Australia Yulara (Ayers Rock) and Watarrka (King’s Canyon) – The Sounds Of Starlight
By Terry Marsh
Beneath an open sky, somewhere in the middle of the Simpson Desert, eighty diners gather at fine-dining tables set before a huge cooking range and a gaggle of talented chefs. Tables are framed by candlelight, walls and ceiling are formed by the shades of approaching night. In one direction, Uluru catches the setting sun; in the other, Kata Tjuta. From a nearby sand dune come the low, rhythmic ululations of a didgeridoo. At the end of the meal, when the candles are doused, the only light comes from the Milky Way, and an astronomer appears to explain it all. Memorable is an understatement: years later you still feel the warmth of the sand beneath your feet, smell the tang of barbied croc and roo, and taste the fruit of a Barossa wine.
The Sounds of Starlight dinner is served at Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort) and Watarrka (King’s Canyon), but the theme of al fresco dining has roots both in the modern urban barbie and the traditions of an ancient people that knew no other way. It is the blend of cultures that hallmarks your time in this land of paradox: the world’s oldest continent and yet its youngest developed country.
Nearby, in Australian terms (a mere five-hour drive), Alice Springs sits at the very heart of the country, the one, key guidebook ‘Not to miss’, not to miss. Old and new worlds meet here in shades of easy tension and dependence; a desert park, in the middle of a desert, portrays the habitats of the desert in a way that consumes three hours rather than the thirty minutes you thought; the Henley-on-Todd Regatta is run on a dry riverbed in bottomless boats, and has been cancelled just once, in 1993, due to flooding. And along the streets you negotiate with an Aboriginal artist for a work of art that is truly unique.
Twice a week, The Ghan arrives. Stopping on its 2,979km journey from Adelaide to Darwen, to allow travellers to explore the Katherine Gorges – by boat or helicopter – or to wander the cosmopolitan streets of Alice, The Ghan, a train that is often more than a kilometre in length, trundles through the very centre of Australia at a speed that barely trembles the wine in your glass. There is no hurry about The Ghan; two nights of relaxation and contentment are spent on board, with excellent dining in the Platinum and Gold service cars, and fully-equipped cabins wherein beds materialise as you dine and, later, the gentle rocking invites a sleep that is broken only by an early morning pot of tea alarm call from your personal attendant. From east to west, the sister-train Indian-Pacific makes the 4,352km, three-night journey from Sydney, via Adelaide, to Perth, crossing the renowned Nullarbor Plain, boasting at 478km the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track. There is so much of nothing, yet it is a nothing that is so much, an emptiness filled with fleeting images of wedge-tailed eagles, the carcassed bones of beasts that strayed too far, and the shimmer of heat haze somewhere vaguely over there, where sky and land might meet.
From the buzzy atmosphere of Adelaide, arguably Australia’s most under-appreciated city, it’s a short hop – by bi-plane if you want the exclusive luxury, or the more conventional ferry from Cape Jervis across the Backstair’s Passage – to Kangaroo Island, a 4,550sq km nature reserve and Australia’s third-largest island. A two-day tour with Kangaroo Island Odysseys – a door-to-door service with a barbie and a bottle thrown in around lunchtime, and the knowledge and experience of trained rangers – is certain to make best use of precious time. If eco-tourism is your issue, the Southern Ocean Lodge, Australia’s first true luxury lodge, floating atop a secluded cliff on a rugged stretch of coast, commands peerless views of the indomitable Southern Ocean and pristine Kangaroo Island wilderness. Remarkable doesn’t only apply to the rocks of that name in Flinders Chase.
As far from Kangaroo Island as you can get, Kakadu National Park, at the Top End, is named after a mispronunciation of ‘Gagudju’, the Aboriginal name. This World Heritage Site, one of seventeen in Australia, contains more than 5,000 recorded art sites illustrating Aboriginal culture and their occupation of this land that extends for 40,000 years. This northern part of Australia is in the tropics, and the climate monsoonal, a condition best described as ‘clammy-tropic’. Ecologically, Kakadu ranks among the most diverse regions of the entire country with more than 280 species of bird, 1,600 plants, more than 10,000 insect species, and some large and nasty beasts that inhabit the three Alligator Rivers – East, West and South. Scenic flights, boat tours and 4WD tours all bring the visitor closer to the Nature of Kakadu, and none more so that an early morning cruise on the Yellow River.
Doing your own thing is easy; buttressing the experience with the skill of local guides is what Australia is all about.
BAILEY ROBINSON: ; Tel 01488 689 700) – bespoke tours to and around Australia
Big Blue Air Touring – Ocean to Outback Tour
Great Southern Rail – The Ghan and Indian Pacific