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Thrill of an Aussie icon still rings true at Uluru

"She's your mother, she wants you to sit in her lap."

"Go on, sit down. She's your mother, she wants you to sit in her lap."

It seems bizarre to hear Uluru, that red rock behemoth that looms so large in physical stature and Australian cultural identity, spoken of in such a personal way.

Tali Wiru is an intimate small group dining experience by candlelight atop a desert sand dune.
Tali Wiru is an intimate small group dining experience by candlelight atop a desert sand dune. Photo: Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

As I stare up at its rusty, pitted surface, my eyes follow the deep, undulating ravines that characterise its towering sides.

I take a seat at the urging of our Irish-Aboriginal guide, Ned Thompson, and run my hand over the rock's craggy surface and, admittedly, I feel a little thrill. 

Sunrise and sunset are the main attractions at Uluru-Kata-Tjuta National Park.
Sunrise and sunset are the main attractions at Uluru-Kata-Tjuta National Park.  Photo: Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

I'm at Uluru.

It strikes me it's a bit cliche to feel moved by the experience of getting up close and personal with the powerful tourist drawcard that is our country's most famous rock formation.

But, like most cliches, I discover there's more than a grain of authenticity to my feelings of wonder, as well as some lasting memories, as I spend a few days exploring the sacred Aboriginal sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. 

We've just done a loop of Uluru by bus, and a short walk among the gums has brought us to its base to look at ancient Aboriginal stories painted on the rock, and to the other-worldly Mutitjulu waterhole. 

Camel rides are a novel way to view Uluru.
Camel rides are a novel way to view Uluru.  Photo: Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

Ned's invitation to cosy up to this small section of the rock is followed by a thinly veiled dig at the visitors who still insist on clambering to the top: "She just doesn't want you to climb all over her," he says. 

While for now it's still possible to climb the rock, it's not encouraged. Sweeping changes have taken place since Uluru was handed back to the area's native Anangu people – who have lived in the area for 30,000 years – in 1985.

The Anangu are now more involved in the tourist experience and eager to educate visitors about the area's deep spiritual significance as they share stories, art and outback know-how. 

A few hours before our Uluru encounter we had rugged up before a small bus transported us from our lodgings to a viewing platform to watch the sun rise over the distant rock as we clutched mugs of hot tea and nibbled on freshly made damper. 

Plenty of activities in this part of the world revolve around sunrise and sunset, when the rise and fall of the sun sparks a spectacular natural light show that paints its main attractions in an ever-changing, at times iridescent, palette.  

The night before we had watched from afar as the sun slipped behind Uluru and Kata Tjuta during dinner beneath the stars at Tali Wiru – which means "beautiful dune" in Anangu – an intimate outdoor dining experience.

We sipped champagne and gazed out at the still and silent desert as the food – easily comparable to that of a swanky city restaurant – emerged from a kitchen housed inside what looked like a small bush hut.

Scallops were served with lemon myrtle butter, crostini topped with emu and prosciutto, and quandong pudding came with a side of candied rosella for dessert. 

Later, as the lavender skies turned inky and a smattering of sparkly stars appeared, we sipped sweet dessert wine by the fire while our Indigenous host pierced the desert silence with the deep and haunting drone of his didgeridoo. 

Similarly stunning is a small group trip to Kata Tjuta, a men's sacred site made up of dozens of bulging rock domes, as the rising sun casts a glow on the surface that morphs from gold to orange to deep red and purple.

Later we watch tawny wallabies hop beside us as we clamber towards a lofty gap in the two huge boulders with large shards of sunlight beaming dramatically through. It feels like adventure.

Our group's last sunset is a more touristy affair – a viewing area lined with visitors who spilled out of large buses – but we're all still captivated.

Any frustrations at having to share the view drain away as we watch the selfie-stick-toting hordes roll out their picnic blankets, pop bottles of champagne and fill the air with chatter as the evening light show begins on the rock's surface. 

It's an iconic view, a breathtaking spot and, I imagine, a memorable night for most everyone gathered there. 

My last stop before I hop back on the plane the next day is a 45-minute camel ride with Uluru as the backdrop.

In my childlike excitement over the whole exotic-looking affair I abandon all selfie-hating tendencies and snap a string of photos from atop the bobbing camel as the rock glows ochre in the distance. 

A cliche, perhaps, to get so much enjoyment from such a seemingly touristy experience. But again the thrill is genuine and, like much of my trip to Uluru, pretty unforgettable. 

The writer was a guest of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia. 

GETTING THERE Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin all offer regular flights to Ayers Rock Airport. Visit qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com; jetstar.com.

STAY Sails in the Desert rooms from $388. The camping ground, Emu Walk Apartments and Desert Gardens Hotel are also operated by Voyages.

DO Uluru Camel Tours $119, Sounds of Silence dinner $195, SEIT Kata Tjuta $149, Tali Wiru dinner $325.

VISIT Wintjiri Arts and Museum, Ayers Rock Resort; Cultural Centre, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

EVENTS Bruce Munro's Field of Light: April 1, 2016-March 31, 2017. Tjungu Festival, a celebration of Australian Indigenous culture: April 22-25. Uluru Camel Cup:  May 27-28.

MORE Visit ayersrockresort.com.au and parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/.