The Land of Oz

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The rock formations at Kata Tjuta are sacred to the Anangu culture, and guests should experience them free of the distractions of mobile phones and cameras. To make an already novel experience even more unique, adventurers can ride a camel while exploring the terrain (photo courtesy Ballie Lodges; camel photo by Kristy Alpert)

walking about in Australia’s northern territory.

The field was empty when we arrived, a cool breeze trickling in from the Australian Outback welcomed our small group exactly one hour before sunset, well before any other tourists would be allowed even within a mile of where we stood. I was surrounded by shades of red, a fitting hue as I was currently in the heart of what has become known as Australia’s “Red Centre,” standing at the base of the Northern Territory’s Uluru, or Ayers Rock. It was my first time staring up at the massive sandstone monolith, and I watched in awe as the colors began to change with each movement from the sun.

Shadows filled crevasses that were invisible just minutes earlier, and shades of ruby turned to crimson and then to a deep burgundy as the sun continued its journey toward the horizon. Someone behind me reached out and grabbed my shoulder, offering me a cold glass of sparkling wine, a gesture I would soon grow accustomed to as I continued my adventure with the team at the glamping lodge Longitude131°. Oprah Winfrey, Prince William and Kate, and countless other celebrities have used the luxury lodge as their home base while in the Northern Territory, but I was there on an active holiday, intent on exploring the territory by foot on a modern walkabout of sorts.

With a glass of sparkling wine in hand, I followed my guide deeper into the dark field, where 50,000 frosted-glass spheres set atop bud-like stems began to flicker and come to life all around me. Soon my wine wasn’t the only thing sparkling in the field, as I found myself right in the center of internationally acclaimed artist Bruce Munro’s Field of light solar-powered light exhibition (on display until December 31, 2020). I spent some time meandering through the lighted field until the sound of a didgeridoo beckoned our group toward a makeshift dining room for an elegant four-course meal with Australian wine pairings beneath the stars.

Dining at Table 131° is one of the signature experiences while staying at Longitude 131°, a luxury desert basecamp overlooking the dual world heritage listed wilderness of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. As a member of Luxury Lodges of Australia, Longitude 131° offers one of the most exclusive ways to experience the beauty of the Red Centre’s outback without sacrificing the luxury of comfort. The lodge offers a range of curated day trips and authentic indigenous experiences that include everything from guided morning hikes through the Mutitjulu Waterhole (the sacred site of Kuniya Piti) to private dot painting workshops led by local indigenous women.

The most authentic Australian Aboriginal experience is undoubtedly the “walkabout,” a rite of passage where young Aboriginal Australians set out on a journey into the wilderness that is intended to transform them into adults. Most adolescents begin the journey between ages 10 and 16, where they are expected to survive alone in the wild for up to six months.

Aboriginal culture has inspired many of the region’s most beautiful traditions, from appreciating the colors of the land- scape through intricate dot paintings to rising early to walk the 10 kilometers it takes to fully circle the base of Uluru. Although authentic walkabouts are not something Aboriginals or anyone in Australia would recommend for tourists, heading out into the wilderness for a change of perspective is highly encouraged under the direction of a local guide.

Hikes beginning at Longitude 131° cover the entire 311,000 acres of Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park, and extend farther out with options for full-day road trips to Watarrka National Park to hike through the impressive Kings Canyon and explore the beehive-like sandstone dunes at the Rim Walk.

Sunrises are sacred in the Northern Territory, which is why many of the hikes begin well before the sun begins its ascent, offering the chance to be out in the elements while the colors begin the change and the darkness fades into light. The air is still crisp as hikers prepare to head out to the Valley of the Winds, gourmet boxed breakfasts in hand with reusable travel coffee mugs filled with exquisite espresso creations or freshly brewed local tea. A peaceful drive through the untouched landscape brings the group to the starting point of the Grade 4 hike before beginning the journey through steep, rocky terrain. Accord- ing to the Anangu culture, the rock formations at Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) are sacred and hold knowledge that can only be gained in person, which is why guests are encouraged to leave their cameras at home and just soak in the sights, sounds and ambiance of the site. A paved path guides visitors inside the massive Kata Tjuta domes where guides share indigenous stories and traditions along the way as the group continues past the site to two lookout points that gaze out over the Mars-like landscape before returning to the lodge after the five-hour excursion for a lightened-version of a three-course lunch made from seasonal produce and paired with Australian wines.

Afternoons can be spent relaxing in the private canopied pavilions (each of the 15 temperature-controlled tents has an unobstructed view of Uluru, with three solid walls and one wall-sized window facing the World Heritage Site) or soaking in the sounds and sights of the desert poolside. More adventurous guests can hop on board a Harley-David- son or camel, or even board a helicopter, for a unique tour through the terrain. Longitude 131° provides backpacks, water bottles and fly nets, so guests are able to relax while wandering through the outback and enjoy the scenery, worry-free.

Sundowners and canapés wrap up the afternoon, whether on the deck at the resort or out in the outback where guides prepare a lavish spread with perfectly chilled cocktails and beers and home- made treats like house-cured charcuterie, freshly baked cheese twists, or even samplings of traditional “bush tucker” (traditional bush food) like quandong jam served on lemon myrtle shortbread.

Guides are available to arrange short walks into the evening for private groups, but most evenings are spent relaxing over a great four-course meal prepared by the chefs at the resort’s onsite restaurant, The Dune House, after watching yet another must-see attraction within this desert oasis … the sunset.

for more information, visit longitude131.com.au

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