Luxury accommodation at Longitude 131, near Uluru. By Rhonda Talbot
Uluru is usually found on the travel wish-list of even the most stay-at-home Aussie. But for almost everyone, a visit to the red rock at the centre of our country and culture generally means camping down in a crowded tourist area, where the joys of discovery are somewhat dampened by the dubious pleasures of massing with the mob.
So there’s a certain thrill in finding a retreat as novel as Longitude 131º at Uluru. Established three years ago, Longitude 131º is a high-price, exclusive resort comprising 15 luxury tents set among the natural desert dunes and vegetation. The tents are permanent structures with high, canvas-like roofs. While the tents are not huge, they’re adequately sized and cleverly designed, providing both home comforts and a happy atmosphere. And so you’d hope: at $1800 per night per couple no-one arrives expecting boot camp.
The intention of management is to recreate the safari tents of the African resorts while adding a healthy slice of Aussie informality. Each of the guest tents is themed on an Australian outback pioneer and the décor tells their story. There are antique trinkets and copies of documents and photographs relating to the pioneer on the walls of each tent, which creates a visual narrative. The earthy colours of the furnishings also add to the colonial flavour.
In the creation of Longitude 131º, special effort was made to be ecologically sensitive. The paths are natural gravel, the outdoor lights solar-powered, and there are no twee little gardens, only natural grasses and wildflowers without fences and barriers. One concession to the climate is a small swimming pool, but there are no baths in the rooms. The high-tech fire and hazard protection installations are the only real (and sensible) nod to the modern world.
At this campsite, “roughing it” is finding your bedtime hot Milo has gone slightly cold. The bed is king-sized and supremely comfortable, and the duvet thick and warm for those chilly desert nights. There are the usual five-star inclusions such as air-conditioning, with the heating under the tiled floor deserving a special mention. In keeping with the environmental theme, the toiletries are all herbal and free of preservatives.
The residential tents fan out from the large communal Dune tent, where there’s a lounge, library, bar and dining room. Each guest tent is staggered in its position to maintain individual privacy. The glass front of each tent looks directly at The Rock. The view is truly awe-inspiring. With the endless red sand and vast blue sky framing the almost surreal Uluru, it’s not difficult to understand the significance of the area to the local indigenous communities.
The sight from the front of your tent of Uluru is the best feature of the resort. Longitude 131º is the only resort in the area that provides this view – all the other Yulara accommodation is clumped together quite a distance away and has no vision of The Rock. At night, the noises of insects and frogs, along with the very gentle creaking of the roof, make the ambience even more memorable. There’s something romantic about staying in a tent on a cold, dark desert evening.
The tariff of Longitude 131º generally includes everything from the moment you arrive at Ayers Rock Airport. In fact, no private cars are allowed at the resort – hire car owners are instructed to leave them at the airport. The other no-no is children. The tents are all designed for two. The majority are doubles, with twin rooms also available. This means there are usually 30 guests in the resort each night.
We arrived in the late morning for a two-day stay. After a welcoming cocktail in the Dune tent, the manager of Longitude 131º explained the itinerary of events available. Tours and meals are all scheduled into a daily timetable. No tours are compulsory – relaxing in your tent makes a pleasant second option. Always, the looming presence of Uluru is there to keep you company.
The tours are well organised and the young guides knowledgeable and enthusiastic. On a visit to The Rock we were told Dreamtime stories of the original inhabitants while enjoying champagne and canapés. There is also a tour to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, where you can learn a great deal more about the traditional owners, the Anangu people. The tours generally run on a two-day cycle.
Early morning walking tours are offered for those eager to witness sunrise over Uluru. We found the perfect view of dawn and its many-hued impact on The Rock only a short stumble from our tent. There are also evening viewings where you can sip champagne while observing the spectacular transit of the sun. The place is a photographer’s dream.
Not all the guests appreciated the lack of choice in the activities, but clearly it works best for management to have one tour available at a time for such a small party. Tours can be changed for the whole party according to the weather or guests’ interests, but individual requests cost extra.
Around the camp, there are plenty of easy activities. Snacks, cookies and the contents of your tent’s mini-bar are included in the price. The pool and accompanying sun lounges are popular. Note there is no TV or radio, but a comprehensive CD collection adds to the ambience.
Meals are a major part of the Longitude 131º experience. The food is gourmet, modern Australian, with the menu displayed early in the day in the Dune tent. Special requests can be accommodated. Dinner is at a set time on a large table, which may not be to everyone’s liking, but provides the logistical solution to providing first-class service without overcrowding the camp with staff. It means dinner is something like going to a dinner party where you don’t know any of the guests and barely the host. Still, while not the private dinner we had in mind, the company was good and the atmosphere fun. Wines are served with every course and other drinks are available. On alternate nights the gourmet dinner is served under the stars at a specially constructed area in the nearby dunes.
The experience of Longitude 131º is sort of like a large house party with some wealthy friends, with the slight inconvenience of the hosts choosing the activities and timing for their guests. But with Uluru as your neighbour, along with 28 strangers, who can rightfully complain?