Think of Australia and the chances that you imagine Uluru is great, the iconic sandstone monolith located in the country’s centre. Uluru, also called Ayers Rock, is bright red. Gnarled, full of ridges and massively, protruding out of nowhere in Australia’s flat midpoint. Terracotta-coloured sand and loose dust are everywhere, caught in the wind, drifting afar. Intermingled with flies buzzing around. An ice-blue sky and low-growing pale green shrubs in beautiful contrasts. This is sacred land and home to the Aboriginal people Anangu who have lived here for over 30,000 years. This is a great place to learn more about the Aboriginal peoples’ history and culture, and about Tjukurpa, the Dreamtime, Aboriginal mythological beliefs. The monolith Uluru protrude 348 m out of the soil, but most of the rock is buried beneath the ground. Uluru can be found in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in the area with the fitting named the Red Centre, in the southern part of the Northern Territory. It is one of nature’s true wonders that attracts tourists as geologists. Given its distant location and rugged terrain, you can rightly ask yourself whether the trip here is worth it, if sitting long hours in a baking hot car or on a bus, just to see a large, red sandstone rock really can be justified. The answer is yes.
The area is surrounded by a mystique that is hard to find. A spiritual feeling is present, and the emptiness of the Australian desert will result in an exotic experience. It is a pure version of the classic Australian Outback. However, you should not forget that it is something of an ordeal to get here. Unless you choose to take the flight from the nearby airport, of course. Have a wander around the base of Uluru or join in on a guided tour, but do not climb the monolith. It is, after all, sacred land for the indigenous people. Show respect. A must is to see the fantastic colour-display over Uluru thanks to the sun’s movements. Come early to see the sun rise above the rock. The light over the monolith shifts in colours of soft pink, strong orange, light grey and velvet red. It all takes place once again as the sun descends over the horizon. After dark, the stars pop up everywhere. Uluru is in an environment far from any streetlights, making the night pitch black. There is not a single disturbance and all the thousands of stars light up as bright as ever. It is a mighty place to be on to watch the skies.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
You will come across the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre (parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/do/cultural-centre.html) just before arriving at Uluru. It is a good starting point to gain a greater understanding of the monolith and the Aboriginal people Anangu. The entrance is free and there is plenty of information available. They have a souvenir shop and a picnic area. Every afternoon, a workshop is held with local artists where you can paint yourself, using traditional techniques. Book this activity through Ayers Rock Resort (ayersrockresort.com.au). The obvious goal during the trip is of course the sandstone rock. Visit Uluru during the early morning and late evening when the mountain is bathing in light and the colour changes thanks to the suns changing light. For best vantage points for these occasions, follow the signs.
There are several trails you can follow around Uluru. If you choose to walk around the entire monolith, it takes almost four hours and the distance is 9.4 km. Start from the parking space Mala. At eight o’clock in the morning, a parky lead a guided tour from the parking lot to Kantju Gorge. The hike is about two kilometres long and you will learn more about the Mala people, their art forms and culture. Kata Tjuta, which means many heads, is located 50 km west from Uluru. It is believed that the Kata Tjuta once was many times larger than Uluru, but that the weather and wind have worn down the once giant rock to 36 smaller domes. Kata Tjuta is sacred land for the Anangu-people’s men and therefore there are only two hiking trails available here. Choose to walk the Valley of the Winds Walk which serpent its way around, a walk of seven and a half kilometres which takes about three hours to accomplish. The trail is steep in some places. Take plenty of water and don’t rush.
If you like outdoor recreation and camping, you can experience several popular attractions such as Uluru and Kings Canyon during a 3 day camping trip with the Emu Run Experience (wotif.com/things-to-do/3-day-uluru-kings-canyon-camping-tour.a417612.activity-details). If you want to see Uluru from a completely different viewpoint, you can go on a helicopter tour with the Professional Helicopter Services Uluru (wotif.com/things-to-do/uluru-kata-tjuta-helicopter-flight.a298598.activity-details). Depending on how much time and money you have, there are different tours to choose from. The longest of them takes you all the way to Kings Canyon and Lake Amadeus. The package includes a pick-up at your hotel.
All the restaurants around Uluru belong to Ayers Rock Resort (ayersrockresort.com.au/around-the-resort/dining-and-bars/restaurants-and-bars). There are options to suit all budgets, although most are a tad expensive. There is a good mix of cafes, bars and fine restaurants in the area. Kulata Academy Café is located at the square and employs young people with Aboriginal descent to give them work experience. There are sandwiches, salads and freshly ground coffee. They also serve an affordable breakfast for under ten dollars.
Arnguli Grill is located at Deserts Garden Hotel and prepares dinners where native herbs and spices get to flavour modern dishes. They serve, among other things, kangaroo and crocodile. They have a good wine list and wonderful desserts. However, it is in the slightly higher price range. The Pioneer BBQ and Bar is a relaxed bar of the type do-it-yourself. You choose a piece of meat or fish and then get to prepare it on your own at the open grills. There is a salad buffet and various desserts. The entertainment is a live band, and in the bar, you can order a glass of cold beer.
Good to know
Parks Australia (parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru) has some useful information about the Red Centre which may be worth to take a peek at. There is a Visitor Information Centre within Ayers Rock Resort (ayersrockresort.com.au/around-the-resort/services-and-facilities), which is open daily between 08:00 and 19:00. To find activities, tickets and accommodation in Uluru you can also take a look at wotif’s website (wotif.com/discover/australia/northern-territory/petermann/uluru.d6054666).
Warnings and preparations
During the summer months of December to February, daytime temperatures can rise to over 40 degrees Celsius. If you have difficulties coping with heat, it may be advisable to visit Uluru during autumn or spring instead. Keep in mind that it is important to protect yourself from the sun as the ozone layer is much thinner in Australia because of its mid-latitude location. Use sunscreen and a cap or a sun hat. Drink plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes. However, remember that the nights are cold in the desert, so don’t forget to pack with some warm garments. There are lots of small, stubborn flies so bringing some insect-spray is a good idea.
Getting here and beyond
Several airlines fly to Ayers Rock Airport from several major Australian cities (wotif.com/Flights). The airport is just a 20-minute drive from Uluru, near the town of Yulara. All flights are greeted by a minibus driving to Ayers Rock Resort. The journey takes about ten minutes. AAT Kings runs a bus between Ayers Rock and Kings Canyon (wotif.com/things-to-do/shared-shuttle-ayers-rock-kings-canyon.a224331.activity-details) and arranges both shorter and longer trips around the Red Centre (wotif.com/things-to-do/half-day-uluru-morning-guided-base-walking-tour.a228499.activity-details). Gray Line is another bus company that takes you between Uluru and Alice Springs (wotif.com/things-to-do/uluru-alice-springs-1-way-transfer.a180443.activity-details).
For the greatest freedom of choice, it is best to rent a car (wotif.com/Car-Hire).
Ayers Rock Resort (hotelscombined.com/Place/Ayers_Rock.htm) offers almost anything you could possibly need. It is almost like a small community with a variety of accommodation options, supermarkets, restaurants and an on-site spa. The area is built in a climate-smart and environmentally friendly way and the buildings are like a cluster in the desert, only a few minutes’ drive from Uluru. Expect juicy prices when staying here. On the other hand, there are not many other options. At Ayers Rock Campground (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Ayers_Rock_Campground.htm) you can rent some more or less grassy areas to put up your tent on. There are places with electricity to rent if necessary. There is a kitchen, a swimming pool and a volleyball court. Wi-Fi, laundry and BBQ facilities are also available. And a reception that is open daily until 21:00.
If you are a couple of people travelling together, renting an apartment from Emu Walk Apartments (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Emu_Walk_Apartments.htm) might work. They offer single rooms, and two-bedroom apartments that can accommodate up to six people. The apartments lie in the shade of the trees and feature fully equipped kitchens so you can prepare meals on your own. Alternatively, just go to one of the resort’s restaurants. You will also have access to the pool area.
Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Outback_Pioneer_Lodge.htm) is a fifteen-minutes’ walk from the shops and is a little cheaper. They have barbecues, a simpler outdoor kitchen, a bar and a restaurant. The rooms are simple but have both air conditioning and heating. Longitude 131 is the finest accommodation option in Yulara (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Emu_Walk_Apartments.htm). The bill for a stay here will be rocket high but you get what you pay for. Stay in luxurious camping homes located in the desert landscape with a breathtaking view of Uluru and its surroundings. Everything is included in the price. The restaurant uses Australian flavours and mixes the modern with the traditional. Meals are served with local wine and beers, which are enjoyed at tables with white tablecloths under the starry skies.
A Saturday in Uluru National Park
08:00 – Shifting colours
Get up early, long before the sun gets over the horizon. Head to Uluru to see how the monolith’s colours shift when the first rays of sunshine hit the red sand. Most certainly you will not be alone, but there are plenty of vantage points to choose from. Then walk around the foot of the monolith and get close to Uluru. The entire hike takes up to four hours, so do not forget your water bottle and the sunscreen.
13:00 – Art and culture
Go to Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, a kilometre from Uluru, to take a closer look at local artists’ pieces of art. Learn more about the Anangu culture and their traditions and why this place is so special to them. At half past one it is time for the Maruku Arts Dot Painting Workshop where you get to learn how to paint in an Aboriginal style about the mythical Dreamtime. They use techniques with many dots and different crosshatching patterns. You get to keep the painting as a memory.
15:00 – Hiking by the domes
Drive to Uluru’s neighbour, dome-shaped Kata Tjuta. Driving here takes longer than one might think, almost 45 minutes. At this time of the day, there is not enough time to walk the longer hiking trail, so choose the shorter one called Walpa Gorge Walk which is just under three kilometres. You get a nice view of the highest mountain among Kata Tjuta’s all 36 domes, Mount Olga at 1,070 meters height. Then drive back to the resort to refill your energy-levels.
18:00 – Dinner and stargazing
After a long day out in the sun it’s time to relax. Dinner and stargazing await. Tali Wiru (ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences/detail/tali-wiru) is the restaurant where you eat out in the open with a perfect view of Uluru, and even Kata Tjuta can be glimpsed far on the horizon. Champagne is served at sunset while a didgeridoo is playing in the background. Four dishes are on the menu. The food has been carefully matched with the choice of Australian wines. Only 20 seats are available per evening, so book in advance. Then watch how the stars pop up all over the skies.