A guide to stargazing at Uluru – the ultimate night sky show in the Northern Territory
A visit to Australia's Red Centre will leave you with a sense of wonder, but there's one particular experience that will fill you with awe.
- June 2018
- Updated December 2020
As the sky darkens to a deep indigo and the last rays of the sun slip beyond the horizon, the Uluru night sky is lit by thousands of stars. The land and its iconic rocks, so dominant during the day, disappear into the dark and the night sky takes centre stage.
Standing on a dune a few kilometres from Ayers Rock Resort, I’m surrounded by adults transfixed by the extraordinary night sky.
Most visitors to the centre of Australia are drawn to Uluru and Kata Tjuta: two extraordinary natural formations with a profound spiritual significance for the local Anangu people. If you’ve never fully grasped the concept of Australia’s Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land, a visit to this place is a life-changing start.
Once you reach this distant location, roughly in the centre of the continent, and absolutely in its spiritual heart, you soon realise that tourism is not all about “the rock”. The night sky brings would-be astronomers (and the real thing) to Australia’s core in droves.
Stargazing is the perfect yin to the yang of daytime activities in and around the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. If you feel a wonder at the world after a day spent exploring the park (and you will), a few hours staring at the night sky will complete the conversion. At risk of using a word now downgraded to the banal, the night sky in central Australia is truly awesome. As in, you will be Filled. With. Awe.
The Red Centre is one of the best places in Australia to view the stars. Its low humidity, lack of light pollution and clear night skies mean there is no barrier to a perfect view. Whether you simply take a walk to a viewing platform at Ayers Rock Resort, book into a stargazing session or a dinner in the dunes, the stars make their stunning appearance on schedule nightly.
Melbourne Planetarium astronomer Dr. Tanya Hill says that when you get away from the city lights “you can literally get lost in the stars”. “It’s magical. That moment when you stop and think about how there’s so much more out there. Your curiosity is sparked and you start to ask questions and wonder…,” she says.
It’s that sense of childlike wonder, so easily lost in the business of daily life, that is one of the gifts of Uluru, whether you’re cycling around the rock, taking part in a sunrise tour, or watching a bush tucker demonstration.
At the Sounds of Silence, a nightly dinner in the dunes, we watch the distant Kata-Tjuta and Uluru formations slowly disappear from view accompanied by a spine-tingling live didgeridoo performance. Soon after the sun has set, our guide takes out a pointer Luke Skywalker would be envious of and begins to trace the stories of the stars in the night sky above us. Some, like the Southern Cross, are immediately familiar, but as we crane our necks and the pointer guides our eyes, the brilliant mass of stars begins to transform into shapes, each with its own story and meaning. When a new shape reveals itself, you can hear the gasps of delight.
Indigenous interpretations of the night sky add a fascinating dimension – mythology, orientation and the changing of the seasons are all told in the stars. Like looking at a visual puzzle, we begin to see that it’s the shapes in the spaces between the stars that tell some of the most powerful stories. Some of these stories are shared between Indigenous communities, many have their own unique interpretation of the sky, but all offer a new way of looking at the sky, and the world.
Like Tanya, who says sleeping under the stars on a bush camping trip or remote beach location is one of her favourite ways to view the night sky, I’d love to stay up all night and watch the stars fade with the dawn.
But at the end of our dinner in the dunes, our stargazing session over, we head back to our hotel, tired but uplifted. Our necks might be little stiff, but it’s a small price to pay for having a brief encounter with the majesty of the universe.
I’m left remembering Tanya’s simple advice. “Wherever you are at night,” she enthuses, “just remember to look up.”
Three stargazing tips
- Australia and New Zealand are treated to some of the best views of the Milky Way, as the galaxy rides high in the sky in the southern hemisphere.
- For one of the best night sky views in the world, head to New Zealand’s South Island where much of the Aoraki/Mount Cook Mackenzie region has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve.
- Grab your binoculars or a telescope to look for detail not visible to the naked eye, or visit your local observatory for guided stargazing sessions.