I’ve lived in Australia almost all my life, but like many people who live here, I’ve never really bothered going to the typical “Australian” places. On my most recent holiday, I decided to change that by going to Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), which you may also know as “that red rock in the Outback”, slightly west of the middle of the country.
How to Get to Uluru
Uluru is pretty darn remote – the nearest town is Alice Springs, about 450 km away (the International Space Station is closer). Like most people, we went by plane (~3.5 h flight from Sydney). You can also travel by bus, but if you’re brave you can drive (make sure you’re very overprepared and look out for animals!).
Uluru has a wet and hot season, and a dry and cool season. Between October and March, the average high temperature is over 30, but in the cooler months it can get to below 0 at night. We went at the end of July/beginning of August, the coldest months. I wore a jumper and multiple long-sleeved shirts every day. It was super cold at night – I wish I brought a beanie and scarf!
The dry season is also very dry compared to Sydney, especially with the hotel air conditioning. I ended up getting a nosebleed on the last day. I didn’t have any issues with inhaling the dust, as it seemed to limit itself to the area below my ankles, but my shoes and sock ended up coated in red sand.
Uluru is in the middle of nowhere, in a pretty expensive country, so it’s pretty bloody expensive. Don’t expect to be able to do it on a shoestring budget unless you’re prepared to stay in a hostel and bring your own groceries.
How Long to Stay in Uluru
We stayed for 4 days and 3 nights, which we agreed was the right amount of time to spend in Uluru. The key attractions there are Uluru and Kata Tjuta, which are quite close to the resort, and Kings Canyon which is about 3.5 hours away. If you’re planning to visit Kings Canyon you’ll need an extra day, but if you’re not used to doing long walks your feet will be screaming for a rest after two consecutive days. I’ve been told by pretty much everyone who’s been there that Kings Canyon is stunning.
Here’s what we did there – part 2 will be on where we stayed and what we ate.
Most of Uluru’s attractions, accommodation and transport can be booked directly through the one site, which is great if you hate having to do extensive research.
Uluru is situated in the World Heritage listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It’s a natural sandstone formation with great religious significance to the indigenous Anangu people of the area. The land is owned by the Anangu who lease it back to the government to maintain as a national park.
We joined the 1.5 hour free tour (from 10 am each morning), led by a park ranger who told us some of the cultural history, geology and ecology of the place. This tour was fantastic and really gave you an appreciation for the delicate balancing act between tourism and preservation of the environmental and cultural heritage of the site.
After the tour, we embarked on a self-guided 9.4 km walk around the base. There’s a clearly marked pathway for visitors to follow, and there are also maps everywhere. The path is sandy and flat so it’s a pleasant stroll. You can also hire bicycles or join a Segway tour there, or go by camel.
It’s pretty interesting seeing the rock close up. Uluru is almost 400 m in height, and there are many natural rock formations that aren’t visible from a distance, many of which have cultural significance as well. There are also rock paintings in some areas. The native Anangu people are restricted from viewing some portions of Uluru (e.g. if the section is to be viewed by one gender only, or if it needs to be viewed in a particular context). These sections are clearly marked with signs.
Throughout the entire booking process and visit, it’s pretty strongly communicated that climbing Uluru is both disrespectful and dangerous. Of course, many visitors do it anyway (around 20-30% of visitors according to the park ranger). Apparently once that number falls below 20% the climb will be closed, but for now it’s open and rescues are quite common (there are helipads, but since it’s quite remote many visitors who get stuck need to stay overnight on Uluru).
The cultural centre adjoining Uluru is well worth a visit, with a short exhibition about Uluru as well as a couple of gift shops stocking both standard souvenirs (postcards, boomerangs, hats) and Aboriginal art (paintings, wooden sculptures, decorated bowls). There’s also a basic cafe and toilets. The walk between Uluru and the cultural centre was surprisingly interesting for the wildlife and the plants – we spotted some interesting birds and a lizard.
Entry to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is $25 for a pass that’s valid for 3 consecutive days.
There are a few ways of getting to Uluru from Ayers Rock Resort, which is 21 km away. The most popular method is by coach, which costs $49 for a return transfer. There are also day passes which give you unlimited transfers.
Tips for Uluru
- Wear comfortable shoes, preferably not white (unless you’re after the red gradient look).
- If you’re there in winter, wear layers.
- Wear sunscreen! The Australian sun is harsh. I got mildly sunburnt around the neck because I underestimated the winter sun (bad skincare addict, I know). There’s barely any shade since you’re walking in the desert around a big rock.
- Pack your lunch – the only spot where you can buy food is the cultural centre and the selection is pretty meagre.
- Take a large water bottle if youre there in warm weather as there are only two locations where there’s drinking water available and they’re 4 km apart.
- Do the free tour. If you’re short on time, opt for that over the full base walk, since the landscape is pretty samey and the tour already covers some of everything (or take the cycling or Segway options).
We decided to join a day tour to see Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas), the second attraction in the immediate area. We mostly chose this so we wouldn’t have to think as hard. The tour we picked was the AAT Kings Kata Tjuta Sunrise and Valley of Winds tour, which had a 5:55 am start and finished in 5.5 hours. It included a “light” breakfast (a huge sack of cereal, fruit, and snacks that can last you two meals) and hot coffee/tea/Milo, which turned out to be very necessary – it’s freezing in the morning in winter there!
The sunrise over Uluru is not as spectacular as sunset, as you mostly just see the silhouette of the rock on the horizon. I’d recommend watching Kata Tjuta at sunrise instead.
The Valley of Winds walk is described as “strenous” and “highly difficult”, but keep in mind that the average age of the person visitng Uluru is probably 50 (high prices will do that). There was a short scramble up a steep rock face, but apart from that it’s all very doable if you’re reasonably fit and take your time.
A return transfer to Kata Tjuta is $95. The tour was $139.
If you’re looking to cut down on costs, I’d recommend doing Kata Tjuta as a self-guided excursion, although the tour was only a little bit more expensive and included a big breakfast bag. The guide was great for pointing out wildlife and plants and explaining the geology of the area, but there isn’t as much to learn there compared to Uluru – the main attraction is the scenery (download the Uluru birds app). If you’re feeling spendy, there are also helicopter tours
Field of Lights
This is an art installation by artist Bruce Munro involving over 50 000 light bulbs arranged in a field in front of Uluru. I was quite underwhelmed by this attraction, especially since so many other people seemed to love it according to Google Reviews – the lights aren’t particularly bright, and most of the opening times are when it’s so dark that you can’t see much of the landscape. However, it’s incredibly photogenic!
I’d recommend trying to get on a busload that arrives before dark. It finishes at the end of March 2018 and costs $39.
Sounds of Silence Dinner
This is a $199 per person dinner, which includes booze, canapes, a buffet, a didgeridoo performance, an astronomy talk and watching the spectacular sunset over Uluru, which looks like it glows red when the evening sun hits it. The Sounds of Silence dinner isn’t fantastic value for money, especially if you’re not a drinker, but I think I would’ve felt like I missed out if I hadn’t gone.
The buffet food was plentiful but inconsistent in quality – some dishes were delicious, but many were overcooked. My favourites were the potato salad, kangaroo filet, lamb cutlets and the desserts. It’s a good chance to try out a variety of “Australian” cuisine: kangaroo, crocodile, barramundi, quandong, desert lime, lemon myrtle and bush mint were all there.
The sunset over Uluru and the astronomy talk were the highlights of the evening for me.
Things to Do Around the Resort
There are a bunch of activities to do around Ayers Rock Resort, many of which are free. We only did the Ecology and Museum Tour which was excellent (it’s a free talk in the museum about the history of the area and the native wildlife). There’s also a lot of art stores which are well worth a look for some non-tacky souvenirs. Other activities available include:
- Aboriginal dot painting workshops
- Bush food tours and workshops
- Talks on astronomy and Aboriginal culture
- Reptile shows
Other Uluru Tips
- If you’re going on an early morning trip and you have breakfast included with your accommodation, ask for a breakfast pack. It’s packed to the brim and comes in a carry bag that makes a good, cheap souvenir.
- Most things seem to be organised by “sunrise” and “sunset” rather than set times. You’ll have to check pretty much every night what time to get to places.
- Take sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat – the glare is intense!
- Bring a big backpack for carrying your lunch and water with you.
- Bring a camera.
Part 2 will be on where we stayed, what we ate and what we bought at Uluru!