A visit to the outback would not be complete without a stop in at the most iconic landmark in Australia – Uluru. This World Heritage-listed place is both culturally significant and historically ancient, as the people who have lived in this region, the Anangu, have survived for 30 000 years. The rock is an enormous monolith that stands about 350m high, 3.6km long, 2km wide and extends for several kilometres below the ground. It’s big, but not the biggest – that title belongs to Mount Augusta in Western Australia.
About 50km west of Uluru is Kata Tjuta, another rocky outcrop that literally translates to ‘many heads’. Comprising of 36 domes of conglomerated rock, Kata Tjuta’s highest peak is 500m high and the area is considered sacred to the Anangu, so stick to the walking track.
Both attractions reside within the Uluru-Kata TJuta National Park, which was originally known as the Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park, until it was changed to the traditional names in 1995. A three day pass will set you back $25 per adult, but this is plenty of time to enjoy all of the activities, including sunrise and sunset.
Uluru (Ayers Rock)
We were born and raised in Australia and this visit to the Rock was our first time, ever. When our eyes initially landed on the rock from over 50km away, Dave couldn’t help but suggest that it looked like a giant turd sitting on the horizon. As we grew closer, we couldn’t take our eyes off it – not because it looked like a turd but because it was so surreal. We had seen thousands of photographs in our lifetimes but to finally see it with our own eyes, we were mesmerised.
Pilgrimage to the Sunrise Viewing Deck
We woke up in the dark, packed up camp and hooned towards Uluru so that we could watch the rock wake up with the glow of the sun. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea and the excursion turned into a strange and frantic race to the sunrise viewing deck, with confused tourists fiddling about with their entry passes being overtaken by avid photographers and Troopcarriers.
We’re not going to deny it – we broke some rules to get the parking spot that we did. Cars and coaches all around us were spewing out people who were all heading to the same location – the viewing deck on top of the dune. It’s was like the rapture was coming and everyone was lining up in the pre-dawn light to witness it.
With the platform overloaded, we chose a spot along the trail that had minimal desert oaks obscuring the view of Uluru. Our eyes were on the sky – these stupid clouds better clear off or this sunrise is going to be a massive anticlimax. The time of the sunrise came and went, and the Rock changed from a dull red to a slightly lighter colour. Five minutes later, half of the people had left for their vehicles while a few disappointed disciples lingered around for another hour or so in the hope of getting at least one good photo.
Please Don’t Climb Uluru
After some breakfast, we drove over to the Cultural Centre for a little enlightenment before exploring Uluru. There was information about the local wildlife and what bush tucker was available, as well as information about the Anangu culture and why you shouldn’t climb the Rock.
Leading up to our visit to Uluru, we were undecided about climbing. Sure, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to climb Australia’s most recognisable icon but is it the right thing to do? Once we got to Uluru, we unanimously decided not to climb, for a few reasons.
Firstly, we wanted to show cultural and spiritual respect. When you go to a Buddhist temple, you’d take your shoes off before you go in – not because it’s part of your tradition, but because it’s part of the Buddhist tradition.
Secondly, we wanted to protest against the environmental degradation that years of climbing Uluru has inflicted. There are no toilets on top of the rock, so when a tourist needs to go, they go up there. When the rains arrive, all of that human waste is washed off the rock into the surrounding soil and waterholes. Fucking gross, and icky for the local animals who want to have a drink. The batteries from dropped cameras and phones also contaminate the waters below with cadmium and lithium.
Thirdly, we didn’t climb Uluru because we were asked not to. The Anangu, who still live in the area and continue to have a connection with the land and their culture, do not want tourists to climb Uluru. Even they don’t climb the rock themselves due to cultural and spiritual laws. Not only are they obliged to protect their scared sites, they also have a responsibility of care for visitors to their land, which makes deaths and injuries a terrible experience for the Anangu.
As we watched tourists pass the signs that clearly say “Please Don’t Climb”, we wondered, “do they think that if they only climb halfway up that it’s less disrespectful?” It was sad to learn that the main reason why the climb is still open is because the tourism industry doesn’t want tourists to stop visiting. We think this is appalling – we didn’t climb Uluru and we still found it an enriching experience. That said, we can understand why people want to climb the Rock, and will while the climb remains open.
Exploring the Rock
We didn’t do the base walk. Not because we’re lazy but because we knew that we’d be seeing rock all the way around. We preferred to do the Kuniya and Mala Walks so we could learn about the stories related to those areas.
The guided Mala walk was fantastic. It was lead by one of the rangers, Steve, who dished out heaps of information about the Anangu and their traditional law, which is called Tjukurpa (chu-kur-pa). Defining Tjukurpa is difficult, but the way we see it, it’s their belief system, which encompasses ancestors and creation stories, how to live their lives, treat each other, gather food, care for the land, everything. Tjukurpa is everything.
We gained a better understanding and respect of the culture and way of life of the Anangu. The land is not only their kitchen and their bedroom, but it’s also their supermarket, hardware store and pharmacy. Also, the Anangu don’t like their creation stories to be called Dreamtime stories, because they feel that it’s condescending and insulting to suggest that their beliefs are dreamed up and imagined.
The most interesting part of our new education was what the Anangu value. Unlike us westerners who care about money in the bank, new threads or a shiny car, the Anangu care about two things – relationships and knowledge. To them, a creation story or location to find water is just as valuable as a Lamborghini and they won’t just pass that knowledge on to just anyone! Maintaining harmony in relationships is also important, as a friend will keep you alive much better than a pretty bead necklace.
Since the arrival of Europeans, the lives of the Anangu have changed in many ways. They lost the rights to their country, their nomadic life was disrupted due to cattle destroying the land, their culture has been broken with forced assimilation into white society, and the diseases that foreigners have brought have killed many. They were also forbidden to manage the land with controlled burning so when a wildfire swept through the area in the 1970s, the surrounding trees and wildlife were killed. Most of the trees around Uluru are only a few decades old, which is a very strange thing to the Anangu.
In 1985, the federal government officially returned the park to the traditional owners, in an event called the Handback. The Park is now jointly managed by the Anangu, who ensure that the park is managed in accordance to Tjukurpa.
We also did the Kuniya Walk and checked out the great rock features on either side of the Mutitjulu Waterhole.
The Valley of the Winds walk was recommended to us by so many people that we had no choice but to do it. The trek is a 7.4km loop that leads you up to the lookouts and around the domes. There were plenty of drinking stations to ensure our hydration, and there were also plenty of tourists, but the view was great.
Afterwards, we checked out Walpa Gorge. It was lush with plants such as native tobacco and spearwood that were watered by an ephemeral stream, and the sheer walls on either side towered high over our heads.
After a huge day, we had an early dinner at the Sunset viewing platform before deciding that the view wasn’t good enough, so we found a place on the side of the road to give us an unobscured view. Unfortunately, due to the impertinence of clouds once again, we missed out on a show stopper. This is about as good as it got.
Yulara, aka Ayers Rock Resort, is the tourist community about 20km from Uluru. The name means ‘crying’ or ‘weeping’, and if you’re taking a break from checking out the surrounding rocks, you can take part in the free daily activities, like dance shows, bush yarns or the craft market.
You can book all your tours near the town square, which also includes souvenir shops, a beauty salon, post office and a supermarket with reasonably priced meats and vegetables and an awesome selection of imported foods.
There is a Shell service station with petrol prices that are marginally cheaper than Curtain Springs up the road. If you show the operator a receipt from any store in Yulara, you’ll get a discount on your fuel.
If you’re after a decent coffee, Kulata Academy Café is the place to go. It’s staffed by supervised trainees from the local National Indigenous Training Academy, giving students a great opportunity to learn in a real environment. Tuck into some quandong cheesecake, build your own sandwich or soak up the sunshine as you sip on a smoothie.
Camels can be found at Uluru Camel Tours, just south of town. While we didn’t go on a camel ride, we got to meet Milkshake, the juvenile camel, who was very friendly and seemed preoccupied with having a taste of Juz.
There are heaps of accommodation options in town. If you have a wad of cash the size of Ayers Rock, then head to Sails in the Desert for a 5 star experience. There are also options for the more budget conscious. Ayers Rock Campground offers unpowered sites for $38 a night, and they’re nice and close to all the facilities like BBQs, toilets and showers, and the laundry.
The Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge is great for travellers who don’t have their own vehicle, and because they’re affiliated with YHA Australia, YHA member discounts apply. It’s a great place to hang out during the day or to sit down and have a meal, but don’t expect to be served alcohol unless you can prove that you’re a guest at the resort.
Book your stay at the Outback Pioneer Lodge at TripAdvisor
The lodge is connected to two dining options – the Outback Pioneer Kitchen and Outback Pioneer BBQ, where you cook your own meat and pair it with the all you can eat salad bar. The Outback Pioneer Kitchen has a great selection of burgers, pizzas and fried food, and while the calamari rings are like circular shaped fish fingers, the pizzas are absolutely delicious. It was here that we met up with our mates from home, Parksy and Nick for a few rounds, and even met another Melbournian, Lauren.
If you can’t afford your own accommodation, there are some rest areas outside of town. About 10km out is an unsheltered rest area where most other campers will be. About 2km in from there is a road that leads you behind some trees. This is more sheltered but who knows if it’s a rest area or not.
We went in with fairly low expectations because this Aussie icon is touted around like a cheap hooker, but we found our time at Uluru-Kata Tjuta enlightening and refreshing. It needed to be seen with our own eyes as no photograph will ever display the spirit of the place. After three days of dodging tourists and consciously minding our wallets, we payed homage to our nation’s Mecca and drove away feeling more Australian.