Decades after being smitten by a photo of Ayer’s Rock (now named Uluru), I first glimpsed it as we landed at Connellan Airport after flying from Brisbane on October 10. Alas, cloud hid the red centre, which I longed to see. I was travelling with Simon and Nicole. Such family time is all the more precious at my age. Ayer’s Rock Resort is built below the height of the sand dunes, which, with sand plains harbouring salt pans, and the three immense rock outcrops of Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Mount Conner, define this part of Australia. An excellent guide book I bought at Ayer’s Rock Resort cited a dune height of 13 metres, whereas our helicopter pilot quoted 16 metres.  Although the terrain is semi-arid, vegetation abounds – mainly mulga and desert oak trees and spinifex grass, with mallee and river red gum trees and various other shrubs and flowering plants – giving the land a pleasingly verdant appearance. Mulga trees and bushes are noted for their ability to collect water, whereas the rolled leaf of spinifex grass reduces the amount of water lost to the atmosphere. Spinifex is not nutritious for stock but it provides a good habitat for insects, lizards and mice.

Biodiversity took second place during my stay. The landscape is what drew me. True to my name, I adore exposed rock. Our schedule was re-arranged because of insufficient numbers on one of the tours. This meant that Simon and Nicole had a very long first full day, rising before dawn for the 13 km base walk around Uluru and embarking on the eight hour Mount Conner afternoon and evening tour after only a shortish interval.

They loved the base walk as much as I loved seeing Mount Conner, first as the distant but enthralling view of its north face, bringing to life the full-page photograph which had haunted me since 1987, when I leafed through a book of Australia’s natural wonders in a Sydney bookshop, and then, as we drove ever closer and eventually almost completely around it. Mount Conner is a horseshoe-shaped mesa 3 km wide, more than 300 metres high, much of it surrounded by a 100 metre vertical rock face, which in turn is surrounded by a wide talus. It is located in the Curtin Springs cattle property, covering a million acres, among which are salt pan outliers of Lake Amadeus. Shortly after entering the property we drove to one of the pans which contained water from recent rain. It was about a mile across and reminded me of water holes in the Okavango Delta, to which we were taken for our sundowner. The shore was littered with dozens of dead giant centipedes, killed by the salt water. They can inflict a nasty bite. The land around the salt pan must be crawling with them. Shrubs and low trees, through which the odd, clear area of native grass was visible, lined the sandy track to Mount Conner. The rain had flooded short sections, which the driver skillfully negotiated. The country was more open around Mount Conner, which now filled the view. The denser vegetation had migrated to its top, covering it in a thin green haze. After a sundowner at a water hole we set out on the return drive. I gazed long and wistfully at the retreating form of the mesa, until it eventually merged with the night sky, and turned my attention to an excellent steak at the homestead.

I had high hopes of the next day’s tour which offered walks at Kata Tjuta and Uluru. Given the over seven hour duration of the tour, the combined walking time at both rock formations was not much more than two hours, which disappointed me. The guide sat in the bus while we walked in the Walpa Gorge between two of the largest of Kata Tjuta’s thirty-six domes. The gorge is perhaps a kilometre wide at its entrance, narrowing to an end point which was tantalisingly beyond reach because the track was blocked off for maintenance work. The vertical walls on either side hide the upper slope of the domes. The track gradually ascends into the gorge, more up-hill than down dale; the going underfoot varying from firm to loose stone. The profusion of vegetation in the gorge was a constant delight, whether wild flowers or shrubs and trees, some sheltering birds, more audible then visible. The completed walk was over too quickly. I would love to have spent more time in the potent presence of these ancient, enduring rocks.

From a distance Uluru presents a massive, homogenous appearance, which fractures into fissures, caves and indents the closer one gets to it. My feeling of being short-changed persisted after visiting Uluru. A brief walk from the car park, took us to a water hole containing water, from where we strolled to a nearby cave whose rock art has been degraded by generations of over-painting, so that its antiquity and imagery were hard to discern. The two car parks are at either end of the rock’s south-western face. We drove around most of the rock to get to the second car park. The spectacular north-eastern face is the longest and most famous, with a notable section of full-height, evenly spaced vertical furrows, forming gigantic columns. After a slightly longer walk, we reached the first of two caves which were used as shelters when the male elders of the Anangu people, the traditional owners of the land adorned by Uluru and Kata Tjuta, instructed boys in the ways of their culture. A sign at the second cave pointed to Kantju Gorge, a round trip of 1.5 km. I would have so appreciated the chance to walk to the gorge and back, to have more time in the majestic proximity of this fabled place. The tour concluded with a tasty and well-prepared barbecue at the sunset viewing area.

Whenever I visit Longreach I make sure we view the night sky. That opportunity existed but was unfortunately ignored, on both of our long tours. On our final full day, we took a 30 minute helicopter flight from the airport to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. We flew at an altitude which allowed us to see the top of Uluru, though we were not permitted to circle it, nor Kata Tjuta. The duration of the flight did not allow us to get as close to Kata Tjuta as we did to Uluru, which meant that we couldn’t get a proper over-head view. Conditions were quite windy, which added to the fun of the ride. In the evening we visited the Field of Light, an ambitious and ingenious installation by the British artist Bruce Munro. Interestingly, the insect sounds at the Field of light reminded me of night filming in the rainforest, though as latterly with the rainforest, I couldn’t hear the higher-pitched sounds. The installation was well worth seeing, but if a drive to a light-pollution free view of the night sky were on offer, I would have snapped it up in a heart-beat.

Now for the biodiversity. Within a couple of hours of my arrival, I was thrilled to see a large black and yellow mud dauber wasp exploring a hedge. It was bigger than the potter wasps I have filmed on the mountain and belongs to a different family. I later saw an even larger black mud dauber. All the ingredients for their nest-building are to be found around the water hole at Uluru. Little wonder that the nearby cave with the wall paintings contains numbers of their nests.

Bird song was plentiful at the resort. The crested pigeon is happy to dwell on the mountain, in Longreach and in the red centre. The yellow-throated miner seemed as prevalent as the noisy miner is here. I saw flocks of zebra finches (but never an individual bird close enough to appreciate its beauty) and, on our tours, budgerigars. I recall seeing a willy wagtail, a few magpies and three distant ducks floating in a water hole on Curtin Springs Station. The guide claimed they were pacific black ducks, though they were no more than small, dark silhouettes on the water. We were staying at Emu Walk Apartments, just round the corner from the town square with its shops, cafés and post office. We were booked on an Emu Run tour. Needless to say, we never saw an emu, nor, for that matter, did we see a single one of the thousands of feral camels which roam this part of the Northern Territory. We saw many non-human tracks in the sand, but none of their begetters. On the way back to the coach from the water hole at Uluru, I was delighted to see a robust river red gum.

While we waited in the airport’s departure lounge, someone drew attention to a goanna which was walking towards the building. At first, when I got to the window, the goanna seemed to have disappeared, but then I noticed that it had settled in the building’s shadow to avoid the heat of the mid-day sun. It remained in the one spot for quite some time. I consulted my guide book, which confirmed that it was a juvenile sand goanna, the smaller of the two large goannas in Central Australia.

What had been denied me on the outward flight, was more than made-up for, on the return flight. The red centre unfolded below me in all its magnificent emptiness. Soon after take-off, a massive system of salt pans hove into view. They stretched as far as the eye could see, so that I wondered if they led to Lake Eyre, (silly me, Lake Eyre is hundreds of kilometres to the south). They gave way to close-together lines of sand dunes in shades of yellow and ochre, flecked with green, which in turn became the red, trackless dunes of the Simpson Desert, before the outback with its own vast spaces took over. Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Mount Conner belong to a wonderful part of the world. It, and the return flight, made me marvel all the more at what an immense and utterly glorious country Australia is.