A wild camel stepped gingerly out onto the road ahead, followed by a dozen more. I slowed down and they trotted off, single file, into the bush – as camels do. Now and then kangaroos materialised before wheeling and bouncing away. I was 200km from Alice Springs, somewhere close to the dead centre of Australia. Oceans of red dust, drooping desert oaks and miles of spinifex made up the landscape, and the piercing blue sky carried on forever.
My first eyeful of Uluru (Ayers Rock) happened suddenly – it didn’t appear on the distant horizon but right in front of me, rising up larger than life from the rust-coloured desert. It wasn’t smooth but scarred with dark streaks, cracks and honeycomb pockmarks. As an icon should be, it was instantly familiar but utterly surprising.
Everyone raves about the sunset. With so many people visiting the national park there are restrictions on where you can view it from so I pulled into the car park facing the western side of the rock. As the tour groups arrived, champagne glasses started clinking, cameras flashed and I wondered – to paraphrase Tourism Australia – where the bloody hell did they come from?
But the view was clear and the rock perfectly formed, almost two-dimensional – like a giant cardboard cut-out. The famous colour change started subtly, morphing from brown to a deep claret red. But then, as the setting sun reflected off stray clouds, it started to burn an iridescent orange, like a giant ember fanned by the wind before fading to purple and finally black.
Engines fired up – the show was over. I had the feeling that no-one left disappointed.
To the Anangu – the indigenous people of the local Pitjantjatjara lands – Uluru is a sacred place and a central point in the Dreaming tracks that criss-cross the land. According to Tjukurpa (Creation Time laws and beliefs), ancestral beings created the features of their land long ago. Uluru itself was created by two boys playing in the mud after a rainstorm, and the features on the rock were formed by spirits such as the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) and Liru (brown snake). One story tells of the Kuniya (woma python) who came to Uluru to hatch her eggs, where she came across a Liru who had been angered by her nephew. In a terrible battle she killed the Liru, creating cuts and depressions seen in the rock near the Mutitjulu waterhole.
While human habitation here can be traced back around 22,000 years, the geology goes back more than 600 million, when the sedimentary foundations of the sandstone monolith began to form. Much like an iceberg, Uluru is merely the tip of an underground rock formation that extends as far as 5km below the surface. Originally part of a larger mountain range, 348m-high Uluru, composed of a coarse sandstone called arkose, is the only part that remains.
English explorer William Gosse spotted Uluru in 1873 and named it Ayers Rock after the then-premier of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
On arrival at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, your first stop should be the Cultural Centre. Wander through the displays of Tjukurpa creation stories, murals of Anangu art, bush tucker and Aboriginal implements. At the Walkatjara Art Centre you can learn traditional dot painting with expert Anangu artists.
To get closer, pick up a copy of the self-guided map Insight into Uluru and tackle the 9km trail around the Rock’s base. Some of the most interesting sections include the Mala Walk from the main car park to Kantju Gorge, where interpretive signs and rock art tell the story of the rufous hare-wallaby ancestors. Some sacred sites on the northern side of the Rock are restricted, so respect fenced areas and signs. The walk to the Mutitjulu waterhole on the southern side passes more rock art involved with the story of the Kuniya ancestors.
The best way to see, hear and feel Uluru is through the eyes of the traditional owners.
Anangu Tours runs trips led by Mutitjulu elders. The three main tours (A$75-119/£30-50) introduce important Tjukurpa stories, rock art, bushcraft and traditional hunting skills – believe me, flinging a spear with a woomera (thrower) is harder than it looks. Camels were imported by early explorers; a camel-back jaunt into the dunes (from $95/£39) is a relaxing way to beat the crowds. Other possibilities include light plane or helicopter flights around – but not directly over – Uluru (from A$105/£42) and Harley motorcycle rides (from A$150/£60). All tours can be booked through Ayers Rock Resort.
1. Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) These fractured, rounded formations (the Anangu name means ‘many heads’) are just as striking as Uluru. But visitors in a hurry often don’t bother to drive the extra 50km to see them – which means fewer people.
Kata Tjuta is a sacred site where men’s initiation ceremonies were performed – so secret that the stories are known only to the Anangu. The Valley of the Winds walk here is the best in the park – arrive early and you may have the 7km trek to yourself.
2. Kings Canyon This dramatic gorge cuts through the George Gill Range about 300km north-east of Yulara. The 6km canyon walk loops around the rim, commanding spectacular views and passing bizarre beehive rock formations.
3. Mt Conner Often mistaken by over-zealous eyes for Uluru, this flat-topped mesa is about 20km south of the Lasseter Highway. From Curtin Springs you can organise a six-hour tour and climb this 350m rock.
4. Cave Hill Aboriginal community One of the most unusual adventures is a full-day 4WD tour to this remote but highly significant settlement, where you’ll see little-known rock-art sites and learn more about the Pitjantjatjara culture.
What’s the best part of working at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park?
Working with and learning from the traditional Anangu owners. And working in the shadow of one of the world’s great natural wonders. This is such stunning country and life is so simple here – it’s completely addictive.
Do you ever get blasé about being around such a famous icon?
No two days are the same here. I see, learn or experience something new every day. I can honestly say, every time I see Uluru during my day, or Kata Tjuta towering on the horizon, the sight of either still takes my breath away.
What does a typical day involve?
Any given day holds the promise of a million different things, from being out in the field supervising film crews to participating in land management days with Anangu. There’s never a dull moment.
What environmental issues face the park?
Effective rubbish and litter control is a big task– please, take your trash with you!
Any tips for people wanting to get the most out of their visit?
As Anangu say, come here and learn – about geological processes that took place here millions of years ago, and about how this land has been a living cultural landscape for Anangu for the past 40,000 years. And do yourself a favour – allow enough time to explore and experience all there is on offer.
When to go: Peak season is June to August (winter) when days are warm and clear but the nights are freezing. April/May and September/October are less crowded. November to March are the hottest months – daytime temperatures in January and February regularly top 40°C.
Park information: The entry fee to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is A$25 (£10), valid for three consecutive days. The park is open from just before dawn until just after dusk (exact times vary throughout the year).
Where to stay: All accommodation is outside the park boundary in the overpriced, 8,000-bed village of Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort), about 20km by road from the Rock. You can camp from A$14.50 (£6) per person; its Outback Pioneer Lodge has dormitory beds from A$33 (£13) and twin hotel rooms from A$90 (£36); or, if you’re feeling flush, the luxurious Longitude 131° costs A$990 (£400) per person, including meals, drinks, tours and the park entry fee.
You can’t camp in the national park, and the surrounding area is Aboriginal land – you can’t park or camp there either; it’s highly illegal and disrespectful. Curtin Springs Roadhouse, 80km from Yulara, is the nearest alternative. It has budget doubles from A$60 (£24) or you can camp or roll out a swag for free.
Getting there: There are daily direct flights to Ayers Rock Airport from Alice Springs and most state capitals, but you miss experiencing the sheer expanse of the Outback. Instead, fly into Alice and hire a car. From Alice it’s a 450km, four- to six-hour drive to Uluru.
If you don’t have your own transport, Greyhound buses do the trip daily and numerous Alice-based companies run one- to three-day tours. Shuttle buses operate between Yulara and the park.
1. A fly net that fits around a wide-brimmed hat is a godsend. Come prepared with lots of insect repellent.
2. If driving, arrive early to secure a place at the viewing points and bring a picnic – restrictions on where to park mean you can’t avoid crowds, but walking a little way off into the scrub at either end can help. Consider Kata Tjuta for a less-crowded sunset.
3. Check out the night sky: with low light pollution and crystal-clear skies, the blanket of stars is breathtaking.
4. Save some cash for the Sounds of Silence dinner – a four-hour silver service dinner in the desert with sunset views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (A$149/£60 per person).
5. Photographers should shoot with a variety of exposures to capture the subtlety of the light. Always ask permission before photographing Aboriginal people.
k Australian music can really enhance the atmosphere. Try Goanna’s Solid Rock, Icehouse’s Great Southern Land, Yothu Yindi’s Treaty or Powderfinger’s Black Tears.
About one-third of all visitors to Uluru try to climb it. The chain-aided route is not an easy climb and more than 35 people have perished doing it. To the Anangu, this is a sacred place: they don’t climb and sincerely request that others don’t either. Pressure from the tourism industry keeps the climb open, but locals expect it will close ‘sooner rather than later’. Still, many visitors consider the climb a rite of passage. It remains a personal decision and a question of respect.
Uluru is often said to be the world’s biggest rock. It isn’t. It’s not even Australia’s. Mt Augustus in Western Australia is over twice as large, though technically it’s a monocline, while Uluru is a monolith.
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