Standing 1,150 feet high, with most of its bulk hidden underground, Uluru forms the centerpiece of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a World Heritage Area jointly managed by Parks Australia and the traditional Aboriginal landowners, the Anangu.
Formed from the activities of ancestral beings in aboriginal Tjukurpa/creation time, or—if you ask a geologist—from the loose sand and rock that washed off the nearby Petermann Ranges over 550 million years ago, this massive sandstone rock in Australia’s Northern Territory is as instantly recognizable and iconically Australian as the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, and (sorry Australia) Crocodile Dundee.
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Is It Just a Big Rock in the Desert?
Taken out of context, Uluru—also known as Ayers Rock—is indeed just a big old rock in the desert, but context is everything here. Uluru is a sacred Aboriginal site set in a living, breathing, spiritual landscape that has been inhabited by the Anangu (the Aboriginal people of this region) for thousands of years. Its setting and size, when combined with its ancient Aboriginal rock art and stories, and the surrounding dining, art, and tour experiences available will definitely impress, and more likely, move you profoundly … unlike any old rock in the desert.
Why Is It Sometimes Called Ayers Rock?
Because of colonialism. English explorer William Gosse visited the rock in the 1870s and named it Ayers Rock in honor of the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. The names Ayers Rock and Uluru were used interchangeably until 1995 when the park’s name was changed to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park as a show of respect for the traditional custodians of the land.
Can I Climb It?
For now, techincally yes. Should you climb it? Hard no. The climb has always been discouraged by the Anangu as Uluru is sacred ground. The rock is also incredibly difficult and dangerous to climb, especially after rainfall which makes the face of Uluru extremely slippery. To date, 37 people have died on Uluru since it opened to tourists in the 1960s.
INSIDER TIPA sign at the base of Uluru has long implored visitors not to climb out of respect for the spiritual significance of the site, but as of October 2019, it will no longer be a matter of conscience; the rock will be officially off-limits to climbers.
Are There Any Other Restrictions?
The Anangu also request that visitors do not photograph certain (clearly marked) sections of Uluru, for reasons related to traditional Tjukurpa beliefs. Many of these areas are the sites of gender-linked rituals and cannot be viewed by Anangu of the opposite sex to those participating in the rituals. The photographic restriction is intended to prevent Anangu encountering photographs of the forbidden sites in the outside world.
Why Is This Place Special?
Uluru is the traditional and cultural land of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people, collectively known as the Anangu (pronounced Ah-nah-noo) and often cited as the oldest culture known to man. The Anangu believe that the land is still inhabited by the spirits of dozens of ancestral creator beings which are referred to as Tjukuritja. Non-Anangu/mere mortals cannot begin to comprehend their complex system of beliefs and the deep connection between people, plants, animals, and the landscape. Actually, guides on the ground will tell you that visitors are told the elementary-school version of their creation story because we can’t handle the truth!
What Is There to Do at Uluru?
Well, the obvious thing to do is to look at it. Really, it’s magnetizing, so you will want to stand and stare at it from different distances and perspectives and at different times of the day.
There are also plenty of ways to “interact” with Uluru, and by “interact” I mean do stuff that allows you to appreciate it from another angle. There are walking trails that range from one kilometer to the full 10.4 kilometer loop; you can rent bikes at the Uluru Kata-Tjuta Cultural Centre and ride its perimeter; take a Segway tour; take a camel ride to experience it from a distance; and take part in incredible dining experiences with views of Uluru. You can even skydive above it. Of course, you can also just stand with a bottle of champagne at the ready and toast it at every color-change.
What’s the Best Time of Day to View It?
Okay, both sunrise and sunset are the best times to view so you should plan to catch both. In fact, no sunrise or sunset is ever the same, so multiple sunrises and sunsets would be ideal if you have enough time and coffee/champagne. There are scenic look-outs at various locations throughout the park (just follow the ring-shaped road around Uluru) so that you can absorb it in all its glory from different angles and distances. If you must choose between sunrise and sunset, choose sunrise and plan to walk around the base of Uluru afterward.
INSIDER TIPIf you have a few days, go to the park’s sunrise and sunset look-outs at opposite times of the day to capture dramatic silhouettes and avoid the crowds.
Why is Uluru Red?
Uluru is made of steel-grey arkose sandstone and the iron in its surface layers oxidizes on contact with air to give the rock that iconic rust-red color. But the fun part is that it doesn’t stay red. Uluru is like a giant mood ring, changing colors with the time of day moving from fiery shades of red and orange to tones that are far more lilac. When it rains, the water cascading from the rock can turn it purple or green.
What About Kata Tjuta?
While Uluru gets all the glory, it is not the only rock formation in town: Kata Tjuta (meaning “many heads”) is close by and is a must-visit, too. Kata Tjuta, or if you want to feel insidery, “the Olgas” (named for Queen Olga of Württemberg in 1872), is another sacred rock formation within Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It consists of 36 domed rocks spread over an area of more than 12 miles. There are many secret Anangu legends associated with Kata Tjuta, and it is an active ceremonial site for men in the Anangu culture.
Just like Uluru, there are lookouts where you can soak in its magnificence but it’s best appreciated on an early-morning three-hour Valley of the Winds walk.
What Must I See?
Artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Lights solar-powered immersive art installation named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku in Pitjantjatjara (“looking at lots of beautiful lights”) is a truly enchanting experience. Walk among more than 50,000 dandelion-like glass stalks that magically light up the desert in a variety of changing colors from nightfall until sunrise. The exhibition is located in a remote area and is not accessible unless booked onto one of the tours. Options include a basic Field of Light Pass to a special dinner under the night sky at A Night at Field of Light. This installation has been extended until December 31, 2020.
Should I Take a Tour?
Yes. Guided tours allow you to understand the site not just as an Instagram backdrop but as a living testament to one of the world’s oldest cultures. At the very least, take the free ranger-guided Mala walk around the base of Uluru. You’ll discover examples of Anangu rock art and learn about traditional Anangu culture and how the park is managed. Other tour options include half-day tours, sunrise and sunset tours, and Harley-Davidson motorcycle tours.
INSIDER TIPBook all tours in advance, whether directly through the tour company or your hotel.
What About a Camel Tour?
Well that depends on how you feel about animal interactions. If you’re not cool with riding camels, don’t take a tour. If you are interested in learning about the thousands of wild camels roaming the Northern Territory, topping up your supply of camel-themed “Dad jokes,” and enjoying the sandy terrain and Uluru views as you sway on the back of a camel, then take a sunrise or sunset tour (hotel transfers included) with Uluru Camel Tours.
Should I Skip the Cultural Center?
No. Visit the Cultural Center, located at the base of Uluru, before you visit Uluru. You can buy Anangu art and crafts, get a visitor map, and find the context you need to fully appreciate the Aboriginal culture and the sacredness of Uluru before you explore.
Any Photography Tips?
The contrasts of red ochre dunes against incredible blue skies make it very hard to take a bad photograph here. The best light falls on the rock at sunrise and sunset, so you can get your requisite photos then and from the sunrise and sunset viewing areas which are located to face the rock as the low-lying sun illuminates it. As well as shooting Uluru from a distance, you should take your camera on a base walk to capture the textures and patterns of the rock up close as well as the grasses and trees growing around the base against the dramatic red sandstone backdrop.
If you are looking for something a little different, visit in the depths of winter to capture the center of The Milky Way rising directly over Uluru.
Remember, as you walk around the base of the rock, there are marked culturally important areas where photography is prohibited.
Where Should I Stay?
Ayers Rock resort is your only option in this neck of the woods, or rather desert. The resort is in the town of Yulara, about 10 miles from Uluru, and includes a variety of accommodations–from modern hotels to campgrounds–catering to a variety of budgets. These are all positioned around a town square with a supermarket, bank, post office, cafe, and art gallery (be sure to check out their Indigenous artists in residence). You can arrange tours and dining experiences from the resort but if possible, try to make these arrangements before you visit.
Stay at Sails in the Desert, a stylish and modern oasis in the desert with design elements that incorporate indigenous art and textiles (also available in the carefully curated lobby gift store) and excellent dining options including a creative menu featuring indigenous bush tucker ingredients.
Other accommodation options within the resort include the modern Desert Garden Hotel, Emu Walk Apartments, Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge, and Ayers Rock Campground.
Where Should I Eat?
One of the most memorable meals you can enjoy while staying at Ayers Rock Resort is a sublime desert dining experience called Tali Wiru, which means “beautiful dune” in the Anangu language. It takes place on a viewing platform in the red dunes a few miles from Uluru where diners can watch as the rock’s surface changes from orange to a deep purple as the sun sets. Twenty guests feast on an exquisite four-course dinner featuring native ingredients while being treated to Anangu stories, a didgeridoo player, and after-dinner stargazing with Anangu perspectives on the constellations.
What Should I Bring?
You may laugh at other visitors who look like they’re overreacting by draping their heads in fly nets, but the joke will be on you when your mouth is filled with flies as you try to pose for a picture! Bring a fly net to drape over your hat or bring a hat with a built-in mosquito net. Bring bug spray, sunglasses, sunscreen, and comfortable walking shoes.
INSIDER TIPDon’t pack your white shoes (or clothes) unless you want to dye them desert-red.
How Do I Get There?
There are direct flights available to Ayers Rock Airport (AYQ) from Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, Alice Springs, and Brisbane. Other departure points will typically go through Alice Springs and cost a little more.
The drive to Uluru–Kata Tjuta from Alice Springs takes roughly five hours via the Stuart and Lasseter highways. The highways are sealed roads, so a 4WD vehicle is not required.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit?
Visit from May to October, when the weather is cooler (the average daytime temperatures range from 73-88 degrees Fahrenheit) and you can spend more time outdoors. This time of year the colors are more vibrant and you also have a better chance of seeing wildlife.
How Much Does It Cost?
All visitors must purchase an AU$25 permit when entering the park. This is valid for three days and payable at the park entry station.