Last Sunday morning I landed in Uluru, aka Ayers Rock, in the Red Centre of Australia. I had an aisle seat over the wing and so didn't get this gorgeous aerial view, but I knew the second I set foot on the tarmac that this would be as magical a place as I had always imagined it would be. (Note: To view a larger version of the pictures, just click on the photos.)
We hopped over to the resort that was hosting the U.S. contingent for Dreamtime 2009's pre-conference fam trip, Sails in the Desert, one of the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort properties. From the airy lobby and art gallery to the Kuniya and Winkiku restaurants to the huge pool, the hotel really was an oasis after the long haul from Boston (I think it was 20-something hours of flying time, plus a long layover in LA). We barely had time for a quick shower before heading over to the Oval, the sole green space in this corner of the outback, for lunch, dot painting, spear throwing, punu carving, and meeting some of the local critters.
Then we were off again, this time to the Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta for a walk before drinks and canapes at sunset (I know, it's a tough life, isn't it?).
What the photo doesn't show is the flies, which while they didn't bite, were pretty annoying. As soon as the sun set, however, they all disappeared.
We headed back to the hotel for dinner, where I was talked into trying the kangaroo tartare, even though I don't eat red meat. It was a fabulous meal, but I had to beg off before dessert and crawl to my room for some much-needed shut-eye, especially since we were getting up early for a sunrise breakfast.
Next on the agenda was a bus and walking Spirit of Uluru tour, which took us all around the base of the rock as our guide told us creation stories and myths about how certain features of the rock came to be.
We also took a trip to the Uluru Cultural Centre, where one of the highlights was the “Sorry Book,” a collection of letters from tourists who had taken rocks from the sacred land around Ayer’s Rock and, after either learning that this was inappropriate or experiencing bad luck ever since, were returning the stolen pieces to their rightful home. It's hard to describe, but you could feel the sacredness of the place, even in a tour bus, and even more so when we got out and walked around to the main watering hole and a cave with some drawings on the walls.
After going to the Outback Pioneer, where I put some honest-to-goodness shrimp on the barbie for lunch (they called them prawns, though), we headed back to the Oval for an intercultural, intergenerational lesson in football with some of the local indigenous kids.
The kids, who ranged in age from pre-teen to almost 20 and were brought to the resort from their homes throughout the region, proved to be good coaches, though the innate shyness of the Anangu, as the local indigenous people are collectively known, did make for a rocky start. After a brief lesson for the Americans in how to kick, hit, and pass the ball, we retired to the sidelines as the boys came out on the field and began to play. Once the game got going and the kids, now in their element, became more comfortable, some of us Americans slipped onto the field and joined the play. Before long, differences in age, origin, culture, and physical abilities melted away as everyone strove to score goals for their team.
It was, as one of the U.S. incentive planners told me, one of the highlights of the trip.
Then we were off to Longitude 131, which is the most luxurious of the Voyages Ayers Rock resorts, a tent enclave nestled into a hillside with spectacular views pretty much everywhere. We went up on a bluff for sunset viewing and canapes, set to the unearthly music of Dwain Phillis on the didgeridoo.
We rounded out the evening with dinner under the stars, complete with a "star talker" who explained the different constellations (it was the wrong time of year to see the Southern Cross, darn it! But I haven't seen the Milky Way so clearly since I was a kid at summer camp in Maine).
Once again we were up before dawn for more sunrise viewing, this time on camels from the Uluru Camel Farm. Once again, the views were stupendous. Our camel, Wombat, was a pretty good sport about the whole thing, too, though he was determined to get some attention from the guy in front of us, who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with him.
OK, so now we'd seen the rock on foot, by van, and on camel-back -- what could be left to do? Oh yeah, fly over it in a helicopter. So we did that, too, before boarding a plane back to Sydney.
I'd never flown in a heli before, much less in a place as starkly beautiful as Uluru, so I was bouncing around like a kid, especially after my new friends let me take the shotgun seat. It was so cool; I was bubbling over about it for hours.
I can't begin to do justice to this amazing place, the people, the food, the views, the culture. All I can say is that I am so grateful to have been able to experience it.