462 km (286 miles) SW of Alice Springs; 1,934 km (1,199 miles) S of Darwin; 1,571 km (974 miles) N of Adelaide; 2,841 km (1,761 miles) NW of Sydney
Why travel so far to look at a large red rock? Because it will send a shiver up your spine. Because it may move you to tears. Because there is something indefinable and indescribable but definitely spiritual about this place. Up close, Uluru is more magnificent than you can imagine. It is immense and overwhelming and mysterious. Photographs never do it justice. There is what is described as a “spirit of place”here. It is unforgettable and irresistible (and you may well want to come back again, just for another look). It will not disappoint you. On my first visit—yes, I am one who will keep coming back—a stranger whispered to me: “Even when you are not looking at it, it is always just there, waiting to tap you on the shoulder.”A rock with a presence.
“The Rock”has a circumference of 9.4 km (6 miles), and two-thirds of it is thought to be underground. In photos, it looks smooth and even, but the reality is much more interesting—dappled with holes and overhangs, with curtains of stone draping its sides, creating little coves hiding water holes and Aboriginal rock art. It also changes color from pink to a deep wine red depending on the angle and intensity of the sun. And if you are lucky enough to be visiting when it rains, you will see a sight like no other. Here, rain brings everyone outside to see the spectacle of the waterfalls created off the massive rock formed by sediments laid down 600 to 700 million years ago in an inland sea and thrust up aboveground 348 m (1,141 ft.) by geological forces.
In 1985, Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park was returned to its Aboriginal owners, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people, known as the Anangu, who manage the property jointly with the Australian government. Don’t think a visit to Uluru is just about snapping a few photos and going home. There are many ways of exploring it, and one of the best is to join Aboriginal people on guided walks. You can walk around the Rock, climb it (we’ll talk about that later), fly over it, ride a camel to it, circle it on a Harley-Davidson, trek through the nearby Olgas, and dine under the stars while you learn about them.
Just do yourself one favor: Plan to spend at least 2 days here, if not 3.
Isolation (and a lack of competition) makes such things as accommodations, meals, and transfers relatively expensive. A coach tour or four-wheel-drive camping safari is often the cheapest way to see the place.
Qantas ( tel. 13 13 13 in Australia) flies to Ayers Rock (Connellan) Airport direct from Alice Springs and Cairns. Flights from other airports go via Alice Springs. Jetstar (tel. 13 15 38 in Australia) flies from Sydney and Melbourne and Virgin Blue (tel. 13 67 89 in Australia) from Sydney. The airport is 6 km (3 3/4 miles) from Ayers Rock Resort. A free shuttle ferries all resort guests, including campers, to their door.
The Rock in a Day?
It’s a loooong day to visit Uluru in a day from Alice by road. Many organized coach tours pack a lot—perhaps a Rock-base walk or climb, Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, and a champagne sunset at the Rock—into a busy trip that leaves Alice around 5:30 or 6am and gets you back late at night. You should consider a day trip only between May and September. At other times, it’s too hot to do much from early morning to late afternoon.
By Car:Take the Stuart Highway south from Alice Springs 199 km (123 miles), turn right onto the Lasseter Highway, and go 244 km (151 miles) to Ayers Rock Resort. The Rock is 18 km (11 miles) farther on. It is about a 4 1/2-hour drive in total.
If you are renting a car in Alice Springs and want to drop it at Uluru and fly out from there, be prepared for a one-way penalty. Only Avis, Hertz, and Thrifty have Uluru depots.
For online information before you arrive, check out the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park website, www.parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru. Tourism Central Australia has a Visitor Information Centre at the corner of Todd Mall and Parsons St., Alice Springs (tel. 1800/645 199 in Australia or 08/8952 5800; www.discovercentralaustralia.com). Another good source of online information is Ayers Rock Resort’s site (www.ayersrockresort.com.au).
One kilometer (a half mile) from the base of the Rock is the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre (tel. 08/8956 1128), owned and run by the Anangu, the Aboriginal owners of Uluru. It uses eye-catching wall displays, frescoes, interactive recordings, and videos to tell about Aboriginal Dreamtime myths and laws. It’s worth spending some time here to understand a little about Aboriginal culture. A National Park desk ([tel] 08/8956 1100) has information on ranger-guided activities and animal, plant, and bird-watching checklists. The center also has a cafe, a souvenir shop, and two Aboriginal arts and crafts galleries. It’s open daily from early in the morning to after sundown; exact hours vary from month to month.
The Ayers Rock Resort Visitor Centre, next to the Desert Gardens Hotel ([tel] 08/8957 7377), has displays on the area’s geology, wildlife, and Aboriginal heritage, plus a souvenir store. It’s open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm. You can book tours at the tour desk in every hotel at Ayers Rock Resort, or visit the Ayers Rock Resort Tour & Information Centre ([tel] 08/8957 7324) at the shopping center in the resort complex.
Park Entrance Fees
Entry to the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park is A$25 per adult, free for children under 16, and valid for 3 days. Some tours include this fee but others do not, so it pays to check. National Park tickets can only be purchased from the National Park Entry Station. The park is open from between 5am and 6:30am (depending on the time of year) and closes between 7:30pm and 9pm.
The Anangu ask you not to photograph sacred sites or Aboriginal people without permission and to approach quietly and respectfully.
Ayers Rock Resort runs a free shuttle every 20 minutes or so around the resort complex from 10:30am to after midnight, but to get to the Rock or Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), you will need to take transfers, join a tour, or have your own wheels. The shuttle also meets all flights. There are no taxis at Yulara.
By Shuttle:Uluru Express (tel. 08/8956 2019; www.uluruexpress.com.au) provides a shuttle from Ayers Rock Resort to and from the Rock about every 50 minutes from before sunrise to sundown, and four times a day to Kata Tjuta. The basic round-trip fare is A$60 for adults and A$35 for kids 1 to 14. To Kata Tjuta, it costs A$95 for adults and A$50 for children. A 2-day pass that enables you to explore Uluru and Kata Tjuta as many times as you wish costs A$205 for adults and A$100 for children; a 3-day pass costs A$235 for adults and A$120 for kids. A National Park entry pass, if you don’t already have one, is A$25 extra.
By Car:if there are two of you, the easiest and cheapest way to get around is likely to be a rental car. All roads in the area are paved, so a four-wheel-drive is unnecessary. Expect to pay around A$120 to A$140 per day for a medium-size car. Rates drop a little in low season. Most car-rental companies give you the first 100 or 200 km (63–126 miles) free and charge between A17[ce] and A25[ce] per kilometer after that. Take this into account, because the round-trip from the resort to the Olgas is just over 100 km (63 miles), and that’s without driving about 20 km (13 miles) to the Rock and back. Hire periods of under 3 days incur a one-way fee based on kilometers traveled, up to about A$330. Avis (tel. 08/8956 2266), Hertz (tel. 08/8956 2244), and Thrifty (tel. 08/8956 2030) all rent regular cars and four-wheel-drives.
The Outback Travel Shop: (tel. 08/8955 5288; www.outbacktravelshop.com.au), in Alice Springs, often has better deals on car-rental rates than you’ll get by booking direct.
By Organized Tour:Several tour companies run a range of daily sunrise and sunset viewings, circumnavigations of the Rock by coach or on foot, guided walks at the Rock or the Olgas, camel rides, observatory evenings, visits to the Uluru–Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, and innumerable combinations of all of these. Some offer “passes”containing the most popular activities. Virtually every company picks you up at your hotel. Among the most reputable are AAT Kings and Tailormade Tours .
Water, Water . . .
Water taps are scarce and kiosks nonexistent in Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park. Always carry plenty of your own drinking water when sightseeing.
At Sunrise & Sunset The peak time to catch the Rock’s beauty is sunset, when oranges, peaches, pinks, reds, and then indigo and deep violet creep across its face. Some days it’s fiery; other days the colors are muted. A sunset-viewing car park is on the Rock’s western side. Plenty of sunset and sunrise tours operate from the resort, and many throw in a glass of wine to toast the end of the day as you watch. At sunrise, the colors are less dramatic, but many people enjoy the spectacle of Uluru unveiled by the dawn to birdsong. You’ll need an early start—most tours leave about 90 minutes before sunup. A typical sunrise tour is offered by AAT Kings (tel. 08/8956 2171; ww.aatkings.com). It includes morning tea and costs A$59 for adults, A$30 for children 5 to 15. AAT Kings offers several other tours around the area, so if large-group touring is what you want, check out its website.
To climb or Not to Climb?
The Pitjantjatjara people refer to tourists as minga—little ants—because that’s what they look like crawling up Uluru. Climbing this sacred rock is a fraught subject, one which Australians fall into two camps over: Those who have or want to and those who never will. I fall into the latter category. Climbing Uluru is against the wishes of the traditional owners, the Anangu (“the people,”a term used by Aboriginal people from the Western Desert to refer to themselves), because of its deep spiritual significance to them. The climb follows the trail the ancestral Dreamtime Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) men took when they first came to Uluru, something you will hear about when you visit. While tourists are still allowed to climb, the traditional owners strongly prefer that they don’t, and you will see signs and information to this effect.
Apart from respecting Uluru as a sacred place, there are several good practical reasons for resisting the temptation to undertake the 348 m (1,142-ft.) hike. “The Rock”is dangerously steep and rutted with ravines about 2.5 m (8 1/4 ft.) deep; and 36 people have died while climbing—either from heart attacks or falls—in the past five decades. The Anangu feel a duty to safeguard visitors to their land, and feel great sorrow and responsibility when visitors are killed or injured. The climb, by all accounts, is tough. There are sometimes strong winds, the walls are almost vertical in places (you have to hold onto a chain), and it can be freezing cold or maddeningly hot. Heat stress is a real danger. If you’re unfit, have breathing difficulties, heart trouble, high or low blood pressure, or are scared of heights, don’t do it. The climb takes at least 1 hour up for the fit, and 1 hour down. The less sure-footed should allow 3 to 4 hours. The Rock is closed to climbers during bad weather; when temperatures exceed 97[dg]F (36[dg]C), which they often do from November to March; and when wind speed exceeds 25 knots. It is closed at 8am daily in January and February because of the extreme heat.
The Australian government recognized the existence of the traditional Aboriginal owners in 1979 and created a national park to protect Uluru and Kata Tjuta. In 1983, the traditional owners were granted ownership of the land and the park was leased to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years, with the agreement that the public could continue to climb it. The Australian government’s 10-year management plan for Uluru decrees that the climb will close permanently if climber numbers drop to below 20% of all visitors to Uluru—and that target is close to being met, with an estimated 40,000 people climbing in 2012. In any case, visitors will be given 18 months’warning of any planned closure.
Walking, Driving, or Busing Around It[em]A paved road runs around the Rock. The easy 9.4 km (6-mile) Base Walk circumnavigating Uluru takes about 2 hours (the best time is early morning), but allow extra time to linger around the water holes, caves, folds, and overhangs that make up its walls. A shorter walk is the easy 1 km (.6-mile) round-trip trail from the Mutitjulu parking lot to the pretty water hole near the Rock’s base, where there is some rock art. The Liru Track is another easy trail; it runs 2 km (1.2 miles) from the Cultural Centre to Uluru, where it links with the Base Walk.
Before setting off on any walk, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with the self-guided walking notes available from the Cultural Centre.
Flying Over It
Several companies do scenic flights by light aircraft or helicopter over Uluru, Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), nearby Mount Conner, the vast white saltpan of Lake Amadeus, and as far as Kings Canyon. Professional Helicopter Services (tel. 08/8956 2003; www.phs.com.au), for example, does a 15-minute flight over Uluru for A$145 per person, and a 30-minute flight, which includes Kata Tjuta, for A$275, among others. Helicopters don’t land on top of the Rock.
Motorcycling Around It
Harley-Davidson tours are available as sunrise or sunset rides, laps of the Rock, and various other Uluru and Kata Tjuta tours with time for walks. A blast out to the Rock at sunset with Uluru Motorcycle Tours (tel. 08/8956 2019; www.ulurucycles.com) will set you back A$199; it includes a glass of champagne. The guide drives the bike, and you sit behind and hang on.
Viewing It on Camelback
Legend has it that a soul travels at the same pace as a camel; it’s certainly a peaceful way to see the Rock. Uluru Camel Tours (tel. 08/8956 3333; www.ulurucameltours.com.au) makes daily forays aboard “ships of the desert”to view Uluru. Amble through red-sand dunes with great views of the Rock, dismount to watch the sun rise or sink over it, and ride back to the depot for billy tea and beer bread in the morning, or champagne in the evening. The 1-hour rides depart Ayers Rock Resort 1 hour before sunrise or 1 /2 hours before sunset and cost A$119 per person, including transfers from your hotel. All tours leave from the Camel Depot at the Ayers Rock Resort. Shorter rides are also available.
Timing Your Trip
Most tourists visit Uluru in the mornings and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) in the afternoon. Reverse the order (do the Valley of the Winds walk in the morning and Uluru in the afternoon), and you’ll likely find both spots a little more silent and spiritual.
Exploring Kata Tjuta
While it would be worth coming all the way to Central Australia just to see Uluru, there is a second unique natural wonder to see, just a 50 km (31-mile) drive away. Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas, consists of 36 immense ochre rock domes rising from the desert, rivaling Uluru for spectacular beauty. Some visitors find it lovelier and more mysterious than Uluru. Known to the Aborigines as Kata Tjuta, or “many heads,”the tallest dome is 200 m (656 ft.) higher than Uluru, and Kata Tjuta figures more prominently in Aboriginal legend than Uluru.
This part of Australia’s red heart was first discovered in the 1870s by English explorers. Ernest Giles named part of Kata Tjuta “Mount Olga”after the reigning Queen Olga of Wurttemberg, while William Gosse gave Uluru the name “Ayers Rock”after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia.
Two walking trails take you in among the domes: the 7.4 km (4.6-mile) Valley of the Winds ★★ walk, which is fairly challenging and takes 3 to 5 hours, and the easy 2.6 km (1.6-mile) Gorge walk, which takes about an hour. The Valley of the Winds trail is the more rewarding in terms of scenery. Both have lookout points and shady stretches. The Valley of the Winds trail closes when temperatures rise above 97[dg]F (36[dg]C).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.