Australia's New Safari Camp

Australia's New Safari Camp

Mikkel Vang
Mikkel Vang
Longitude 131°, a new tented safari camp in the Australian desert, provides front-row seats to Uluru—the monolith once known as Ayers Rock.

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.

The tents are similar structures, with canopied ceilings and solid walls. Ours is the one farthest from Dune House, a short walk along a gravel path. The view is nothing but dune and Uluru, all of six miles away, and we find ourselves running late for everything, since time passes here in a serene, dreamlike way. A switch by the bed raises the blinds and the screen, and we sit and watch the rock, feeling the breeze blow straight in, swimming in the silence. There's no TV to disturb it. Even the bathrooms celebrate the light and the landscape: a sliding mirror lets in the view, and one wall of the shower stall is a window.

Because the rooms are so open to the desert, you can imagine what the early explorers must have felt—and that's the point. Each tent is named after an Australian pioneer. "The people who created this country have been ignored," Hunt says. Our tent, called Jane Webb, honors the wife of an early sheep and cattle farmer. Other pioneers include Edward Eyre, who made the first direct crossing of Australia by foot, from Sydney to Adelaide; John McDouall Stuart, the first European to see the Red Centre; and Ernest Giles, the first European to set eyes on Uluru.

Sydney-based interior designers Christine Le Fevre and Jayne Hamparsum also attempted to replicate the pioneers' experience (though at a significantly higher level of luxury). Because the last thing Le Fevre wanted to do was distract from the view, everything is composed in muted shades of khaki, brown, and beige. Dark wood furniture—folding chairs, aged wooden trunks, apothecary tables—travertine floors, and air-conditioning provide welcome relief from the harsh desert light and heat. During Australia's winter—June through September—temperatures average 70 degrees. In the summer months, they can reach upwards of 100, although, this being the desert, the nights are substantially cooler.

Longitude 131° has the fairly standard contemporary look found at many luxe resorts, but the difference here is in the details. Each room contains memorabilia such as photographs and letters that relate to the pioneer for whom it's named. Le Fevre traveled around the country, tracking down materials from explorers' and settlers' descendants, scavenging flea markets, antiques shops, and libraries. "For Jane Webb, we actually got the Bible from her family in Adelaide," she says. "When I opened it, I found cuttings, poems, pieces of lace, and stories."

Four of the pioneers commemorated at Longitude are still alive—Bill King, Peter Severin, and Ian and Lyn Conway—and they came to the hotel's opening. "Bill King had tears running down his face," says Le Fevre. "He couldn't believe someone had honored him to that extent. And Severin was awestruck."

"It was a bit of a surprise, I suppose," says Severin, who moved to the area in 1956 and still lives nearby, on his cattle ranch. It was he who opened the first tourism operation near Alice Springs, selling gasoline and liquor to the smattering of visitors. He helped pave the runway at the airport and installed the chain that guides climbers on Uluru. Severin has a self-deprecating rancher's sensibility: "I was quite happy, but of course nobody will know me, so it doesn't really matter, now, does it?"

That's the problem. The memorabilia in the rooms are only a small step in the right direction. Most foreign guests don't know a whole lot about the history, the geology, and the anthropology of the region. Which is why we're here, and not by the pool at Ayers Rock Resort (or, for that matter, the tiny pool at Longitude—on our visit the only swimmer was a lost duck). The hotel offers six excursions: a cultural tour of Uluru; an eco-walk on the dunes; a guided walk at Kata Tjuta (22 miles west of Uluru, it, too, is a massive outcropping of major significance to the Aborigines, but unlike Uluru, it's not a single rock); a sunset viewing in Kantju Gorge at Uluru; a stargazing expedition; and a trip to Cave Hill, a rock-art site 21/2 hours from the hotel, where an Anangu translates the paintings.

I find three of these disappointing. For the cultural tour, we're driven around Uluru in a 16-person shuttle bus, off-loaded to look at a couple of caves, and then deposited at the Cultural Centre. The land around Uluru and Kata Tjuta is owned by the Anangu, who lease it back to the government, which has established a national park here, but the Cultural Centre defers so much to the Anangu that the exhibits are virtually impossible to penetrate. Australia, this part of it in particular, is still in the grip of fierce political correctness. When Adam asks our guide how the rock was formed, she answers with a confusing myth involving a marsupial mole. The guide just doesn't know enough about the culture, which is not entirely her fault—much of the spiritual significance of Uluru and Kata Tjuta is kept secret by the Anangu.

The eco-walk is sort of interesting, but although it takes two hours it feels like a 30-minute trip at best. We traipse around a patch of the desert, looking at beetle tracks and scrubby plants. We're carrying binoculars, but no birds ever show. It's all a bit of an anticlimax.

The trip to Kata Tjuta is magnificent, though only two parts of the area are accessible to non-Aborigines. One is Olga Gorge, a tight crevasse between two cathedral walls of stone. The other, Valley of the Winds, is a dramatic and predictably gusty gorge that is closed on extremely hot days (common during Australia's summer months). Not only does our guide announce that we'll be doing just half the trip through it before turning back, but it turns out that he's never completed the walk himself. (Adam and I, since we're staying at Longitude for four nights, insist on having the staff drop us off at Kata Tjuta and pick us up later so we can do it all; to their credit, they acquiesce.)

What I want is more. More culture: at Uluru, we run into a non-Longitude group that has an Anangu guide. Longitude, with its emphasis on luxury and intimacy with the desert, should be able to arrange something similar at Uluru. And I would love to have more options: Kings Canyon, 2 1/2 hours away by car, is a terrific day trip, but it's not on the menu.

"We're still learning what people want," says Doug Hooper of Odyssey Tours (also owned by Voyages). Indeed, since my visit they have fleshed out the touring options and acquired two vans that hold just eight people. As for Kata Tjuta, Hooper says the trip is curtailed because there isn't enough time, but that's easy enough to remedy: Why not urge guests to stay three nights instead of two?In fact, other people I meet at the resort tell me they wish they had more time—to lounge around and savor the view, if nothing else.

The morning walk around the base of Uluru, a half-hour drive from the resort, is long (three hours) but worthwhile. Adam and I see a kangaroo and her joey. Climbing Uluru is discouraged, as it offends the Anangu, who don't even want you to photograph much of it. Hunt, however, downplays the religious aspect, pointing out a bigger problem: the climb is dangerous, sometimes deadly—a group of memorial plaques is visible at the base. I'm a bit of a socialist when it comes to the land—it should be everyone's—so Adam and I climb about 25 yards up, but stop when we reach the chain that has been put there to help climbers on the steepest stretch. The toeholds are shallow, and if you were to fall, you'd have nothing to hold on to. Why not ban it outright?One guide replies that a large percentage of visitors come specifically to make the climb, and the tourist dollar is especially valuable in a place with no other income.

The sunset excursion to Uluru is the winner. The staff wheels in a cart of drinks and hors d'oeuvres, so that when we arrive, after a brief stroll, we sip champagne and watch the rock turn Crayola orange as the sun dips. Afterward, we pile into the shuttle bus and head back to the hotel. The guide, one of the most earnest young women I have ever met, turns on her microphone. "I was just looking at the sun and thinking..." she says, "how beautiful the world is. And how lucky we are. How very, very lucky."

Later that day, a rainstorm comes through. We sit in our room and watch. After a slight drizzle a double rainbow appears, directly to the left of Uluru. We go up to the Dune House for drinks and dinner. The food here is generally too fussy for my taste (grain-fed beef with a foie gras gratiné, buttered thyme galette, and a salad of fines herbes with truffle dressing and Shiraz glaze) and doesn't always seem quite appropriate (scallops in the desert?), but the other guests appear to be happy. Suddenly, the storm kicks in, and we're treated to an hour-long lightning show—bolts streaking down around the rock and all across the horizon. The thunder is right above the tent, and the rain is making so much noise on the canvas that we have to yell to be heard.

In the morning, as we're packing up, Qantas calls the hotel to tell us that our flight has been delayed by a few hours. Fine by us, as we're more than content to hang out in the room. We're not the only ones who like it here. Adam looks up and notices something tucked into one of the folds of the tented ceiling. The huntsman has returned, in hiding from the rain.

No point in calling Wayne. The huntsman's clearly happy here, and we can hardly blame him.

The Facts

Qantas (800/227-4500) flies directly from Sydney to Connellan Airport, the main airport near Uluru. The flight takes about three hours; the resort is just minutes from the airport.

Longitude 131° can be booked through Sydney-based Voyages Hotels & Resorts (61-2/9339-1040; Rates are $900 a night, double, including airport transfers, tours, meals, drinks, even the mini-bar. The best bungalows are the ones isolated on the fringe of the resort: Webb, Gosse, and Pink.

The hotel requires a two-night stay, but three nights are better—four if you intend to rent a car and drive to Kings Canyon.

For travelers who desire a longer trip to Australia but don't want to plan the itinerary themselves, Abercrombie & Kent (800/323-7308; arranges visits to Longitude 131° as part of its customized trips.

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