Ayers Rock, known to the local Aborigines as Uluru, had been top of my list of things to see in Australia.
Why wouldn’t it be?
A chance to see the desert of Central Australia, one of the most sacred of Aboriginal sites and something that looks like a freak of nature – a huge rock in the middle of flat lands.
I spent 3 nights in the Ayers Rock Resort, saw Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the Kings Canyon. This post covers my experience of Uluru and Kuta Tjuta.
During my time in South East Asia, I realised that Australia and New Zealand aren’t on most backpackers itineraries, let alone something like Ayers Rock.
It costs so much more compared to SE Asia. Even I hadn’t realised how used to those costs I was. Costs of flying aside for the moment, day-to-day living and sightseeing cost multiples more. Instead of paying Â£10 for an overnight train, Â£1 for a meal and 20p for a bottle of water, you’re looking at Â£100 for an equivalent train, Â£10 for a meal and Â£3 for a bottle of water.
As for flights, you’re looking at around Â£300 return from Sydney/Melbourne into Ayers Rock airport. With more time, you can get the train or Greyhound down to Alice Springs but even then, you’re looking at something similar. Accommodation in the only hostel in the area is Â£30 per night for a 4 people dorm room. The feeling I get is that most backpackers look to Australia and New Zealand as work/travel combinations. Travel round Australia for a year, working for 3 months during that time. It makes sense too – whilst picking fruit may seem menial, it probably gives you a good experience of what life was like for the first Australian settlers and getting paid in AUD will help sustain more time in Australia during the year visa.
What this meant for me, was being in a place where there weren’t many backpackers. At first, I was a little upset, being used to the “social” side of backpackers and the company of some great people on my travels. But as the 3 days there unfolded, I realised it was a good thing. Uluru was something I wanted to see in my own time and really soak in the atmosphere of the location and do some mindful thinking.
Kata Tjuta with Sunset at Uluru
$AUD 139 (with AAT Kings Tour Group)
Leaving at 15:00 on the afternoon I arrived at the Outback Pioneer Lodge, a coach picked us up and took us to Kata Tjuta. Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) is another rock formation not far from Uluru. In some ways, Kata Tjuta is more scenic than Uluru, with strange dome shaped rocks fanning out of the red desert floor. Even from the moving coach without a view of either rock formation, it was something special, the red desert floor and deep blue sky was amazingly rich. The clouds looked super illuminated against them both.
In terms of cultural significance, Kata Tjuta is equally if not more significant if you’re a male Aborigine. The true significance and background behind it are only known by adult Aborigine men and they have strong preference to culturally keep it that way. Not even younger boys and aboriginal women daren’t look straight at it.
This is the view from the Dune Viewing site…
As tourists, we were told about how Kata Tjuta and Uluru were formed by our tour guide and some sketches in the ground. There are several theories, but the one we were told involved Uluru and Kata Tjuta being huge ancient holes in the land around 500 million years ago when Australia was covered by the sea. Rocks collected in these two holes and compressed into layers over millions of years. After a massive tectonic plate shift, the compressed rock in those areas were shifted out of the holes and onto their sides. One moved a full 90 degrees (Kata Tjuta) and the other only by 15 degrees (Uluru).
We were given the opportunity to see Kata Tjuta from a viewpoint as well as walking into the Walpa Gorge. From the sunset viewing site (but well before sunset), it looks something like this…
From the view you see above, we were guided into the Walpa Gorge. Being a big tour group was a little frustrating for a solo traveller like me. It meant we didn’t have enough time to walk the full length of the gorge (which I’d have done if I was on my own) and it was difficult to get a decent shot without another tourist photo-bombing my shot. We were all in the same boat, of course, everyone trying to get “that shot”. None-the-less, it was useful absorbing all the background and information about the site from the tour guide including descriptions of the rocks, plants and how it was all created.
As you walk into the gorge, you get a chance to see the sandstone formation right up close. You can see the pockets of water, that throw countless extreme cooling and heating caused spots in the rock.
It was a little strange seeing the moon over the top of the gorge in the late afternoon.
After walking the Walpa Gorge, we were whisked over to the Uluru sunset view point to catch the sunset timed for around 18:50. The cover shot (top) and the one below were the best I got on what was described as an unlucky day. Clouds from the West in front of the sun meant it didn’t come up as “red” as it could get. I was still pretty impressed myself. I still couldn’t get over the rich colours in any shot I took.
For me, the sunset view was a “taster” for what was booked tomorrow – a sunrise view of Uluru and a base walk.
Sunrise at Uluru
$AUD 60 (with Uluru Express)
Although AAT Kings was great giving me the background taster the previous afternoon, I decided that I wanted to fully explore Uluru on my own, to spend my time walking around the base through the morning. Uluru Express are a company offering a simple shuttle service to and from the resort including a stop off in the early morning for sunrise. Being the summer, pick-up was at 4:45 in the morning.
As the coach drove from the resort to the sunrise viewing spot, I saw what I thought was a perfect sunrise shot. A warm glow coming from the back of Uluru giving an awesome silhouette of the rock. As the coach rumbled on and round the rock, I realised that was the stationary viewpoint I was going to get. Instead, the viewpoint was of Uluru with the sun rise from behind the crowds in order to give a “red” shot again.
Sad that I didn’t get the shot I wanted, I did manage to get these…
This is the view if i turned around to look at the sun. Imagine Uluru as a silhouette in the distance.
After sunrise, the bus dropped everyone off at the main car park and took down pick up times. I opted for a 12:30 pick up from the Cultural Centre. That meant plenty of time to walk around the base of Uluru and walk from base another 2km down another track to the Cultural Centre. With only a small bus, there was hardly anything in the way of crowds.
The main car park is where the climbing route of Uluru is, which is basically a support chain that leads up the shallow face of the rock.
The message to tourists is that the Aborigines ask that you don’t climb Uluru, although there is the facility to do so. Personally, much as I love climbing, I have full respect for their culture and decided that even if the option was there, I wouldn’t do it.
There’s also a big emphasis on staying on track so that the delicate vegetation is protected from the countless footprints of tourists.
Even just stopping for a second to look at the earth below you, you can understand but just trying to count the number of unique footprint on the ground.
I loved being left to my own devices. Uluru was the kind of place I wanted to explore on my own, in my own time. It took about 3 hours to walk around the base along the marked out track, only seeing the odd tourist every now and again. At that time of year, it was hot. So plenty of water was needed. They recommend in the 40 degree heat that a litre of water is lost per hour so therefore you should be drinking that much as you walk.
Reading the story/information signs that were on the track void of people, it was the closest you could get to imagining what it was like for the aborigines living in and around the rock. There were various points where signs asked that you didn’t photograph sections. These were essentially areas of sacred significance. After walking through the Cultural Centre, I understood a little more about the photograph policy. The aborigines somewhat frown upon the act of photographing to show someone else a place like Uluru. They think that being there, absorbing the atmosphere and committing what you see, hear and feel to memory is much more rewarding.
Here’s the walk as a photo essay…
These naturally occurring cave formations were really important to the Aborigines. Above the immediate demand for shade, each cave had its purpose. Some you could walk in, others you could only get up close to.
There’s nothing better than an empty dirt track to follow. It was a great place to consolidate life’s thoughts.
This was one of the areas the track took you right up to the rock.
A place of significance, but sadly, with no explanation
There were a small handful of discrete tree themed benches on the route nearby to the best views.
This view is an example of a story that the Aborigines would tell their children to learn on of life’s lessons. In this case, there’s a story of Kuniya, a woman who had to fight an evil snake to protect her children. Various physical marks on the rocks point to evidence of the story. If you compare the view to the explanation in the sign, you’ll understand.
This is a water source by the rock. Rain water runs across the top of the rock and into this pool. It’s amazing to see water in such heat. With the water, this spot was used by local emu for drinking water and therefore a local for young boys to watch their elders hunt.
Top 5 Tips For Seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta
- Get an Australian sim card with data before you arrive. Wifi in the area costs huge amounts (my hostel was $25 per day). With my sim card, I got 30 days and 400Mb with the best network provider for $30 and it had perfect 3G reception around the resort.
- Don’t underestimate the amount of water you need in this location in the summer months. Take a couple of spare water bottles and fill them up on any tours (some have cool tanks to refill from) or drinking water taps (Uluru had one halfway round the base walking track). It’ll save you about $5 per bottle.
- If you want another great free, sunrise, sunset or night time view of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the Outback Pioneer Lodge Hostel has an excellent private viewpoint just behind the dorm rooms. In the evening, the path up to it is a lovely dimly lit path and a quiet place to watch the stars at night. Download a star gazing app on your smartphone and you’ll have the perfect place to do just that. Here are a handful of shots taken from there.
- Although there are a number of tour agency leaflets at the resort hotels/hostels, they’re not by any means complete. At the car parks, I saw a number of unadvertised groups running some interesting tours aimed more at backpackers. The most interesting was The Rock Tours, offering a 3 day, 2 night camping and touring adventure. Looking at the details, it only runs too and from Alice Springs (most probably due to competition reasons).
- Make sure you have a reliable alarm clock. Getting up before 04:00 is not easy and these coaches won’t wait around.