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.)