Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is an iconic landmark in the heart of Australia that rarely requires much of an introduction. The same can’t be said though for the lesser known (especially outside of Australia) but no less impressive Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas). Kata Tjuta is another huge rock formation. It consists of 36 huge domes spread out over an area of about 20 square kilometres. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are both within the magnificent Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta are way more impressive (and bigger) than I had imagined before I went. Even though images of Uluru pop up all over the place, it is often hard to gauge its scale. To give some idea of its size, Uluru is taller than the Eiffel Tower and more than two and a half times the height of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
When to go
I highly recommend avoiding the summer months (December to February) completely. Temperatures can be quite extreme and often exceed 36 degrees. When this happens many of the walks are closed during the middle of the day.
The best time to visit is between May and September, when it is cooler and safer. Parks Australia also say that during this time “the colours of the rock are more vibrant and you are more likely to see the hidden surprises of Uluru – waterfalls, plants and animals.” Bear in mind that it does get quite cold overnight though so warm clothing is essential for sunrises and sunsets that you won’t want to miss.
How much time do you need
For those with very limited time, I would suggest a bare minimum of two full days. With two days you can focus on seeing Uluru on one day and Kata Tjuta on the other. More time in the area is definitely time well spent though, especially as both Uluru and Kata Tjuta can look remarkably different as the light changes throughout the day.
A popular add-on to consider is a trip to Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park. It is about a four-hour drive from Uluru and would warrant a few extra days. Accommodation is available nearby at Kings Canyon Resort and at Kings Creek Station. We originally intended to go to Kings Canyon on this trip but we realised that it made more sense to use our four days to focus solely on Uluru and Kata Tjuta. There is also a full-day bus tour run by AAT Kings that leaves very early in the morning to make the most of your day there. It is expensive though, at about A$200 per person.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta are a long way from anywhere, so unless you have a lot of time on your hands, flying is definitely the best option.
Ayers Rock Airport is the closest and is located less than 10 kilometres away from the only accommodation centre in the area, Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara. Cars can be rented at the airport (although be sure to book ahead!). There is also a free shuttle bus between the airport and Ayers Rock Resort.
Virgin Australia have flights from Sydney, while Jetstar have flights from both Sydney and Melbourne. Jetstar are also planning to add a route from Brisbane in August 2018. QantasLink fly from Alice Springs and Cairns. The cheapest flights are generally with Jetstar, especially during their sales, when prices sometimes drop to below A$200 return from Melbourne and Sydney.
Another option is to fly to Alice Springs, rent a car, and drive the six hours it takes to get to Uluru. One advantage of flying to Alice is that there are direct flights to and from other parts of Australia, including Adelaide, Darwin and Perth.
If you haven’t driven to Uluru, I highly recommend that you rent a car. Rental cars can be picked up from the airport, which means you can begin exploring the national park straight away. Even though rental prices are higher than more populated areas of Australia, the prices of getting buses to and from the national park will set you back nearly as much, especially if you are sharing the cost of the rental. Having the freedom to get up early and make your own way to various locations for the sunrise is great too.
Thrifty, Hertz and Avis all rent cars from Ayers Rock Airport. They can, and should, be booked online in advance. We paid about A$100 per day (in May) although prices may vary at different times of year or for different car models. You definitely do not need a four-wheel drive for anywhere in the area, by the way. We were unsure before we went but the roads are paved everywhere that you are allowed to go anyway.
The Uluru Hop On Hop Off bus is an option for those that don’t want to rent a car. The prices are A$120, A$160 and A$210 for a one, two or three day pass respectively.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park tickets
Everyone who visits the national park must purchase a ticket at a price of A$25 for an adult for 3 days (technically 72 hours counted from when you first enter the park). An adult annual pass costs A$32.50 but we were told at the ticket booth that if your visit is a little longer than 72 hours they will usually extend the 3-day pass. More information and up to date prices can be found on the Parks Australia website.
The Cultural Centre
The Cultural Centre is a good place for a short stop to learn about the Anangu people and their customs and traditions. There isn’t much on display but there is a lot to read about the local people and their history as well as some videos to watch. The centre doesn’t deal much with the natural history of the area or the flora and fauna. For that information the museum in the Ayers Rock Resort is a better resource.
Walks at Uluru
At Uluru, there are a few walking trails. The main one is the 10.6 kilometre base walk. Including slight detours to the Kantju Gorge and the Mutitjulu Waterhole, the base walk took us 3 hours and 15 minutes. It is a good idea to start early and to bring plenty of water, although there are two places where you can fill up water bottles. One is at the Mala car park and the other is at the opposite side of Uluru, about halfway around if you start at Mala. The only toilets are near the Mala car park.
You should also know that there are a lot of flies. It is definitely worth bringing a scarf or sarong to wrap around your face, or else one of the insect nets that go over your head and hat. These look a bit silly but you will really wish you had one after a few hours of walking with flies buzzing around your face. The nets can be bought in the shops at the Ayers Rock Resort Town Square but if you’re planning a trip to Uluru in advance you will definitely find them cheaper online.
The other walks consist of sections of what I have mentioned above, as well as the Liru Walk, which links the Cultural centre to the Mala car park. If you don’t intend to do the full walk, I think that the best parts were the Kuniya walk to the Mutitjulu Waterhole and the Mala walk to the Kantju Gorge. The 1 kilometre return Kuniya walk starts at the Kuniya car park. The Mala walk is about 2 kilometres return and starts at the Mala car park.
Climbing Uluru is quite a contentious issue. The local Anangu people would prefer that people did not climb at all. There are signs at the bottom of the trail stating this and it is also made quite clear on all the brochures and maps that you may be given at Ayers Rock Resort.
The climb will be completely banned as of the 26th of October 2019, the 34th anniversary of the return of Uluru to its traditional owners. Until then it will continue to be allowed but highly discouraged.
If you do decide to climb Uluru, you should be aware that the warnings are there for a reason. It is a strenuous climb that is dangerous in parts. Over thirty people have died while climbing the rock, mainly from heart attacks. Others have gotten stuck in some of the steep crevices after wandering off the marked path. The climb is also regularly closed because of adverse weather conditions such as rain or strong winds at the summit.
Be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and some food like a banana or other snack. Wear a hat as even in winter the sun can still be quite strong. Wear clothing loose enough that you can climb the very steep parts and make sure that your shoes have a good grip. In winter, it definitely makes sense to wear warm clothes as it can be quite cold at the top. It’s also a good idea to start early when part of the climb is still in the shade. It took a little over three hours to get to the summit and back. The views are amazing and it definitely gives you a different perspective. Uluru is incredible at the top just as it is at its base.
Personally, I understand the objections of the Anangu people, but I don’t really agree with them. They seem to have two main arguments against the climb. One is that part of the climb path is a sacred site. However, I don’t think that laws based upon religious beliefs should ever be imposed on everyone. The other reason is that they don’t want people to be injured or killed and feel a responsibility for the visitors to their land. This idea resonates a little more with me but I still don’t think that an outright ban is the answer. I think that a better idea would be to try to make the climb safer and to make people more aware of the potential dangers.
Having said that though, the Anangu are not only the traditional owners, but also the current owners. Part of the terms of the 1985 hand-back was that the land would be leased to the Australian government for ninety-nine years, but ultimately Uluru is owned by the Anangu and so it makes sense that they have the final say on whether the practice of climbing can continue or not.
Walks at Kata Tjuta
There are two main walks at Kata Tjuta: the Valley of the Winds walk and the Walpa Gorge walk. The Valley of the Winds walk was absolutely amazing and probably the highlight of our whole trip. The full circuit is 7.4 kilometres and took us about three hours and fifteen minutes including plenty of time to take photos and admire the spectacular views. What I really loved about the trail was that it goes between some of Kata Tjuta’s giant monoliths and gives you an up-close view of these natural wonders.
Definitely bring a water bottle. There are a few taps to fill up your bottle along the way. If you don’t intend to do the full circuit you could do a shorter walk to one of the main lookouts. Karu lookout is the first one and is just over a kilometre from the start of the trail. Karingana lookout is much more spectacular but is a 5.4 kilometre return trip.
The Walpa Gorge walk is a much shorter and easier walk. It takes about an hour to cover the 2.6 kilometre return trail. The awe-inspiring sheer walls of the giant red rocks extend an incredible distance upwards.
The best sunrise and sunset locations
The interaction of the sun’s light with Uluru and Kata Tjuta are some of the highlights of any visit. Make sure to wrap up warm though, as the often-cloudless outback sky means it can get very cold.
When you visit Uluru you will almost certainly be given a free map of the area. This map has a lot of the sunrise and sunset spots marked on it, but it can be hard to know which one to go to. For both Uluru and Kata Tjuta it is important to realise that depending on the direction you may see a silhouette with the sun behind them or see the light of the sun’s low rays lighting up the side of them.
At Uluru we visited the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area for the sunrise but didn’t find it particularly impressive. The sun lit up the side of Uluru from where we were looking but the light didn’t cover very much of the rock.
I was much more impressed by the sunrise with Uluru silhouetted against it that we saw from the dune viewing area at the bus sunset location. This place was particularly good because we had it all to ourselves, rather than being in the other crowded spots. There were some bus tours in the car park but no one else had ventured up the short dune walk. In the opposite direction we could also see Kata Tjuta. Although this is a bus car park, it is only restricted to buses after 4pm in preparation for the sunset.
The nearby car sunset location is great for the sunset. The best, least-obstructed views are at the end of the long car park nearest the exit. The sun sets in the opposite direction while lighting up Uluru in an incredibly vibrant red colour.
The Kata Tjuta dune viewing area is good for both sunrise and sunset, but the sunrise is more spectacular. As the sun comes up its rays light up the side of the giant domes that make up Kata Tjuta. In the distance you can also see the sunrise behind Uluru.
The sunset viewing area at Kata Tjuta is, as the name would suggest, better for sunsets. Kata Tjuta gets lit up as the sun sets in the opposite direction. The sunset here is best just before the sun actually disappears behind the horizon, whereas at the dune viewing area it is better just after. If you time it right you can drive between the two and see both views.
Where to stay
The Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara is pretty much the only place to stay in the area. There are, however, quite a few accommodation options within the complex. These include a campsite, dorms and private rooms of varying comfort levels. As they are all more expensive than their equivalents in less remote places, we decided to stay in the dorms in the Outback Pioneer Lodge.
At the time of writing a dorm bed costs A$38 per person per night. The cheapest double room is A$230 a night. The campground also has sites from $43 per night for two people, and cabins for up to six people from A$184 a night.
Where to eat
There are plenty of options for eating at Ayers Rock Resort. Again though, the remote location comes into play and many prices are higher than comparable meals than in other parts of Australia. A few of the cheaper options include buying food from the IGA supermarket in the “Town Square.” It’s well-stocked for the location. The cleverly named Ayers Wok, also in the Town Square, does decent stir fries for under A$20 but is only open from 6pm to 8:30pm. The indigenous trainees do a good job at the Kulata Academy Cafe (open 8am to 5pm) which has a range of sandwiches, cakes and pies.
The Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge also has a few cheaper options. You can get a range of pub meals or buy some meat and cook it on one of the barbecues. The price for this ranges from about A$20 to A$30 but it does also include an all-you-can-eat salad bar.
For those with a bit more money to spend there are also plenty of more upmarket restaurants as well as some dining experiences out in the open near Uluru. The reviews of these are quite mixed though and I think it’s safe to say that the Ayers Rock Resort is not exactly a hotbed of culinary excellence. Bear in mind that prices are high because of the remote location and lack of competition, and not necessarily because of the quality of the meals.
Other tours and experiences
We were trying to keep to a reasonably tight budget so we didn’t take part in any of the tours or other experiences but there are a lot available for those willing to pay the high prices: everything from helicopter flights to camel rides to candlelit dinners under the stars. A list of activities and experiences can be found on the Ayers Rock Resort website.
The Ayers Rock Resort have a number of free guest activities every day. We went to the Ecology and Museum tour which was really interesting and introduced us to Uluru and the many animals that live in the region. Unfortunately we didn’t get to go to any of the others because they were generally on in the middle of the day when we were out exploring the national park.