ULURU-KATA TJUTA NATIONAL PARK

I still remember that day. My hands gripped the steering wheel as I came to a slow halt in front of the turnoff on the Stuart Highway, and I turned to Siu and asked, “so what do you reckon? Should we go to Uluru?” We both hesitated and didn’t know what would lay ahead on that long dusty road, so with a wince and shrug of the shoulders Siu replied “maybe we should just keep going to Adelaide”. And we regretted that decision ever since. So what did lay ahead of us if we had chosen to keep going? A long road full of both nothing and then something spectacular.

Getting there and away

You only have two choices here, road or air. We choose to drive ourselves there because we thought it would make for a pretty epic Australian road trip, and it would save us some money on flights and car hire. Though, out here you’ll have to be prepared for some very high fuel prices (the highest we paid for unleaded was $1.90 a litre and the cheapest was $1.70 a litre), so I’m not too sure if we ended up saving much money by driving ourselves to be honest.

The biggest upside to flying in to Uluru is definitely the time factor, as it will enable you more time to spend in the area as it took us a good three or four days to drive there from Sydney. So if you’re short on time, definitely fly and hire a car, otherwise go on that outback road trip if you have the time!

Where to stay

You’ll soon realise that the town of Yulara is less of a local town and more of a specially created lodging area for tourist visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta. Not that this is a bad thing, considering that Uluru and Kata Tjuta are seriously near nothing at all, and Yulara is as close as you’ll get to Uluru.

The Yulara lodgings are all owned by the same company though they do offer a variety of accommodation levels; Siu On and I stayed in the campsite which was very large and offered standard facilities such as showers, toilets, washing machines, camp kitchen equipped with BBQs, sinks and a kettle. Though for the price you would expect that there would be more than one kettle to service the campground, as well as a gas stove top. It was an expensive campground but we wanted to be close to the national park to reduce driving times. Another bonus we discovered by staying in Yulara is that there is a view of Uluru from within the campground – though get there early for an uninterrupted view.

There are other campsites at some of the roadhouses along the highway to Uluru, though we found they were more catered to those with self-contained caravans or campervans, ie no toilets and hard ground that is not great for tent camping. We did hear of a free campsite off a dirt track on the outskirts of Yulara, though were told that it was 4×4 access only and was just as packed as the Yulara campsite. Alternatively you can stay in Alice Springs and drive from there, or join an organised tour out to the National Park if you don’t feel like making the long drive.

Uluru or Ayers Rock

Australians now mostly refer to the big rock by its Aboriginal name Uluru. The rock is officially recognised by the Northern Territory Government as having a dual name with the correct naming order of ‘Uluru / Ayers Rock’ in 2002, though many overseas visitors still know it as Ayers Rock.

The land that makes up Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park are currently jointly managed by the Anangu people and a Board of Management, with a lease to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services. This arrangement has been instrumental in protecting the area from mining and desecration of sacred sites, and has allowed for a continuation of rehabilitation to occur on areas of land that were previously damaged by pastoralism and uncontrolled tourism pressures.

Visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Sunrise and sunset is a big deal here, and you’re going to want to check sun times the night before to plan your morning or evening. Although the drive from Yulara to the park entrance gate is a short 30 minutes, there is only one entrance and one exit which means there will be a long line of traffic. Don’t worry though as the only slow lane is the one for vehicles purchasing passes as the other entry lane moves quickly with a quick scan of your pass.

For a once-off or short visit you cab only buy the three day pass which allows you entry to both Uluru and Kata Tjuta for three consecutive days, and will set you back $25 per person. Yes it seems pricey, however the cost goes back to the maintenance and care of this incredible national icon. Do be aware that the Park closes overnight and the times will vary with the season, so check the official website for details. 

Uluru / Ayers Rock

There are set areas for viewing Uluru for both sunrise and sunset, and although these do get very packed with people, if you’re there early enough you can snag a good spot with uninterrupted views. The sunrise platform is actually a chain of platforms so you can spread out from the crowds. The car sunset viewing platform (and yes that’s what it’s actually called) was the better of the views, and personally I felt the rock looked its best at sunset anyway; though its still nice to see it at both sunrise and sunset. 

The Cultural Centre is a must do when your here as it will give you an excellent background to the rock and the local traditional people who call this place home. There is a small cafe here with an Aboriginal art gallery, as well as interactive displays and exhibitions. Additionally, the Cultural Centre conducts regular free guided tours and walks around the walks if you prefer to be guided by a local Anangu representative.

Other than viewing the rock, you can walk around the rock. This big monolith offers visitors an easy but long base walk right around the rock, and will take you between 3-4 hours (9.8 km) to complete. We completed the walk in the middle of winter (July) and found the midday temperature got up to a very hot 28 degrees celcius with full sun, so remember to bring a good hat, sunscreen and enough water to sustain you. We were surprised by the abundance of wildlife and saw many birds, lizards and even wallabies and kangaroos on the walk; and I was mesmorised by the Aboriginal art, rock formations, and the dreamtime stories that are sign posted around the walk. 

Kata Tjuta / The Olgas

In the far distance from Uluru, you’ll see a collection of large round boulders, these are the lesser known and visited Kata Tjuta and definitely should be included in your visit to Uluru. The best views for sunrise are from the dune viewing area, and you’ll get a bonus view of Uluru in the far distance from here, and there is another platform for sunset (though we didn’t make it to sunset for Kata Tjuta). We felt that sunrise here was far better than Uluru as the many round faces of Kata Tjuta caught the rising sun beautifully. 

There are a few different walking trails in this area and we completed the Valley of the Winds walk, which takes you between the rocks and around a small section of the giant boulder formations. The full circuit is between 3-4 hours (7 km) and if the temperature rises above 36 degrees celcius the walk will be closed for safety. As I mentioned before, remember to be prepared and bring a hat, sunscreen and enough water for the trail. I personally enjoyed this trail more than the base walk as I found it more challenging and the landscape had more variety than Uluru’s base walk. 

Climbing the rocks

At the time of writing this the Park’s Board of Management had released a press release announcing that a climbing ban will be implemented on October 26, 2019; this aligns with one of the key actions outlined in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Management Plan 2010-2020 and also the wishes of the traditional owners of the land. Until then, the option to climb the rock remains, though it will still be closed in dangerous conditions (eg high winds and rain) and the Anangu people will continue to ask visitors to respect the rock and refrain from climbing it.

Siu On and I chose to respect the Anangu people and did not make the climb.

How did we go

The three days that we spent in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park felt very rushed. Siu On and I prefer to take our time when we’re exploring, usually spending a half day at a sight to do an activity and the other half to rest, as we like to check out good spots and angles for photos. At both Uluru and Kata Tjuta you are very much herded to set spots to take photos, and for good reason, the desert ecosystem here is very fragile and tourists really shouldn’t be tramping about in the bush.

The time limit on our ticket also meant that we had to pack in our days with early starts to get sunrise photos followed by long day hikes and then sunset photos, so we were both extremely exhausted by the third day. Though, having said that, there isn’t too much to do in the Park, but there are a lot of activities and trips that can be organised from the Tourist Information Centre if you wanted to do something else. The only thing that we missed out on doing was a bush tucker tour with a local Anangu guide and hopefully we can do in the future if we return.

And if you’re wondering which was my favourite of the two, although Uluru is the more famous site, Kata Tjuta was actually my favourite.

Did it live up to our expectations? It actually did. For how touristy the area is, we still found many moments where we were completely alone with Uluru and Kata Tjuta. I am still surprised at how impressive this area is and still pinch myself that I made it to the centre of Australia. 

Happy travels everyone!
Jelena and Siu On