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Australia's New Safari Camp

There is a tarantula in the room.

It gets worse. The spider is clinging to the tented ceiling, directly above the bed. Directly above the pillows.

My friend Adam and I are at Longitude 131°, a new resort in the Red Centre, Australia's vast, colorful desert interior. The hotel's name pays homage to the exact degree on which Uluru sits. We arrived earlier today, but as tired as I am from jet lag, I can't handle sleeping under a big, hairy tarantula. That it's there is bad enough; what if I wake up in the middle of the night, and it's not there?

"It's not a tarantula," says Wayne, one of the hotel's staff, whom I call in a slight panic. "It's a huntsman."

"Is it poisonous?" Adam asks.

"Nah," Wayne says. "If it bites you, you'll just vomit."

Modeled after luxury safari camps in Africa, Longitude 131° aims to bring guests face-to-face with nature. The rooms are individual tents on stilts, with glass doors that look toward Uluru—the massive block of stone formerly known as Ayers Rock—and slide open to the desert. Hence, I suppose we should be pleased by the huntsman's visit. Having figured out that I'm not, Wayne kindly removes the spider with a broom and a pail.

Until you see Uluru in person, and even when you do, it's hard to get your head around this monolith. You can try with numbers: It's more than 1,140 feet tall, and six miles in circumference, but that's only part of the story. Like an iceberg, most of it sits underground (though exactly how much is still a subject of debate). You can try with geology: It's a gigantic sedimentary rock made of arkose—a mix of sandstone and feldspar—with bits of quartz and iron oxide (the reason it looks rusty is because the iron in it is, in fact, rusting). You can try with history: It was formed about 300 million years ago, when central Australia was rife with volcanoes, inland seas, and glaciers. You can try with culture: The local Aborigines, or Anangu, devised stories (called Tjukurpa) based on the landscape so, among other things, they could navigate what is otherwise a fairly barren place. Over the years, the landmarks took on almost religious significance. According to Aboriginal legend, Uluru was formed when two boys made mud piles while playing at a watering hole; as other mythical characters encountered the rock, they shaped it into what it is today.

And what it is today—besides an important spiritual symbol for the Anangu people—is a major tourist attraction, with 400,000 visitors annually. Longitude 131° is not the first hotel at Uluru, but it's certainly the best. Several hotels were originally built in the seventies, right at the base of the rock. In 1985, Ayers Rock was handed back to the Anangu, who restored the name Uluru; around the same time, the structures were moved several miles away and Ayers Rock Resort was founded, encompassing five hotels and two campgrounds. The resort reminds me of Palm Springs: typical desert oasis stuff, with lots of tourists browsing for soulless souvenirs and sitting by the pool.

Longitude 131° was designed as an antidote to all that. "Flying in to Uluru for my first visit, in 1995, I said to my wife, 'What a great place for one of those safari camps,'" says Grant Hunt, CEO of Voyages Hotels & Resorts, which manages all the Ayers Rock Resort properties. Hunt went to Africa twice and researched various camps, mainly in Botswana and Zimbabwe; then he managed to persuade his own board to spend $5 million to build 15 tents. After six years of planning, Longitude 131° opened last June. It's only a mile from Ayers Rock Resort but in spirit feels much farther away.

Hunt hired an architect friend—who had done El Questro, the famous resort in northwestern Australia's Kimberley Plateau—to come up with a design, but he found the result too African. Enter Philip Cox. Or rather, reenter Philip Cox, who was the architect behind Ayers Rock Resort. "We wanted something that evolved out of the landscape," Hunt says. To minimize impact on the dunes, the workers cleared a small path; only four-wheel-drives were allowed. Because big vehicles couldn't be brought in, workers had to carry their equipment and excavate by hand. The result: buildings six inches from the undisturbed desert.

You arrive at the hotel, which is isolated from the rest of Ayers Rock Resort, via a short dirt road (left unpaved to heighten the experience), and enter through what feels like a back door into the main tent, or Dune House. Here guests check in, take all their meals, and congregate for cocktails at sunset. Along one side of Dune House is a long wall of windows that looks onto a Cinerama of dunes, punctuated by Uluru in the distance. Knowing full well the sublime power of the desert light, Cox topped the steel frame of the building with canvas, as if it were a two-poled circus tent. During the day, the entire room glows.


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