From the moment our plane makes its approach towards the Uluru airport tarmac, with the windows framing a scene of earthy red dirt, cobalt blue sky and glimpses of that monolith, I know we’re in for a special family holiday to the heartland of the Australian outback.
Transported to Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, we can see the wondrous Uluru, or Ayers Rock, as we drive towards our accommodation at one of the several properties that make up the resort. Voyages Ayers Rock Resort was purchased by The Indigenous Land Corporation in 2011 and was established by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, but the resort was first built in 1984. It’s 20 kilometres from Uluru, in the Yulara township, and is ideally located to explore all the natural attractions in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
While the most luxurious accommodation in the Red Centre is Longitude 131° with its luxury tent accommodation, it doesn’t accept children under the age of 10. So the best option for families with young children is the five-star Sails in the Desert Hotel.
At Sails in the Desert, it does indeed feel like an oasis in what can sometimes be an unforgiving climate. We’re greeted with the sounds of a didgeridoo being expertly played by a local Indigenous man, as we make our way through the impressive hotel gallery and gift shop of Indigenous art towards reception.
Uluru | Katrina Holden
The staff are helpful and are all trained on the best options for their guests. I had arrived expecting to use the complimentary resort shuttle bus and take day trips to Uluru, but after chatting to the team on reception, I learned the better option for my family was to hire a car. I’d recommend this for other families with young children. After paying the entrance fee to the National Park, which is valid for three days, you can come and go as you please. If required, a child car seat can be fitted to your car. As it can naturally be hot and there are no food facilities in the National Park, I found making shorter morning and afternoon trips to the National Park, while heading back to the comfort of Sails in the Desert during lunchtime, was incredibly family-friendly.
In our hotel room, Indigenous art adorns the wall with Aboriginal motifs in the carpet, bed spreads and soft furnishings. Notes to guests emphasise that we are indeed in a very special and distinct environment, reminding us that the region’s natural flora and fauna are protected by law. If any insects or uninvited guests find their way to our room, we’re told to contact reception.
The breakfast buffet soon became the hotel highlight for my kids. Every possible breakfast food imaginable is seem ingly on offer to cater to the large number of international guests – from sushi to pastries. I was more impressed with the evening meals at Walpa Lobby Bar. The green curry was beautifully fragrant with a zingy Thai tang, but I also couldn’t go past the lightly battered barramundi and chips, knowing the fish, from Northern Australia, would be fresh.
We visited in the thick of the Australian winter in June, but that didn’t stop the kids enjoying the inviting heated outdoor pool. It has three zones – the regular pool with a large deep end, a hot water zone and a shallow wading zone for babies and toddlers. I order a glass of rosé from the Pira Pool Bar and watch as the kids splash about in the water and try to out-do each other with underwater handstands.
As fun as frolicking in the water might be, we haven’t come all this way to be poolside flops on the blue and white striped towels. The management understands this and provides useful access to information about visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuga (The Olgas) – the real stars of the show. Daily at reception, there is a display of sunrise and sunset times over Uluru, which is helpful for planning your morning and afternoon activities – because frankly, seeing the sun kiss good morning or turn her back on Uluru at dusk are must-dos. There are a number of ways in which to enjoy your sunset or sunrise vistas of the rock; you can head out to Uluru on a camel tour, a Harley Davidson or take a guided 10.6-kilometre (3.5-hour) base walk. We drive out to the sunrise viewing platform. As we head closer and closer to the rock before taking the turn-off to the sunrise vantage point, there’s an air of total amazement and awe coming from all of us. “Look at it kids, isn’t it amazing?” I shriek as our car hugs the turns in the road and my son films occasional moments on my phone. Although they had studied the rock at school, nothing had prepared them for its sheer scale. At one point, as the car approaches, Uluru takes up the entire view from our dashboard, rising like an enormous earthy red sandstone 348m-high tidal wave, frozen in time. The car park is full as we ascend the spinifex-lined path, and there’s only a handful of deck spaces left from which to view the sunrise. As the colours change and a pinky orange hue warms the rock, there’s an air of silence and appreciation – the only sound the hundreds of camera clicks and the chirping of birds and native fauna as they greet another day in the outback.
The cultural centre is well worth visiting before attempting any base walks or getting up close to the rock for the first time. It provides a comprehensive understanding of the local Pitjantjatjara Anangu culture. Uluru is a sacred site to the Anangu people and climbing the rock is strongly discouraged.
Children will love exploring Australia’s Red Centre | Katrina Holden
Kata Tjuta, or The Olgas, is a 50km drive from Uluru and worth the trip. It too has sunrise and sunset viewing stations and a series of Valley of the Winds walks ranging from moderate to difficult. Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in the local language. We enjoyed stopping regularly to view up close some of the numerous native floras.
The reception area at Voyages Sails in the Desert contains useful tour information to plan your trip. A visit to the Wintjiri Arts and Museum shows the work of local artists including paintings and jewellery. We take in the free cultural movie at the Mani-Mani Indigenous Cultural Theatre where in 45 minutes, my children learn about Aboriginal culture and its traditional laws and customs – and I witness a true sense of respect begin to emerge from them. My nine-year-old-son, normally an avid rock collector, knows not to take so much as a small pebble from this place, as it is offensive to the traditional owners.
For a night out, enquire about the Tali Wiru experience. Dining under the southern desert sky, the open-air restaurant seats no more than 20 guests and has magical views over Uluru and in the distance, Kata Tjuta. It’s an adults-only experience but you can book a babysitting service at Sails in the Desert. Tali Wiru operates nightly from April until mid-October.
For evening activities that suit all members of the family, the Family Astro Tour is a fascinating look into the skies and stars suitable for all ages. Resident astronomers discuss and point out all the highlights of the constellation and its mythologies. My kids were enthralled to view the moon up close through the telescopes with no city-light or technological distractions.
Running until 31 March 2017, the Bruce Munro Field of Light installation resembles an after-dark floriade. Internationally acclaimed British artist Munro has set the fields of Uluru twinkling with no less than 50,000 slender LED coloured lights that bloom like a field of flowers. With young children, you can take the basic two-hour journey – I’d advise taking a torch and rugging up. To see Field of Light in style, try either the ‘Night at Field of Light’ which includes entrance, canapés and drinks, a cultural performance and a three-course meal overlooking the lights; alternatively to extend this dining experience and to see the lights from above, take a ‘Night at Field of Light by Heli’ tour which includes the dinner but also a 30 minute Uluru and Kata Tjuta helicopter tour.
As we leave after our four-day stay, our suitcases heavier with hand-painted boomerangs and hand-woven Indigenous cushion-covers (and strictly, no rocks), I feel a warm glow knowing that I’ve given my family the experience of safely and comfortably visiting this soulful and special destination.