The iconic Australian Outback – kangaroos, the Red Centre, akubra’s, four-wheel drives, Ayers Rock (Uluru). I always thought that it was something I would do when I “had more time”. But whether it’s 2 or 3 days out of your trip to Australia, or a long weekend from Sydney for me, this is an exhilarating side trip which can be squeezed into any holiday.
Uluru is a stunning natural wonder, a World Heritage-listed site with strong cultural and spiritual significance. It is both physically and metaphorically the center of Australia. It is a 348m high, 10 km circumference, bright red sandstone rock – that is one really big rock! The rock has a high iron content, which means it rusts , which is why Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the sandy earth all around is really red – and also why it is known throughout Australia as the Red Center.
Now let’s get one question out of the way first – is it Ayers Rock or is it Uluru? Ayers Rock is the name of the tourist village located just outside the national park, where everyone stays. It is also the name that was given to the rock in 1873 and which lasted for a bit more than 100 years. In 1985, ownership of the Uluru area was restored to the local Anangu people, and the rock reverted to the name it had had for at least 10,000 years: Uluru.
Top 10 Things to Do in Ayers Rock
Here are my favorite things to do while staying in Ayers Rock:
1. Sunrise walk around Uluru – this is a double hitter, Uluru turns its brightest and deepest reds at sunrise and sunset, seeing that happening up close while walking the 10 km track around the base, hearing the stories and seeing sacred sites, canyons, watering holes and rock art, is magical. The picnic breakfast along the way was pretty good too. And don’t be scared of doing this one, it’s an absolutely flat walk, I did it with other visitors aged from 5 to 70+, who all had no problem. If you really don’t fancy that, you can still get the highlights on a bus tour with short guided walks to rock art and waterholes.
2. Sounds of Silence dinner – champagne and canapés on top of a dune watching the sun set over both Uluru and Kata Tjuta, followed by a beautiful candlelit dinner served under the stars, haunting Didgeridoo live performance, a guided tour of the night sky above us and the chance to view through telescopes (I saw Saturn’s rings!), while making new friends at convivial tables of eight.
3. Kata Tjuta (the Olga’s). Meaning “many heads”. Kata Tjuta is what you would get if you broke Uluru into 38 pieces (which is a very loose translation of how it was formed around the same time that Uluru was formed!) Also a beautiful red, there are lookouts where you can view Kata Tjuta from different angles, and a lovely walk up through Walpa Gorge. Also a popular sunrise and sunset watching spot.
4. Mt Connor Outback Safari Tour – Mt Connor is the unknown “other” rock – about 80km east of Uluru, it is the same height, twice the circumference, shaped like a “table top” mountain, older than Uluru, and red, but not as red. It’s not well known as it is part of a huge private property, the Curtain Springs cattle station, which you explore by four wheel drive to experience a salt lake, kangaroos, camels, and the outback landscape, finished off with a home cooked homestead dinner.
5. Helicopter flight over Uluru and Kata Tjuta – 30 minutes of the best view in the house, to see these monoliths from every angle and also see them in the scale of the vast surrounding desert. And the excitement of a helicopter ride at the same time.
6. Night Sky show at Ayers Rock observatory – unless you live in rural Africa (or outback Australia), you have probably never seen the stars in the night sky as clearly as this. Entertaining and enjoyable.
7. Aboriginal tours, at different times of the day around Uluru, an aboriginal guide will take you on a walking tour, allow you to share their culture, explaining how they see the landscape of Uluru and teaching you bush skills, and telling you of their ‘Tjukurpa’ or Dreamtime.
8. Aboriginal Dot Painting Workshop – bring out the inner artist in yourself, while learning of the cultural significance of this style.
9. if you have the extra time, take a 2 day tour to Kings Canyon and Alice Springs as well as exploring Uluru.
10. And this is where I get back to my opening idea of seeing the Red Centre in 2 to 3 days – use the 24 hour or 48 hour Uluru Eco-Pass plus Sounds of Silence Dinner. If you use the 24-hour pass, and you are short on time, you can literally do it in a weekend – fly in Saturday morning, do No. 3 Kata Tjuta in the afternoon, No. 2 Sounds of Silence Dinner in the evening, No 1 Uluru sunrise walk on Sunday morning, and fly back to the East Coast Sunday afternoon.
I did the 48 hour pass, which meant I did the above, and then No. 4 the Mt Connor Safari on Sunday afternoon, and still had time to fit in No 5, the helicopter flight on Monday morning (this was a separate booking, not part of the 48 hour eco-pass) before heading home Monday afternoon.
That might sound a little rushed but it wasn’t, the pace was gentle and I felt I had plenty of time to experience each activity (although it didn’t leave a whole lot of time for sleeping). And if you have more time, you can split the activities on the pass over more days if you want to.
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One final thing, you may have noticed I haven’t listed climbing Uluru as one of my suggestions of things to do. When the park was handed back to the local aboriginal owners in 1985, about 90% of all visitors to Uluru would climb the rock. The government was concerned that if this was stopped, the park wouldn’t receive enough income from tourists to pay the costs of running and maintaining the national park.
Therefore as a part of the agreement to hand back the land, the government included a condition that the rock climb must be allowed to continue until such time as less than 20% of all visitors are climbing it. Already less than 30% of visitors now climb it. There is hope that within the next 5 years the numbers will drop below 20% and the Traditional Owners will be able to close the climb.
What visitors call the climb is the traditional route taken by ancestral Mala men upon their arrival at Uluru. It has great spiritual significance to the traditional owners, and they would prefer that, as a guest on Anangu land, you will choose to respect their law and culture by not climbing. Or as Kinmanara, a Traditional Owner, expresses it: “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing…You shouldn’t climb. it’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say.”
So as the Anangu say: “listen to what we say, then make up your own mind”.