The spirit rekindled

It may have been formed millions of years ago but, as Katrina Lobley learns, everything old is new again at Uluru.

Lydia Angus, a senior Anangu woman, doesn't need pen or paper, blackboard or brush to conduct her art lesson. In front of Ayers Rock Resort's Town Square, with granddaughter Beryl at her side, the artist leans forward to draw concentric circles in a patch of red dirt. She is using her country as a canvas.

The circles signal a waterhole, campsite or fire - a significant element that is the story centrepiece. She drags a forefinger through the dirt: the parallel lines of a journey. A U-shape is the impression a human backside leaves in sand. With a few swift movements, she adds a menagerie: the slink of a full-bellied python, the paw prints of a dingo, the claws of an emu and - for something completely non-traditional - the squelchy pads of one of the million-odd feral camels that roam the country out here. The camel pads go down a treat. There are gasps of appreciation. Angus breaks into a smile, pleased with her handiwork and the reaction. As art lessons go, it's unforgettable.

The instruction is a warm-up for Ayers Rock Resort guests taking the morning dot-painting workshop. It's to help inspire the canvases they're about to complete telling their own story. The art lesson might not sound much but it signals the sweeping changes that are at last reconciling the resort with its surroundings.

Finally there's acknowledgment that visitors want more than the physical experience of walking around the base of Uluru or into the folds of Kata Tjuta when they travel here. Most people are hoping for something deeper, some connection to the ancient indigenous culture entwined with this country. They have been asking for a long time where the Aborigines are. And perhaps it was always going to take an owner such as the Indigenous Land Corporation, a statutory body that acquires land to help close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, to bring them to the resort.

The resort, built in 1984 just outside the boundary of the national park to replace the motels that had sprung up near the base of the rock, was sold to the ILC in May 2011. An ILC subsidiary, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, runs the resort - and it's wasted no time realising a grand vision.

An immediate move was to do something meaningful about indigenous employment. When Voyages took over, just two of 700 resort employees were indigenous, something guests not only noted but also complained about. With the establishment of the National Indigenous Training Academy at Yulara and a guarantee that graduates will find work either with Voyages (which also operates Home Valley Station in the Kimberley and the Mossman Gorge Gateway Centre in far north Queensland) or the global Accor hotel group, there are now about 170 indigenous staff. Thirty-five per cent come from Mutitjulu, the nearest community, 14 kilometres away. The big-picture goal is for indigenous employees to comprise half the resort's workforce by 2018. One of the resort's former 3.5-star properties, The Lost Camel, has become staff housing.

Against less than ideal statistics - Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park's ticket sales dropped 6 per cent in the year to November and, late last year, Qantas cancelled flights to Uluru from Perth and halved flights from Cairns - Voyages has forged ahead with major spending.

In November, it unveiled a complete refurbishment of its five-star Sails in the Desert property and a new conference centre that together cost $30 million. Rooms at Sails now incorporate desert theming: the aerial view of a dry creek bed meanders across floor carpets, walls are adorned with indigenous prints, bed cushions draw on the Seven Sisters creation story, lamps resemble woven baskets. The lobby, where guests inevitably spend time waiting for their next tour bus, includes a gallery of pieces from top-tier indigenous artists.

"We are absolutely convinced that our business will build here and that extra air capacity will come on in the future," the executive general manager of Voyages, Ray Stone, says. Visitors don't come only to admire the physical beauty of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, he says. Increasingly, they're interested in the red centre's spiritual aspect. "For a family, it can often introduce an emotional connection ... that they just didn't realise was needed," he says.

The resort put families firmly in its sights a year ago with specific packages. "The response has been tremendous - we've sold out every holiday," Stone says. "Parents feel good about bringing the children because there's a substantial educational element to it, but they're often surprised at the emotional reaction that they all have when they do these things like dot painting."

The dot-painting workshops aren't the only thing that's turned the Town Square lawn - between Sails and the four-star Emu Walk Apartments - into action central. It's home to other indigenous-themed activities such as spear and boomerang throwing, bush yarning, didgeridoo playing (for males only) and dancing.

The lawn also hosts an art market - an outpost of Maruku Arts based at the national park's cultural centre. After the Anguses finish their workshop in the morning, they settle in behind the stall to continue their meticulous dot work under the scrutiny of curious passers-by. By 4pm, the two paintings started during the morning workshop are sold. A staffer, who can't tell me her name because she shares it with a recently deceased person from Mutitjulu, where the centre has its warehouse, says people enjoy seeing artwork take shape before their eyes.

Maruku represents 800 artists from 18 remote communities scattered throughout an area the size of Victoria. I flip through stacks of unframed canvases, drawn to a painting by Martha Proddy, from Docker River, near the West Australian border. Before this morning's lesson, I would have called it abstract. The $125 canvas, its underbelly stained with red dust, is packed into my luggage reeking of campfire smoke and a way of life I can barely imagine.

A hint of this parallel world lies within the Town Square supermarket. I pass the Angus women exiting with a trolley of groceries and search the aisles for something distinctly central Australian: I find it in a pile of cling-wrapped, unskinned kangaroo tails stacked in the frozen section below the mini-dim sims and cocktail spring rolls.

Picking up a frozen roo tail might be the modern way to forage but, next morning, I learn about more traditional methods through a SEIT Outback Australia bush tucker tour that began in mid-2012. Indigenous guide Arthur Freckleton, who hails from South Australia's Roxby Downs, leads us through scrub country that to city eyes looks devoid of food.

"In one area, there's food; in another area, nothing - that's the desert," Freckleton says with a shrug of his shoulders. Of course, there is food here if you know what you're looking for. A feathery tuft of woollybutt grass looks like a camel snack to me, but its tiny seeds are a human food source. Shaken from their papery husks into a narrow wooden bowl, or kanyilpa, these can be ground into flour for damper. Mulga is good for dark, shiny seeds that can be crushed into porridge.

We sit in the shade on a tarp to taste desert tucker: tart dried quandongs, saltbush dukkah and tiny but flavourful bush tomatoes sometimes incorporated into big-city supermarket sausages.

With a rock we grind seeds into flour. Freckleton takes a twig, adds water and mixes dough. To our amazement, it's not only edible but also delicious. Just like that, Australia's arid centre seems less unknowable and more hospitable to our newly opened eyes.

The writer and photographer were guests of Voyages, Accor and Qantas.

Uphill battle

Climbing Uluru might one day be relegated to history. In 2010, it was announced the climb would close if the number of park visitors climbing the rock fell to 20 per cent. Late last year, that pledge was back in the spotlight after a survey of 331 visitors revealed just more than 20 per cent had climbed. "It was a very small survey," says a Parks Australia spokeswoman, Margot Marshall. "We have installed climb counters to measure actual numbers of climbers to give us more-robust numbers. We'll be relying more heavily on those."

Keenly aware visitor numbers are languishing due to a soft global economy and high Australian dollar — in the year to November 2012, park ticket sales fell 6 per cent to 243,300 — Parks Australia is developing alternative activities to replace the climb. "We're working on a range of indigenous experiences so visitors stay longer and radiate out from Uluru to neighbouring Red Centre lands," Marshall says. "We're working closely not only with the traditional owners of Uluru but also the traditional owners around [there] so [people] can go on a camping trip, perhaps, starting from Uluru and going out from there. We want to rekindle excitement in Uluru as a destination."

If the climb were to close, the federal government has promised to give tourism operators 18 months' notice. Uluru's traditional owners, the Anangu, ask visitors not to climb for a range of reasons.

What's new at the rock

The famed Sounds of Silence three-course buffet dinner under the stars ($169 an adult, $87 a child) remains but is no longer Ayers Rock Resort's premium outdoor dining experience. That honour goes to the Tali Wiru dune-top dinner ($295 a person). Restricted to just 20 guests, the four-course menu, assembled by headlamp-wearing chefs working in a makeshift kitchen, includes wattleseed-rubbed roo carpaccio, native thyme and garlic grilled wagyu, and macadamia and lemon myrtle-crusted barramundi with matching wines. After the meal is over, diners sit in a circle to hear an indigenous storyteller spin yarns over hot chocolate, port and cognac.

Lie back in a lounger or peer through a telescope at stars, galaxies, constellations and nebulae at a stargazing session. The resort holds two Outback Sky Journeys sessions a night: a kid-friendly one 30 minutes after sunset and another two hours after sunset; $38 adults, children 15 and under free.

A Mutitjulu artist and Maruku Arts host lead dot-painting workshops on the Town Square lawn. Learn the designs and take home your own masterpiece; $69 an adult, $35 a child, $195 for a family of four.

Daily performances of Mani Mani, a traditional tjukurrpa creation story originating from Pirupakala, 130 kilometres south of Kata Tjuta, will begin in the indoor Arkani Theatre in 2013. The story is about a wedge-tailed eagle and his two wives, a black crow and white cockatoo. Free for resort guests.

Walk through seemingly inhospitable country and learn how to unearth a meal on SEIT Outback Australia's two-hour bush-tucker tour led by an indigenous guide; $85 an adult, $77 a child; see seitoutbackaustralia.com.au.

Uluru to-dos

- Watch the sun rise over the rock at Desert Awakenings — a pre-dawn expedition that includes breakfast and a close-up look at Mutitjulu Waterhole at the base of Uluru. $158 adult, $122 child.

- Catch the rock at sunrise or sunset from atop a dromedary ($119 a person) or take the Camel Express ($75 a person) — a 45-minute lollop with views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. See ulurucameltours.com.au.

- Hop a hog to Uluru, Kata Tjuta or both. Uluru Motorcycle Tours offers 13 passenger tours that put you on the back of a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail, from $95 a person for a 30-kilometre spin. See ulurucycles.com.

- Walk through Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta, then catch sunset at Uluru before a barbecue dinner, on AAT Kings' Kata Tjuta, Uluru Sunset and BBQ Dinner tour. From $238 adult, $160 child. aatkings.com.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas ($195) flies non-stop to Uluru daily from Sydney. It has a $320 fare from Melbourne with a change of plane in Alice Springs (or Sydney). Fares are one way, include taxes and change on a daily basis. Transfers between the airport and resort are free.

Staying there

Rooms at Sails in the Desert start at $400 a night; longer stays are discounted. The two-night Uluru Escape package starts at $320 a person, twin share.

Touring there Ayers Rock Resort is four kilometres from the entrance to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. A three-day park pass costs $25 adults; children under 16 free. Tours can be booked at the resort's Town Square information centre.

More information

ayersrockresort.com.au; environment.gov.au.

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