Why the Red Centre?
The first sighting of the fiery red dirt shows that the staggeringly remote centre of Australia is something a bit more than just desert. The nearest cities of any decent size are 1,500 kilometres away; this is the land of relatively isolated Aboriginal communities, vast cattle stations, scrubby saltbush and spiky spinifex. But among this, the earth has created some startling bumps and folds. Sandstone canyons and giant monoliths – of which Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) is the most dramatic – dot a landscape otherwise left to prowling dingoes, muscular red kangaroos and legions of feral camels.
A comfortable bed
The monopolistic and expensive Ayers Rock Resort (www.ayersrockresort.com.au), 20km north of Uluru, is a collection of hotels spanning the star grades. At the budget end of the scale, there's what's claimed to be the largest campground in the southern hemisphere.
The top option is Sails in the Desert, which has been recently furbished, and has a few touches of design flair. These include carpets based on Aboriginal artworks and bedside lamps surrounded by egg-like sculptures. Rooms cost from 388 Australian dollars (Dh1,016) per night.
Similar prices can be found at the bright but neutrally decorated Emu Walk Apartments, where split-level living areas come with kitchenettes and washer-dryers. They’re the best bet for families and those on a long road trip in need of a few home comforts.
Over at Kings Canyon, the Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge, run by APT (www.aptouring.com.au), offers quirky cabin-tent hybrids. They may have corrugated metal walls and canvas roofs, but they lean towards experiential luxury, with heat lamps in the bathrooms and group evening meals around the campfire. Rooms cost from 380 dollars (Dh996) per night.
Find your feet
The Anangu people – the traditional owners of Uluru – ask people to respect their customs and wishes, and not climb the big red rock. This is no great loss, because the 10.6km base walk around Uluru is far better.
Generally accepted best practice is to drive to the Sunrise Viewing Area to watch the colours of the rock undergo vivid change as the sun comes up, then continue to one of Uluru’s car parks before taking on the base walk.
Everyone knows that postcard shot of Uluru from one angle, but walking around it shows off a huge variety of perspectives, and mesmerising detail. Caves look like pockmarks on a face; brave plants attempt to grow in tiny gullies; wave-like stripes and streaks have been formed by waterfalls that appear temporarily after rain. Afterwards, the hike can be extended to the Cultural Centre, which has displays on the Aboriginal interpretations of how and why Uluru was created.
Meet the locals
Artists from the nearby Aboriginal communities come to the Ayers Rock Resort every day to run 69-dollar (Dh181) dot-painting workshops. These teach the meaning of commonly used symbols, and explain a bit about how the dot-painting technique developed as a way of disguising information only supposed to be passed on to initiated tribe members. Book through the resort.
Book a table
The standout dining experience is the 195-dollar (Dh511) Sounds of Silence dinner, where a three-course spread is served on a sand dune with prime sunset views of Uluru. Also thrown in are cultural performances from a didgeridoo player and Aboriginal dancers, but the most memorable aspect is the “startalker” who gives a fascinating introductory lecture on the southern sky. Again, it’s booked through the Ayers Rock Resort.
Elsewhere, the hotels within the resort have solid dining options, but the most fun is at the Outback Pioneer, where you buy whatever meat you fancy – whether steak, kangaroo or emu sausages – and cook it yourself on the massive barbecue.
No one comes to the Red Centre for the shopping, but there’s a gallery/shop at Cultural Centre that sells plenty of locally made dot paintings and wood carvings.
What to avoid
The summer heat can be utterly ferocious, so don’t even think about doing some of the longer, tougher walks at Uluru, Kata Tjuta or Kings Canyon in the middle of the day. Many of them are closed off in the morning for safety reasons. This is a part of the world where you set early alarms to do things. On the flip side, it can get surprisingly cold at night, so bring a jumper.
Kata Tjuta, a series of dome-like formations 54km west of Uluru, is quieter and the walks go right into the heart of things.
But the Red Centre's most underrated star is Kings Canyon, 306km north-east of Uluru. Here, the punishing but rewarding rim walk takes you around the top of this rare patch of greenery, surrounded by the chunky red sandstone of the George Gill Range. To see that Kings Canyon is one of many, take a 275-dollar (Dh721) helicopter ride over the range from Kings Creek Station (www.kingscreekstation.com.au) for extraordinary views of sprawling outback and barren ridges.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Ayers Rock Airport via Sydney, with the connecting leg on code-share partner Virgin Australia, from Dh7,945 return.