Explore Uluru: desert adventures and cultural experiences

Millions have been drawn to the heart of the Australian outback by an ancient, iconic rock.

Uluru is a massive sandstone monolith in the heart of the Northern Territory’s arid Red Centre.
  • Krysia Bonkowski
  • April 2019
  • Updated December 2020

From afar, it seems like a matter of geography – a big red rock marooned in a big red ocean of sand. But such rationalism fails when your feet are planted in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It is that sand, blazing grains that permeate shoes and clothing to leave a blushing stain, and Uluru and Kata Tjuta, their hulking silhouettes changing with every new light and angle. But it’s also the never-ending desert horizon; the daily spectacle of sunrise and sunset; the nightly splendour of stars. This landscape, so deceptively simple from a distance, grips you and does not let go.

Ancient rock, new life

Uluru has long jostled with the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Great Barrier Reef for top spot as Australia’s defining icon. But back when it was known as Ayers Rock, this environment was not appreciated for much more than its novelty value.

Right up until the ’70s, the base of Uluru was crowded with accommodation and an airstrip. Introduced pests and fires made worse by a ban on traditional burn-offs had wiped out native creatures such as the sacred mala wallaby. But the tide turned when the national park was formed, then officially handed back to the Anangu people in 1985. Under the joint care of the Anangu and Parks Australia, better management is helping ensure Uluru-Kata Tjuta stays in shape to wow future generations. The complete ban on climbing the rock as of October 2019 is another step in the journey. Even the mala are being reintroduced.

Since the Indigenous Land Corporation acquired Voyages Ayers Rock Resort in 2011, the facilities have been transformed and an innovative Indigenous trainee program opened to young people nationwide. Accommodation ranges from swags under the stars at Ayers Rock Campground, through to the five-star Sails in the Desert and safari-style ‘tents’ at uber-luxe Longitude 131. Visitors can choose from tours fit for any budget, along with free daily activities around Ayers Rock Resort. Night owls take note – a few pre-dawn wake-ups are a necessary sacrifice.

Desert discovery

With scorching summer days and freezing winter nights, the national park is a fierce environment, but it pulses with life. The landscape is a patchwork of feathery spinifex, stately desert oaks and shrubs that burst with wildflowers in spring. It’s home to hundreds of plant and bird species, and dozens of mammals and reptiles. But it is also alive with Anangu culture. This wealth is why it’s one of only four places in Australia to hold a dual World Heritage listing for cultural and natural value.

Transported pre-dawn to a dune with views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, guests on Voyages’ Desert Awakenings tour are gently coaxed to alertness with coffee, damper, and bacon and egg rolls as the first streaks of dawn scud across the sky. As Uluru brightens from dark blue to rusty brown, the tour moves into the park proper for a close-up. The monolith’s scale impresses the closer you get, rising taller than the Eiffel Tower and measuring more than 9km around.

Following songlines

The national park sits at the intersection of songlines (iwara) stretching from the Top End to South Australia, and the footprints of Tjukuritja (ancestors) can be traced across the very face of Uluru. What outsiders are permitted to know of Tjukurpa, the belief system underpinning Anangu society, is only scraps of a vast cultural cannon, but a few precious stories are shared with visitors to the rock.

At the semi-permanent Mutitjulu waterhole, guides point out the marks where the python woman Kuniya avenged the death of her nephew at the hand of the poisonous snake, Liru. As the bus circumnavigates Uluru, more stories are revealed, as told by spirits of the bluetongue lizard, emu, bellbird and others. The final stop is the Cultural Centre, where displays, galleries and live demonstrations help bridge the knowledge gap between visitors and custodians.

Desert adventures

Explore by camel-back

After the beasts of burden were introduced by Afghan traders in the 19th century, Australia became home to the world’s biggest population of wild camels. Discover the charming side of these creatures with Uluru Camel Tours, which retrains feral camels to hump tourists around the desert on their popular voyages.

Walk Kata Tjuta

Set aside time for a day hike through Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas). The shorter Walpa Gorge walk leads to a calm oasis, but the longer Valley of the Winds circuit is worth following to hidden pockets between the 36 domes of Kata Tjuta, with paths skirting sacred sites so you’ll never step foot where you’re not welcome.

Sky-high scenes

If a glimpse of Uluru out of the plane window leaves you wanting more, a scenic flight over Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a worthwhile splurge. Options range from an eight-minute ‘express flight’, through to tandem skydiving at sunset, and are sure to leave you with memories to last a lifetime.

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