There's a reason why people call Uluru the red centre of Australia. It is the beating heart of the outback and indigenous culture as well as being also a magical and spiritual place to visit. Find out how native ingredients are interwoven into into food menus and see why a trip to Uluru is a must for everyone.
It has been 10 years since I last set my boots on the red earth of Uluru. This time I know a few things: the first is to book a seat on the right hand side of the plane so that you can steal a glimpse of Uluru below as you descend. That's just one of the many glimpses we will have of the "the rock", an ochre tor rising straight up from the completely flat plain surrounding it. This mysterious monolith holds secrets, tales and wisdom. Like the indigenous population that hold it dear, it is rich with stories and history.
The car from the airport bumbles along and memories come tumbling back. I remember how besotted I was by the colours of the outback. Green tufts of spinifex and red earth are all you see for miles. The weather is warm and dry; Spring and Autumn are the best months to visit Uluru and there is a dry breeze and a warm top of 33 degrees.
“It rained 6 times rain in the last year” says our guide Freddie. He’s one of the indigenous guides based in Yulara town where our hotel is located. He continues, “It even snowed once.” The Voyages group own Sails, Desert Gardens and the Emu Walk apartments which make up some of the facilities in the town of Yulara. The town is designed so that the buildings are not taller than tallest tree and streets form curved lines avoiding straight lines not often seen in nature. This is also where GOCA (the Gallery of Central Australia) is located and this gallery and shop recently celebrated its first birthday.
Freddie is an Anangu (pronounced anna-noo) man who is showing us the bushfood that grow around the resort from Ili, Arnguli and Old Man Saltbush. Freddie explains that his people don’t eat saltbush when it's hot as it dries them out. Instead they make paste out of it where it is consumed in small amounts.
Apart from as a food source they also use saltbush to create a windbreak to keep warm. It is also used as a hunting tool. The fine layer of salt on the leaves is used as a sunblock that reflects light. This reflection makes the saltbush a cool refuge for small animals which then attracts larger animals. Then Freddie shares his favourite way to eat saltbush - mix it with oil and cook it in an air fryer like kale chips.
Then there's Arnguli the bush plum, one of the original superfoods. One single bush plum (around the size of a large bluberry) has twice the vitamin C of an orange. But avoid picking these from the tree as all you will get is pucker-inducing sour fruit. "The uglier the fruit the better it’s going to taste," says Freddie. He waits until the fruit has fallen off the tree where it ferments and becomes sweeter. The heat ensures that it dries rapidly and doesn't rot. They rehydrate them, remove the pit and make a paste. The Anangu also use water as a sign to indicate bird life and fruit. He brushes past a bush of Robyn Gordon grevillea with red flowers -you can wash the syrup off in water and drink it.
Freddie also introduces us to his "mums". In Indigenous culture, aunts are mothers as it truly takes a village to raise a child. Artists June Smith and Jilary Lynch are part of the Keringke arts community located 75kms from Alice Springs. This small 500 person community has been active in indigenous art since 1989. Art is a major industry that supports the whole community.
June and Jilary use acrylic paint on a pre-primed linen and their art reflects how they feels at the time and is inspired by their surroundings. They produce stunning black, grey and white or multicoloured paintings. Each painting takes the women several days of full time work with each dot placed just so. To create the dots they use the tips of infant needles to create the fine points. They bring around a beautiful black and white dot painting featuring bush onions or tjanmata.
Bush foods are also a thriving industry in the area and they appear on many menus. The first of April each year signals the start of Tali Wiru season. This is a very special dinner set in remote sand dunes for just 20 people that is $380 per head. Tali Wiru means beautiful dune and we climb the gentle incline of the red earth dune where waitstaff hold trays with glass of champagne and canapes. A musician is playing the Digeridoo in front of Uluru as the landscape canvas is bathed in sunset colours.
The chefs come out and explain some of the native bushfoods featured on tonight's menu and we can try any of them from the curved coolamon trays. The bush foods are so cleverly woven into each course. There are four types of canapes, the Paroo kangaroo with shaved egg yolk and finger lime on wattle seed lavosh is one of my favourites. Also the blue swimmer crab with piccalili and quandong is also absolutely delicious. There is also the intriguing gin compressed cucumber with green ants and celery salt. Green ants have a citrusy lime flavour to them lending the cucumber a piquant crunch. Japanese scallops are served with duck foie gras and desert lime on canape spoons.
After that we take a seat and we start with the amuse bouche, a celeriac espuma that is creamy and foamy with the distinct flavour of celeriac, truffle pearls, black garlic and macadamia. Service is lovely and full of friendly smiles.
There is a choice of three entrees, mains and desserts with a vegetarian selection in each. I start with with Port Lincoln kingfish sashimi with pickled muntries, torched scampi, caviar, warrigal greens and quandong coulis. The coulis is surprisingly sweet but somehow works with the kingfish and the tart muntries. The lightly torched scampi melts in the mouth.
I also steal a bite of the pork belly entree from my table mate and it is utterly luscious and paired with green ant gin infused fennel, Kakadu plum compote, caramelised Davidson plum, creamy cauliflower puree and aged balsamic jus. It's actually hard to decide whether I prefer the kingfish or the pork belly as they're both so divine.
For mains I went with the Glacier 51 Toothfish with crushed kipfler potatoes, desert lime, lemon myrtle and caper cream and a crisp tempura nori. The toothfish has a wonderfully crisp skin on top and a luscious texture with wide, thick layers. This is also a very generously sized main. The desert lime and lemon myrtle are also natural partners to seafood.
There are three desserts: a desert lime crème brûlée, cheese with truffle bush honey and a textures of chocolate dessert. I tried all three and I loved the textures of chocolate with hot, melted chocolate poured all over the glass breaking the thin white chocolate layer on top. It is served with a quandong and blackberry compote, vanilla fairy floss and wattle seed gelato. I also love finishing a meal with some cheese and this one is served with a truffle bush honey, wattle seed lavosh and an apple and quandong compote (it's also a massive wedge of cheese so ideal for sharing).
After dinner and after we've had our fill of food and wine, our tour guide Joseph turns off all of the lights on the tables and takes his laser pointer and shows us the constellations visible, something only possible in regional areas like this with little light pollution. And a little tip: download the Sky View Lite app that shows you each constellation clearly. After this we sit around nursing cups of rich hot chocolate while Joseph gives us a closer look at some indigenous tools. First is the Kali or a no returning boomerang with its crooked head that was designed to fell animals like emus by breaking their legs. He tells us that he first boomerang was discovered in a 23,000 year old cave and was said to be made of a wooly mammoth's tusk. We also get to examine a digging stick and a shield before it is time to head home for an early start in the morning.
Our home for this trip is the newly re-vamped Desert Gardens hotel. Previously it was a motel type of lodging but the renovation has modernised the rooms considerably. And the Desert Garden has one spectacular advantage up at sleeve: a view of Uluru from some of the rooms. My room #520 (a "Rock View" room) has a view of Uluru straight ahead with a first floor elevation.
There is a king size bed and a good sized balcony with chair and tables that you can enjoy the view and just enjoy the dry heat and warmth, a welcome change from Sydney's La Nina torment.
The bathroom has a bath shower combo as well as toiletries using native Australian ingredients like Desert Peach, Quandong and Wattleseed. There is no mini bar at this hotel but there is a supermarket around 7 minutes walk away in the town square.
Native ingredients are interwoven into the food menus at the hotels in Yulara. At Arnguli, the fine dining restaurant at Desert Garden Resort there's Port Lincoln Kingfish ceviche with lemon aspen, coconut, pickled muntries, scampi caviar that is creamy and delicious. It is paired with a crunchy squid ink and sago cracker.
Pork loin gets its seasoning from Mountain Pepper and is paired with parsnip puree, quandong gel, braised fennel, baby apple and fig jus. The pork medallion is so tender and flavoursome.
And at the Sails In The Desert hotel, a 5 minute walk away the Walpa Lobby Bar features juicy lamb chops sprinkled with native mint and plump bush tomatoes. The fish and chips come with a hibiscus or rosella aioli. The food salads and crudite plates are excellent too. As many of the ingredients have to be trucked in mostly from South Australia, prices are a bit higher than city prices but such is life in remote central Australia.
Keeping staff in a remote location is also an issue particularly given the challenges in the last few years. Having said that, service is really lovely from everyone that we meet with a laidback charm and ready smiles. Currently 38% of all are staff are indigenous and the rest of the balance is made up of 41 nationalities. More importantly 22% of the indigenous staff are in leadership roles.
"Do you know why we call Australia the never never? Because you go that way you never come back," says Ken Wilson. He is our indigenous guide for a tour around Uluru the following morning. The enormous monolith was said to have formed 550 million years ago and has remained a highly sacred and significant sight for the Indigenous people especially the Anungu (pronounced anna-noo) who live locally. Some areas, particularly the North-East face have strictly no photos policy as they contain culturally important information and should only be viewed in their original location and by specific people.
Climbing Uluru has been banned since 2019 - this was after years where signs gently urged people to not climb the rock. There's still a "scar" along the side of Uluru where climbers used to go to climb up the rock and on the very last day in October 2019 hundreds still queued to climb Uluru one last time. Nowadays people are permitted to walk around the base of Uluru, a 9.4km circumference. Some go by foot, others by segueways.
Our tour started with an early rise and a 5:30am bus out to watch the sunrise with SEIT tours. We stumble onto the bus while it is dark, the rhythm of the bus on the roads rocking us back to sleep. We reach our destination where they set up breakfast while we rub our eyes and watch Uluru appear. Shrouded in purple, the dark lifts and sunlight drenches Uluru highlighting its crags and crevices. We sip coffee and help ourselves to fruit and banana bread served in the curved, engraved Coolamon bowls which are traditionally used to collect food. Then we are off to meet Ken, his wife Natalie and their adorable cherubic 2 year old daughter.
"English is not my first, third or fifth language," explains Ken. "In English they call me ambidextrous," he says smiling and he can use a spear with his right and left hand. He is a proud Anungu man, the eldest of many, who is keen to pass on the traditions and knowledge to the next generation and share his traditions with outsiders. One way that Ken learned about the traditions was from his step parents, both white, who lived in Sydney. His step mother learned his native language in the 1960s and passed on the language and traditions to him. He is honest about the issues that his people have faced. Ken's mother (after whom his daughter is named) ran away "because of the pain" that she felt and ended up medicating with alcohol. His grandfather cautioned him against "poisons" whether it be sugary soft drinks or alcohol.
Ken's storytelling requires close attention as he tells stories in his own particular way interjecting with comments and laments. Mammals that he used to see and catch are low in numbers thanks to the dingo and cat. And water holes that his people used to use are now polluted by the introduced camels that number in the millions. He shakes his head when telling these tales.
His eyes light up when we come across an area with stones worn smooth by repeated grinding. This is a physical connection to his ancestors and he touches the smooth stones with his hands feeling the patterns. Apart from the sacred sites where photographs are not permitted there are also areas that are women's and men's areas. Traditionally men and women worked separately doing different tasks. "Women's, that's not my story to tell," explains Ken. For the next few hours we will follow Ken around the base of Uluru where he will point out the Anguli bush plum, desert bloodwood tree or Ili native plum or talk about native animals like Mala, a wallaby-like rabbit and the while his daughter falls asleep on his shoulder.
Another way to see the beauty of Uluru is via an early morning (or late night) visit to the Field of Lights. English Australia artist Bruce Munro specialises in immersive site specific installations and was inspired to create the Field of Lights by the mulla mulla plants. He first conceived of the idea of blooms opening up at night in 1992 while he and his fiancé camped at Uluru. These mulla mulla flowers are considered "beautiful but useless" and just a hint: if you're called a mulla mulla here, take it as an insult as it means you are showy but useless.
The Field of Light is an enormous display and spans 7 football fields in size with 50,000 light spindles with frosted glass spheres in red, white, pink and violet. The exhibit that opened in April 2016 was originally scheduled to finish in December 2020 but proved so popular that it will now be opened indefinitely. You can either view this late at night but sunrise is a special time as Uluru makes an appearance as dawn rapidly rises. As dawn appears the installation's lights fade leaving a golden hued Uluru. The name ‘Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku’ in the local Pitjantjatjara language (one the two main languages of the Anangu)? That means looking at lots of beautiful lights. Be sure to arrive on time to get the change, there was a mix up with our bus and we weren't picked up in time and we missed out on 30 minutes of crucial photography time. We rush around trying to capture the beauty that is rapidly disappearing before our eyes.
The last view of Uluru before we head home is when it appears in the horizon once the sun has risen. Uluru is bathed in golden light and stands imposing, surrounded by bush and a blackened tree off to the side. It is arrestingly beautiful. As this view shows the North East face of Uluru I cannot show you the photo, which is one of my favourite photos ever. You'll have to come and see it for yourself.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever been to Uluru and what did you think? What is a place that you consider magical?
NQN was a guest of Voyages but all opinions remain her own
Desert Gardens Hotel