ULURU, AUSTRALIA - The people on holiday at Uluru take their sunrises very seriously.
It is 4am and there are already dozens of tourists waiting to hitch a ride into a national park that houses the red behemoth that is Uluru.
Small buses ship the tourists, including myself, into the national park, and in the dark of the night, the close to 400m-tall sandstone formation looks imposing.
After waiting for about an hour, the first rays of light appear over the horizon, throwing some light over the crimson-coloured Uluru and the vast desert landscape is unveiled to us bit by bit.
The sight is worth enduring the morning chill - temperatures can drop to single-digit degree Celsius.
According to the Aboriginals, the rock, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is not just spectacular for its sheer size and geological significance. It is also a sacred site to the natives and steeped in cultural significance, which seems to be a consistent theme of Central Australia, where the rock is located.
Uluru is also known as Ayers Rock - a name it got in 1873 in honour of the then-chief secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
The area offers an in-depth look at Australia's Aboriginal culture and history and is a different feel altogether from the Down Under I am used to, I discover during a five-day trip to the Northern Territory in May.
While Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, another ancient rock formation 30km from Uluru, are natural marvels on their own, a lot of emphasis is placed on their significance to the Aboriginals.
The two were formed around the same time the Australia continent came into being and are the remains of what used to be a mountain range. According to geologists, there used to be a mountain range and a river flowed in what is now the rust-coloured desert.
But it is rich in cultural history and our guide animatedly explains that Uluru is where the Aboriginals' ancestral beings - the Kuniya, a woma python, and the Liru, a poisonous snake - fought.
Their battle resulted in some of the big fissures and formations on the rock. One of the largest is a skull shaped by cracks in the rock, said to be the result of an ancestor being slammed against the rock by another.
Because of its sacred nature and the many inherent dangers of climbing the rock, park managers are closing the climbing path up the rock from Oct 26 this year.
According to our guide, the Aboriginals' reasoning is that Uluru is like their home, so they feel responsible for every death that happens on the rock. More than 35 people have died during the climb, most from heart failure.
So rather than having people risk the strenuous and sometimes treacherous climb, they are banning people from climbing Uluru.
GETTING TO AND AROUND THE ROCK
But there are many other ways to admire the other formations in the surroundings, which are now easier to get to with a new direct flight route to Uluru from Darwin by Australian carrier Qantas (See sidebar.)
Some other travel options around the rock include: a camel ride near the base of the mountain, a helicopter ride offering sweeping views and a Segway tour around the rock.
Or you can just walk around the base of Uluru, which can take about 31/2 hours. A full circuit around the rock, which is taller than the 324m Eiffel Tower, is around 10km.
In the early hours of the morning, when the temperatures are cool at around 20 deg C, walking is a popular option and I see parents pushing their children in strollers around the rock.
Our tour around Uluru by Uluru Segway Tours (www.ulurusegwaytours.com.au) is only slightly shorter than the full hike, as we stop regularly on our Segways for the guide to explain the features in the area.
The camel ride (www.ulurucameltours.com.au) is a family-friendly option.
Camels are not a native species to the Red Centre, another name for this region of Central Australia, and were brought into the area to help build infrastructure in the desert. But they have thrived so well that there are now more than 10,000 in the wild.
Camel farms round up the camels and bring them in for tourism or to export them to other countries.
The actual route on a camel takes less than an hour and is catered more for children than adults. For me, the novelty of riding on a camel, with its slow steady gait, wears off a short while into the ride and we do not go close enough to Uluru for my liking.
UNWIND UNDER THE STARS
Admittedly, there is not a lot to do when night falls and we largely stay in at Ayers Rock Resort (www.ayersrockresort.com.au), which is the main resort servicing tourists in the area.
There is a tour called A Night at the Field of Light (www.ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences/field-of-light-experiences) though, where visitors are bussed out to a site near Uluru for dinner and a short tour.
The food served is "bush tucker"- inspired, which means it includes herbs or ingredients found in the Aboriginals' diet.
We have dishes spiced with wattleseed and lemon myrtle.
After dinner, visitors take a short walk to a nearby light art installation, which features more than 50,000 solar-powered glass spheres of light that twinkle gently and change colours. It is quite a sight to behold.
If you choose to stay in at the resort, there is an astronomy tour, one of the few night activities it offers.
With very little light pollution from around, the Milky Way is clearly visible in all its glory and I catch sight of at least two shooting stars during the hour-long session.
In the outback, however, the Aboriginals do not just trace constellations from the stars. Instead, they look at the dark spaces in between the stars to guide them in their directions and trace out shapes like a "big emu" in the dark space between twinkly stars.
I suppose this is only possible as they are used to seeing a star-strewn sky, such that the darkness between stars can be identified.
The cultural experience would be incomplete without actually interacting with the Aboriginals, who are, after all, the original inhabitants of Australia and comprise around 25 per cent of the population in the Northern Territory.
While some indigenous people are assimilated into the mainstream Australian society, there are groups who still maintain their traditional ways of living and live in separate settlements.
I meet Bessie, an Aboriginal who lives in one of these settlements, during a dot painting workshop at Maraku Arts, who explains the significance of the different symbols found in dot painting.
Back in Darwin on a short layover before returning to Singapore, I meet an Aboriginal family who runs the Pudakul Aboriginal Cultural Tours (www.pudakul.com.au).
They take us on a tour of their property just outside the main city and share snippets of their traditional way of living, like their concept of family relations.
For example, an Aboriginal person's mother's sisters are also their "mothers" and their father's brothers are also "fathers", so that makes their cousins their "brothers and sisters" too. However, once they come of age, they have to avoid talking to their siblings of the opposite sex.
My favourite is the rule stating that sons-in-law cannot speak to their mothers-in-law, but they also cannot deny anything their mothers-in-law want.
This gets tricky in modern-day living, says our guide. His daughter had to be transferred out of her class in school as her cousins - also her "brothers" - were in the same class and she could not interact with them.
One can only imagine how these complicated family rules might play out in our Chinese New Year celebrations.
Sadly, our guide says more and more Aboriginal youths are renouncing the traditional way of life and rules. The day might come soon when the region's rich cultural heritage can be found only in museums, artworks or tourist guides, he rues.
Before that happens, I am glad I got to hang out with some of them.
The writer was hosted by Tourism Australia and Tourism Northern Territory.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN DARWIN
If you are planning a short layover in Darwin, check out these attractions:
This is a sanctuary for "problem crocodiles" and visitors can swim with some of their biggest stars in the Cage of Death, a transparent perspex structure which is lowered into the crocodile's enclosure.
Darwin Harbour Cruises
You can enjoy the sunset with a cruise along the Darwin Harbour. You can opt for a cruise with a full dinner service and a bar, or bring your own alcohol and snacks and hop on one of the other smaller cruises - a popular activity among locals.
Locals frequent this market on weekends for its food stalls and fresh fruit and flowers. There are also stalls selling accessories and clothes.
• Take along a fly net and cap if you plan to visit in summer. Flies are a big problem in the heat and they like to swarm around your face obscuring your view. The best months to visit Uluru are May to September as the weather is less hot.
• Do not wear white shoes in Uluru, unless you do not mind them being dirtied with rust-coloured sand. Red-coloured dust tends to get on your clothes as well.
• The weather in Darwin is much like Singapore's, so you can expect high temperatures and humidity. But pack long pants and a windbreaker for Uluru as the night temperatures can dip below 10 deg C.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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