When Clare McFarlane, managing director of Gold Coast-based Aries Tours, suggested that free-spending, luxury-loving Japanese tourists could be lured to visit a remote cave in Queensland that was infested with worms that glow in the dark, other tour agents snickered and jokingly dubbed her "the cavewoman." Ten years later, the laughter has died down. McFarlane's five-hour excursion to the glowworm cave has become a favorite of Asian tour groups, drawing 50,000 visitors a year from Japan, mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan to Springbrook National Park, about 50 kilometers southwest from Surfers' Paradise. McFarlane forgives her peers for doubting her back in the early 1990s. "At that stage," she says, "they were only interested in theme parks."
McFarlane, it turned out, was way ahead of her time. The glowworm gambit was a forerunner of the ecotourism movement, the travel-industry trend emphasizing ecologically sustainable trips that focus on natural areas and foster environmental and cultural understanding. With its daunting expanses of wilderness and exotic wildlife (cave-dwelling glowworms included), Australia has become a world leader in ecotourism. But though many ecotour packages resemble death marches, McFarlane, who is also president of the trade group Eco-tourism Australia, recognized early on that most of her clients "don't want to hike up to the top of Mount Warning on a six-hour trek." So for more sedentary travelers, a less aerobic form of ecotourismcalled "soft ecotourism"has been developed.
You can experience these politically correct pleasures at resorts such as the stunning Longitude 131°, opened in June last year 20 kilometers from Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) in Australia's famed Red Center. This boutique encampment in the heart of the outback imbues environmentally sound desert accommodation with understated luxury. Longitude 131°'s 15 spacious tent-style bungalows blend harmoniously with their dramatic desert setting. Floor-to-ceiling windows, facing southeast to dodge direct, searing sunlight, frame spectacular views of endless dunes and the majestic Uluru. Next to each bed is a remote control switch, which lowers or raises the blinds, allowing guests to watch the sun rise from reclining comfort.
The $1,000-a-night luxury campsite was designed with the lazily adventurous in mind, but parent company Voyages Hotels and Resorts also had to cater to the needs of the area's full-time residents, such as the tiny mulgaraa native marsupialand its delicate desert ecosystem. Given its proximity to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, listed as a World Heritage site, Longitude 131° was built with scrupulous attention to environmental impact. Once the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority confirmed there were no sacred sites in the area, and a range of environmental concerns were satisfactorily addressed in accordance with federal law, permission was granted to begin work in October 2001. To avoid harming the desert vegetation, which could take years to recover, the tents were prefabricated in pieces and lifted into position. "We wanted the place as pristine as it could be after construction," says Kane Hardingham, environmental manager for Voyages Hotels and Resorts. "We didn't want any large areas of cleared land."
Longitude 131°'s sensitivity didn't stop with the site work. To preserve the desert silence, the resort is powered by noiseless solar energy. For fun, the hotel offers a range of eco-adventure activities such as sunrise rock tours, stargazing, and the Sounds of Silence dinner packagea three-course meal that includes farmed crocodile, emu and kangaroo, held under the stars. Other trips are available. On the daylong Cave Hill Safari run by Aboriginal-owned Desert Tracks, guests visit members of a small Aboriginal settlement near Cave Hill, the location of some of the region's best rock paintings. Local residents have been painting in the caves for the past 20,000 years. Concentric circles and abstract animal forms in white, red and ocher paint cover the walls. This is the only place on earth, in fact, where you can view the tableaux of a prehistoric culture and later ask the artist what he meant when he drew the sun directly above the third emu from the left. The Cave Hill residents, all 15 of them, serve as tour guides and explain how the surrounding landscape relates to Tjukurpa (pronounced Chook-orr-pa)their system of values, beliefs and lore. Over a picnic lunch, guests learn about bush foods, water holes and the age-old ways of Aboriginal life.
On my guided trip to Uluru, I expected to find an endless expanse of dunes and red desert, and was surprised to discover instead a diversity of vegetation such as gray and green clumps of spinifex grass, honey grevillea (so called for its sugar-like sap) and desert oaks. Rising 348 m above the desert floor, and with a circumference of 9.4 km, Uluru is the world's largest rock monolith. It is also a sacred site for the land's traditional custodians, the Anangu (pronounced Arn-ang-oo). As we drove past the red massif, my guide pointed out a line of small black dots that appeared to be climbing the rock face. Minga, local Aborigines call them. The term means "black ants," but it is applied to tourists too not only because that is how they appear when they climb Uluru but also because they always scurry around in one another's footprints. Though climbing it is not yet forbidden, the Anangu ask visitors not to scale their sacred rock mountain and have posted several signs at the base where the trail beginsto little avail.
Reaching the Daintree rainforest on Queensland's north coast is akin to stepping into a David Attenborough nature documentary. The forest hums with the chatter of thousands of birds, insects and animals. Towering trees, strangler figs, fan palms and vines form canopies that filter the harsh southern sun, enabling delicate plant species to thrive on the forest floor. This intricate ecosystem supports species found nowhere else in the world. "And here," Attenborough must surely be whispering in the background, "we have the oldest continuously surviving rain forest in the world. It is 115 million years old, and dates to the time of the southern supercontinent that geologists have called Gondwanaland." This is the only place on earth where two World Heritage-listed sites meet. Just 140 kilometers north of Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park laps the shores of the Daintree National Park in the Cape Tribulation area north of the Daintree River.
This environmentally and aesthetically diverse region produces stunning vistas of pale sand beaches and azure water juxtaposed against the deep green lushness of the primeval rain forest. And on the south side of the Daintree River, nestled in 12-hectare valley surrounded by rain forest, is another hangout for soft ecotourists: the Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa. Built 10 years ago, the 15 rustic cabins and their linked walkways are suspended on stilts to reduce disturbances to residents of the forest floor. Some rain-forest denizens, however, seem to enjoy their human company; during my stay, a wild bush turkey leapt upon my lunch table and dunked its head into a pint of ice-cold beer.
In addition to a well-stocked library and several eco-excursions, the Lodge spa offers Aboriginal beauty products made from indigenous plants, fruits, earth and salts. The therapist has received permission from the local tribes to use the sacred women's waterfall on the site for special healing treatments. The use of Aboriginal ways extends to the management's philosophy as well. "The owner has an indigenous view toward the property," says manager Dave Gibson. "He's the steward for it at this particular time."
Ecotourists, even those of the soft variety, are adopting the same spirit. A recent letter to the Uluru national park from a Japanese sightseer was representative of the newly enlightened traveler. "I was a visitor to your beautiful Ayers Rock," the letter stated. "I am very sorry but I took a little piece of your spirit. I didn't know your culture and the meaning. Again I am sorry. Please put back. Thank you." Enclosed was a rock chip taken from the face of Uluru. In Australia, visitors are discovering that a spiritual understanding of a place is far more valuable than a simple souvenir.