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A Real Taste of the Outback
Copyright © The Star Ledger 2004

Sunday, May 2, 2004


YULARA, Australia -- Touring Melbourne and Sydney, I got no more a taste of the Outback than I would have eating at the steakhouse chain in New Jersey. I was beginning to wonder what happened to the Australia glorified in books and films.

Where was the land of rugged terrain, vast stretches of barren earth, and an assortment of odd marsupials and venomous creatures?

It wasn't until I traveled deep into the country's Red Centre that I discovered the Australia of my imagination.

Flying over the desert into the heart of the continent, I saw the dots and dashes that typify aboriginal art come alive as bushes, sparse rivers and red earth below. The landscape looked like so many of the canvases I had seen hanging in museums and galleries. As the plane edged closer to Uluru, the giant monolith dominated the desert plain below.

Uluru is celebrated as the world's largest monolith, with a circumference extending nearly six miles. It is also known as Ayers Rock, but its aboriginal name was restored as part of a general push to preserve and champion indigenous culture.

The enormous monolith changes colors as though it were a mood ring. The rock's hues shift from fiercely red to auburn as the sun casts its rays, and to a purplish tint when it's rain-soaked.

Enormous grasshoppers roam the soil around the giant rock. It made me think of those Foster's beer commercials. You call that a grasshopper? This is a grasshopper! You call that a rock? This is a rock!

The 36 domes of Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas, rival Uluru's imposing presence. When planning my weekend itinerary, I took into account that I would watch the sun rise and set over each. The desert heat became unbearable by mid-day so my husband and I set out on early morning hikes and spent lazy afternoons poolside at our hotel.

As for fashion, I found fly nets all the rage. We bought ours at the local grocery store. We didn't mind looking like beekeepers as long as those pesky buggers kept off our noses and stopped buzzing relentlessly in front of our eyes.

We chose to rent a car and tour the area on our own except for one night, when we signed up for the "Sounds of Silence" dinner. A tour bus picked us up at our hotel before sunset. The bus carried us deeper into the wilderness. Suddenly, as though in a mirage, a line of waiters emerged from behind a sand dune holding white napkins draped over outstretched arms. It was a sight one would expect in an elegant restaurant, not in the middle of the desert. The effect was dramatic.

We sipped champagne to the hum of a didgeridoo as the last rays lingered over Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Once the sun sank into the horizon, waiters led us to a clearing where we ate dinner under the stars. But the meal, ranging from kangaroo and emu to barramundi, was simply an appetizer.

The main course was served by nature. After clearing the dishes, waiters blew out the candles, enveloping us in darkness. Absolute silence prevailed until an astronomer's voice gently broke in with Aboriginal tales of creation and mythology about the constellations. Overhead, we could clearly see the Milky Way, Jupiter, Saturn and the Southern Cross. As a city dweller that takes the cloak of pollution and neon lights for granted, I never realized places exist from which I could spot planets with the naked eye.

Voyages Hotels & Resorts manages all dining options and accommodations at Ayers Rock Resort, including a campground, serviced apartments and several hotels. I half-expected Crocodile Dundee to walk through the doors of The Outback Pioneer. Its rustic feel spills into the Pioneer BBQ, where guests from any hotel can stop by, purchase a few slabs of crocodile or kangaroo meat and cook them over communal grills.

The hip feel of the Lost Camel reminded me of a boutique New York City hotel, except the rooms are larger. Sails in the Desert offers five-star rooms along with elegant dining. Longitude 131 , the luxury safari camp destroyed in a bushfire, is scheduled to reopen in July.

Sydney's Opera House and Melbourne's Federation Square were definite highlights of my trip Down Under. But in the Red Centre I found the quintessential Aussie experience: a huge rock, giant grasshoppers and a million stars.

Leron Kornreich is a reporter for New Jersey News 12.