Uluru, Kata Tjuta & Kings Canyon

I had never considered visiting Uluru until I went to Kakadu, a Northern Territory national park outside of Darwin. In Kakadu it all clicked for me - the Aussie outback, the Never Never, the big open spaces, the stars, the remarkable monumental natural environment - ah, so this is why people trek out here. They come because it is mind-blowingly beautiful, they come because it is unlike any other place they have ever seen.

And so the cynicism left me and with that I had an overwhelming urge to visit Uluru. It took me a couple of years, though. We were sent to the Rock courtesy of the new travel website, Hooroo, for which I am a 'travel ambassador'. And although I went into the trip with high expectations, they were met and exceeded. It was remarkable. There are not enough superlatives. Or maybe there just are none.

Above: rock art at Uluru

Day One
Go to the Rock. That is why you are here. All the other stuff is just superfluous. I took the Desert Awakenings tour, which started at 6am and included damper and coffee by the campfire at a semi-private viewing platform (Tali Wiru) as we silently watched the sunrise. Beautiful and kinda romantic. The groups are kept small (20 people), which is nice. Then we went to the Rock and our guide pointed out indigenous sites and information about the flora and fauna. We finished at the fantastic Cultural Centre to get further insight into the indigenous culture and visit the gallery and museum.

I thought this was an excellent tour, and the guide was exceptional, but there are cheaper versions (the standard sunrise tour is $60, but you have to jostle for space in a busy viewpoint), or you can just guide yourself. As we didn't walk far while on the tour, we then went back and checked out more of the Uluru walks after the tour was over and spent more time getting to know the Rock.

Take a helicopter ride. At 2pm we took our lives and put them at risk in a chopper! This was not my idea, but I found it pretty amazing despite how freaked out I was by the height. Getting an aerial view is remarkable and the landscape looks fantastic from above. You get a sense of the vastness of the desert and the rocks in relation to each other.

Sounds of Silence dinner. At 5pm we were picked up from our hotel and taken to a private dune for Sounds of Silence, which is a very popular Uluru dinner. It basically feels like a jovial desert wedding. We had champagne and watched the sun set, and then it was on to dinner under the stars. We were entertained by a didgeridoo player and an astronomer who talked us through the constellations (the stars were a real highlight). Honestly you could probably have the same amount of fun at a viewing platform with a bottle of wine, a picnic and a few friends, but this event does feel like a grand celebration of the Rock and everyone gets in the spirit, and that is the fun of it.

Day Two
Kings Canyon. I did a full-day tour with AAT, leaving my hotel at 5am and returning at 5pm. I cannot rate the Kings Canyon rim walk highly enough, it was incredible. You have breakfast at a camel station (heh), then onto Kings where the walk goes for about three or four hours and takes you along the rim of a massive gorge and then down into a leafy waterhole area called Eden. Do the rim walk, not the valley walk. The guides were awesome - they gave us great info along the way, we stopped frequently and got to know the area, and they spoke eloquently about the land and history. On the way back we stopped at the Mt Conner lookout and Lake Amadeus, which is a massive salt lake. So on this tour you get to see 'extra' sights, which I was chuffed about.

Above: King Canyon

Outback Pioneer pub. Everyone ends up here at some point, so it is a good place to chat to both locals and travellers. Go for the nightly BBQ - barra, croc, emu or sausages that you cook yourself on a hot plate. Served with salad bar goodness. Pictured below.

Day Three
Walking in Kata Tjuta. Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) translates to 'many heads' and is a series of massive undulating formations. The Valley of the Winds walk weaves between the heads, down cavernous valleys with high red walls, over rocky plains, and past wildflowers. There are two lookouts on the walk and the landscape is quite different from Uluru and Kings - this is a really memorable walk (and a rewardingly tough one due to the rocky footing). There is a great Uluru-Kata Tjuta viewing point on the road the Kata Tjuta, so look for the sign and stop for a photo.

Above: the view of Kata Tjuta and walking in Kata Tjuta

What I missed. Anangu Tours was the key indigenous offering at Uluru, but they recently closed down. There is a new half-day tour (mornings) run by elders at Uluru which covers the Rock from an indigenous perspective. Speak to the Cultural Centre to find out more and book.

It would be possible to do the three sets of walks in two days if you flew in late, woke up and went to Uluru at dawn, then did the Olgas in the arvo. You could then do Kings Canyon on day two, and fly out at night.

You would be best hiring your own car for a day to control time, and at Uluru you could drive around the base and do a few short walks in different places, but not the full base walk. Then you can do an abridged Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta by just walking to the second lookout and back (two hours), which gives you a taste of the walk but reduces the time needed to do it (don't do the gorge walk instead, it is nothing compared to the valley).

On day two I would do the organised tour of Kings Canyon (pictured below), since it is so good, and much nicer to have someone else drive 600km return in one day than you having to do it! Or if you were worried about getting back for your flight, you could do Kings on day one and the two rocks on day two, when you have your own wheels.

In 24 hours it would be possible to see Uluru and the Kata Tjuta. Start with Uluru at sunrise at the Tali Wiru viewing platform (great semi-private location down a red sand road, located at Longitude 131 resort, but it looked possible for you to enter on the sly) or the platform in the middle of the ring road is also great. Then do some short walks at the Rock and see the Cultural Centre.

You need at least four hours, including driving, up your sleeve for the Olgas. Go straight on the Kata Tjuta in your own car (45min) by 1pm, and walk there in the afternoon for a couple of hours. Then you would be back for sunset at a viewing platform in town or on the road back to Uluru (although it is best not to drive at night).

You could abridge this even further by not doing the walk at Kata Tjuta, and just going to the viewing platform to look at it up close, but walk if you can. If you were doing that you could forgo the car hire, and just take a morning tour of Uluru and then the afternoon shuttle service to Kata Tjuta.

Uluru is a rock in the middle of nowhere with an airport servicing it, and a resort that is set up for tourists. The resort is set on a ring road about 10 minutes from the airport, and on that road there are multiple accommodation options, eateries, and a few other things you might need (booking office, info centre, petrol station, supermarket, a bank). There is a shuttle that runs every 15 minutes around the ring, and you can get on and off it for free.

Outside of the ring road is the town of Yulara, which is a whole lot of housing for the resort workers, a pub and a recreation centre - few tourists even realise that Yulara is there, as they have everything they need on the ring road. And that is OK, as this is not a place to go out for nice meals or to cool bars in town, this is not a place with an interesting urban culture or local feel, this is a place where you go see a rock and the town provides services to make that easy for you.

This place is obsessed by and devoted to sunset and sunrise. You will find that most tourist offerings involve watching it. You can watch it over champagne, with dinner, with breakfast, on a private dune, on a public viewing platform, at a sunset carpark, on a Harley, camel or in a helicopter. It gets a little ridiculous sometimes. But it is a pretty bloody good sunset!

Some general tips for travellers:
  • If flying from Sydney you can get a good look at the Rock from the LHS of the plane, so sit there if possible. 
  • Generally, it gets warm in the day and freezing at night (and that includes sunrise time), so bring many layers and some thermals for sunrise.
  • Bring a good pair of walking shoes, which can just be sneakers, no need to buy new hiking boots.
  • The best time to go is Australian winter, as it is dry and about 20 degrees in the day. In summer it is so hot many walks are impossible to do after 11am, making life difficult.
  • Don't climb. The traditional owners ask that you don't out of respect for a sacred site. It is a no brainer.


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    Anna Metcalfe is a content maker, word writer and editor of things.