Ayers Rock: Adventure, authenticity

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From the swaying saddle of my one-humped ride, I watched the stars disappear as a slit of sunlight appeared on the Australian horizon, piercing the pitch black to give us our first glimpse of Uluru's stern silhouette.

The camel gently rocked me from side to side as the beam of light grew gradually wider, revealing the desert's rust-red earth and cracked scrub.

Sunrise and sunset are when the vast stone monolith, known to some as Ayers Rock, is most spectacular, but its presence is commanding at all times of the day. Formed over 600 million years, the 1,142-foot-high sandstone rock towers dramatically over the dunes, a revered beacon for indigenous people over the last 10,000 years and, in more recent times, for tourists.

Wakagetti DancersBut while the natural environment is largely unchanged, recent years have brought with them a number of tourism developments.

For one, calls to ban climbing on the rock, both out of respect for the traditional owners of the land and for safety reasons, have seen the sight of people scaling the physically demanding rock face become a rarity. More than 35 people have died attempting the mile-long ascent.

There are plenty of safer and more respectful ways to enjoy the splendor of Uluru, with my camel adventure just one option.

The next day, I took an interpretive walk around part of its 6.2-mile base with a local Anangu guide who shared some of its spiritual secrets, while other guests took a dawn bus ride to a dedicated viewing platform amid the ochre sands.

Resort refurbished

Changes have also been made to Ayers Rock Resort, the oasis-like desert town managed by Voyages Indigenous Tourism.

A multimillion-dollar refurbishment has given the flagship five-star property Sails in the Desert a new sheen, with all rooms and restaurants completely restored and the opening of a new conference center.

And across all four hotels, about 230 indigenous employees now go about their duties (compared to just two when Voyages took over management in 2010), with a dedicated training program now in place.

There is also a new range of authentic activities showcasing indigenous culture available to guests at no extra cost. These include an artist in residence program, the chance to learn to play the didgeridoo (a hardwood wind instrument that makes a drone-like sound), throw a spear or boomerang, participate in an indigenous dance performance with the Wakagetti Dancers or chat with an Anangu storyteller in the Circle of Sand, the resort's indigenous heart.

And while the under-the-stars appeal of the signature Sounds of Silence open-air desert dinner endures, the resort has added Tali Wiru, a higher-end dining experience offering more privacy and romance but still set within the dunes. There have been around six proposals there this year already.

Recent high-profile visitors have also helped to shine a light on the property, with Prince William and Princess Kate flying in as part of their royal tour in April. Their bed for the night was provided by luxury desert camp Longitude 101, with the 15-pavilion desert camp also emerging from a $2 million soft refurbishment this year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains its position as the resort's most significant international market, with Executive General Manager Ray Stone revealing that the number of American visitor numbers rose 8% last year thanks to the enhancements and strengthening consumer confidence.

He is determined to grow those numbers further by working closely with U.S. trade partners and will undertake a trade mission later this year.

Both Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly daily direct into Ayers Rock Airport from Sydney, with Jetstar also operating service from Melbourne four times per week. Qantas operates daily flights to Ayers Rock Airport via Alice Springs from Sydney and direct flights from Cairns and Alice Springs.

Visit www.ayersrockresort.com.au.

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