Australia, blissful antidote against life’s more commercial pleasures. The guide begins to discuss the spiritual significance that these rock formations hold for their traditional owners—the Anangu people for whom, for tens of thousands of years, the rock was more than a rock. This living place for them is replete with myriad stories, including from beings who have left their mark upon it. That tourism is being developed with sensitivity to the original inhabitants has meant that a growing number of travellers respect the wishes of the Anangu and refrain from climbing Uluru.
But even without mounting these iconic projections, there are many ways to get closer. We walk around Uluru (a 9.5 kilometre tour around the base). As we approach the Mutijulu waterhole, we are encouraged to go slow, and contemplate the plant and bird life visible. At a time when much of the ethos of journeys is ticking off more boxes, there’s something about being instructed to sit down, close the eyes, breathe deeply and enjoy the birds. Here a spinifex pigeon. There a black-breasted buzzard. Everywhere a grey-fronted honeyeater.
Further along are several caves, some rich with art. The guide explains the paintings with the zeal of a crusader. Concentric circles on the rocks represent a waterhole or camping place; certain figures depict animal tracks. The more he talks, the clearer it becomes that we are not just celebrating ancient art, but as much the adaptability of the species from which we all hail. The Anangu, who lived here for well over 30,000 years, knew how to locate hidden waterholes and sources of food, where the untrained eye would see only red dust and spinifex. They learned to live with temperatures that fluctuated wildly, from the searing heat of the day to sub-zero conditions during the long winters.
Fashion is clearly the vanity of moderate climates. Here, a long-sleeved cotton shirt, sunscreen and fly-net hat are my worthy companions. And I set out on daily expeditions in extreme temperatures, with the ambition of being a self-regulating eco-system.
Another motto to live by here is—the more forays you make into the landscape, the deeper the insight. I take the Harley ride with Uluru Motorcycles around the Rock at sunrise. What from the distance looks like a smooth, featureless surface, up-close is complex and textured—like a pockmarked face. Weather-beaten and pitted with gashes, valleys and caves—is Uluru. Another surreal perspective of the rock formations I obtain from camel-back at sunset. What has most photographers on camel-back firing off enough film to garland a gallery is that Uluru changes in hue every five minutes, from orange to pink to red to black, in the morphing light.
Kata Tjuta is also temple to the singular. We approach the Walpa Gorge, named for the wind. True to its name, the wind whistles past our ears through the domes of Kata Tjuta. If ever there was a time for our egos to dissolve in the face of massive landscape, it is now. Even a larger-than-life monitor lizard crawling up a rock face that’s been formed over millions of years, appears but a flash in life’s pan.
What’s key in big sky country is not to bypass the less ubiquitous but just as formidable offerings. Watarrka National Park, best known as home of King’s Canyon, is the next direction in which I travel. On the three-and-a-half hour drive there, we’re given the choices. “Take the rocky climb to the rim of King’s Canyon or head for the boulder-strewn canyon-floor walk.” Life has taught me to opt for the more arduous; so the Rim Walk it is. We puff and pant up to the Rim, people of all continents from different parts of the world, with the landscape acting as the great equaliser. Large tracts of the sheer, red cliff-face of the canyon are without any shade from the sun, but even in this pinkly-hot state, the bird’s-eye views and the promise of seeing some of the 600- plus hard-to-see brigade of birds and animals found here, more than compensate.
Chances of bird sightings increase at the Garden of Eden (a watering hole at King’s Creek). It’s easy to see why aboriginal protectors of the space prohibit swimming here—an act which would obviously reduce the quality of water for the hundreds of species that rely on it. The whole aboriginal mandate, after all, rests on protecting the earth, not exploiting it. When I ask for local stories, I’m told, “It is an important men’s site and the Tjukurpa stories are too sensitive to be shared publicly.” No one asks further questions and we move quietly along. And it’s this feeling of sensitivity to local beliefs which moves me as much as the experience of King’s Canyon.
At the end of my time in Australia’s Red Centre, I take away a stack of images: pictures of astronomers decoding the-absence-of-pollution, star-spangled night skies, the iconic curves of Uluru, mischievously scampering dingos. But it’s the pride in the face of the bushwalker showcasing his native plants—plum, wattle and fig, that I remember most. It serves as a reminder that the cultural ecology is as important as the natural one.
Participating in a Maruku Indigenous Dot-Painting workshop with an Anangu woman clarifies this view. She explains how the Anangu make paints from mineral substances. Calcite (chalky mineral naturally occurring in this area) and ash are used to make white pigment, and calcite and charcoal are used to make black pigment. As she explains the significance of her painting, and shows me how to use traditional symbols to tell my own story, I see hope for a future world that recognises that a culture can only have arrived, when every person is able to take pride in their identity and use it as a springboard to attain a decent standard of living.
Fly from Delhi to Sydney (Malaysian Airlines has daily flights), and from there on to Ayers Rock. The flight from Sydney to Ayers Rock is 3.5 hours long. Qantas, JetStar and Virgin Australia all provide good regional connectivity.
Australian tourist visas can be processed online via some of the major players in the market, or through VFS/the Australian High Commission. Tourist visas allow for a stay of 90 days from the date of arrival into the country. The cost is `6,700 and the visa, on average, takes about 4-5 days to process. All information is available on vfsglobal.com/australia/india/tourist.html.
1 Australian Dollar (AUD) = approximately `51
Where to stay
Ayers Rock Resort (12km from Uluru) is an environmentally friendly village, well equipped for all kinds of travellers, who want the luxury of staying just outside the National Park boundary. The resort village offers accommodation of all kinds from five-star luxury to camping grounds. I stayed at Sails in the Desert (from `16,000 per night), the most pamper-happy of its offerings. The Red Ochre Spa on the property offers a variety of massages—useful, post a long, hot morning exploring the Red Centre.
Daily activities, free for all, around the resort include indigenous dance performances, bush yarns with native storytellers, chances to learn about indigenous weapons or bush tucker. There’s also the in-resort Wintjiri Arts + Museum Centre that showcases traditional jewellery, bush medicine, art and food. Insights into geology and aboriginal culture may also be gleaned here.
Another common denominator for anyone who stays here, is easy access to a central shopping centre that comes equipped with all the essentials—from banks to fly-net hats.
What to eat
The Sounds of Silence experience (subject to availability and weather conditions) is essential desert dining. Canapés and chilled sparkling wine served on a platform overlooking the National Park, ignite the experience. The humming sounds of a didgeridoo are the only sound punctuating the silence. By the light of the stars, you are glad you’ve worn your pants with the elastic waistband, because bush tucker food is served in manner inspired: crocodile, kangaroo, barramundi. That the resident astronomer decodes the southern night-sky post-dinner, accompanied by a glass of port, tea or coffee, only makes this experience greater than the sum of its parts.
If you’re after an indoor fine-dining experience, with Australian produce enlivened with local spices, grains, and seeds, Arnguli—named after the Pitjantjatjara word for bush plum, and located in Desert Gardens Hotel—ticks all the boxes. If you want a less hectic, but equally local dining experience, Pioneer BBQ offers a do-it-yourself meal, with your preferred cut of meat: kangaroo, barramundi, emu sausage.
What to see and do
The Tour and Information Centre, located at the Resort Town Square, is a good place to select from the more than 65 tours and experiences, AAT Kings does a good range of half- and full-day tours around Uluru/Kata Tjuta (aatkings.com.au).
SEIT Outback Australia specialises in small, interpretative group tours (seitoutbackaustralia. com.au). If you want to gain perspective on the rock from above, Ayers Rock Helicopter does sunrise to sunset flights, ranging from 15-minutes to full-day charters. (helicoptergroup. com). To book a Harley Davidson motorcycle-tour or a 3-wheeler Trike, see ulurucycles.com. Visit also the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre within the National Park. With its multilingual displays, it is a worthy halt to gain context on the Park and surrounding areas. Attached to the cultural centre, is the Aboriginal-owned Maruku arts-and-crafts shop, excellent for picking up souvenirs (paintings, boomerangs, spears, shawls), all by, for and of the local (maruku.com.au)