A first-hand guide to experiencing Uluru's Indigenous heritage

Rediscovering Uluru fifteen years after a first visit proves to be a far more meaningful experience than ever before.

Group of people on a camel tour around Uluru
  • Penny Watson
  • March 2020

Scorched land, red sand, tracks in the dirt like ant trails, no water below us, or up ahead or anywhere. I cough – my throat is parched just looking at the dry land. The Northern Territory’s outback landscape, from our little Piper Lance aeroplane, takes up the entire circular window. With my forehead reverberating on the glass, I peer down and around and beyond, trying to comprehend the enormity of the interior. Below I watch the dust-bowl trail of a ute racing down an ochre-red road and the line of a wire fence as it disappears into a far-off horizon. The loneliness of a corrugated farmhouse, the only one for hundreds of miles, makes me draw breath, its neighbouring rusted windmill looking sentimentally ancient against a backdrop of scraggy gums.

When I first visited Uluru in my twenties, I arrived to a landscape I had only contemplated in books such as Wake in Fright and movies like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I had the sponge-like mind of any youthful traveller, taking it all in pie-eyed. Back then, as I looked down on the ground, I remember being preoccupied by the legendary journeys of the early explorers. That Burke and Wills saddled up horses and set off on a 3250-kilometre journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria left me quite awestruck.

Group of people on Segway tour around Uluru
Exploring the rugged landscape of the Red Centre is a little less arduous now!

Almost two decades later, I’m visiting again, this time arriving on a jet plane, with similar window views over the wild and arid landscape. Uluru is located in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a 1326-square kilometre region in the red desert in the south-west corner of Australia’s Northern Territory. Its astounding beauty, geographical significance – it is thought to date back 550 million years – and status as a sacred site to Indigenous Australians make it one of the country’s landmark sights, attracting more than 450,000 visitors each year.

When the pilot dips the plane wing so passengers get that famous iconic eye-ogle of Uluru from the air, I am again swept away by its enormity. From up here, the sandstone monolith, rising 348 metres, with a circumference of 9.4 kilometres, erupts from the flat landscape with more profound beauty than anything I’ve seen since that first visit. Uluru hasn’t changed, but maybe I have.

What I see now is different to what it was on that rite-of-passage first journey with a group of mates looking for adventure. To me now, this land represents Anangu country, homeland of the Pitjantjatjara people, and what I’m feeling is more like awe, excitement and hope, not for white man’s history, but for our country’s Indigenous future.

Indigenous artist teaching dot painting to a tourist
A rich Indigenous cultural legacy abounds in this region.

In October 2019, to coincide with the 34th anniversary of the return of Uluru to traditional owners, the steep 800-metre climb to the top of this cultural and spiritual icon was closed for good.

My guide on a tour around the base of Uluru just before the closing explains it best: “No more tourists dumping used rubbish and nappies that find their way into the natural waterholes at the base of the rock, turning native animals away and, most importantly for the Indigenous people, nobody actually dying.”

My delight at this new era for Uluru is somewhat hypocritical. On my first trip, drawing on a pool of blinkered youthful knowledge, my travelling cohort and I climbed the rock without so much as a thought. We raced to the top like your average excitable young traveller and, while up there, made a short (and to us, at the time, hilarious) movie which involved ducking in and out of the lunar-like holes on the surface. Inspired by the promise of an afternoon sinking cool beers in the hot sun, we ran back down. No respect. It wasn’t that we didn’t know.

The entire rock is sacred and the climb site, in particular, is a sacred men’s area. Traditional owners have been asking visitors not to climb since the 1985 hand-back and signs requesting people reconsider climbing were erected near the start of the climb in 1992. This was 2003.

Group of people on camel tour with Uluru in the background.
There are several different ways of experiencing Uluru today that don't involve climbing.

Fifteen years on, my wiser, more informed self is appreciating the spirituality of Uluru, the feeling of awe its age-old rock folds inspire and the magic it evokes by way of ancestral stories. To me now, it feels like less of a tourist attraction, more a place of peaceful pilgrimage. On this trip I am celebrating the climb’s closure by indulging in activities that celebrate the rock, and in turn its rightful owners, from a more respectful distance.

Tali Wiru is perhaps the best example. As its name – meaning “beautiful dune” in the Pitjantjatjara language – suggests, this seasonal experience opens in new window is fine dining with a difference, hosted in the desert sand on a small rise that neatly frames Uluru beyond. With cameras in hand, we stand amid she-oaks and mulga trees, saltbush and bush tomato plants, as the setting sun paints Uluru’s surface in gossamer watercolour washes of yellow, pink and purple. A menu, informed by the surrounding bush landscape, has us sitting down to spinifex baked beetroot with goat cheese, buttery grilled scallop with pickled emu apple, and kangaroo jerky with crispbread and quandong (“a desert peach”).

Sounds of Silence dinner at sunset with Uluru as a backdrop.
Gourmet culinary experiences, with Uluru as a backdrop, are on offer for visitors to the area.

When Uluru has disappeared into the inky darkness, the night sky takes the stage. Joseph, an Indigenous man from Rockhampton who has come to love the ways of the Anangu, sends his laser across the sky identifying Western and Aboriginal astronomy including the Emu in the Sky, which appears so clear stretching across the Milky Way, I wonder why I’ve never spotted it before.

Uluru again makes its presence known the next morning when I wake early to see the sun shed pink rays on the folds of sandstone as we pass the great rock in a 4WD on our way to Kata Tjuta.

On my first visit, Kata Tjuta was known as the Olgas, but that has happily changed to its traditional name. Kata Tjuta’s 32 giant geological domes cut into the horizon as conspicuously as Uluru and the site, another sacred men’s area, blooms with an astounding diversity of endemic flora.

Aerial view of Kata Tjuta, formerly known as the Olgas
Kata Tjuta is also an area of immense cultural significance for Indigenous people.

We take the 7.5km Valley of the Winds walk, with the domes looming either side. Our guide, a fellow from South Africa who has fallen for the Red Centre, tells how the Lasseter Highway, the 224km stretch of sealed road connecting Uluru with the Stuart Highway, once cut straight through the middle of Kata Tjuta. “Healing began when they redirected the road around the park and below the dune lines in respect,” he says.

The day before my departure, I sit under a eucalyptus tree on the grass in the courtyard of our hotel where Indigenous artist Valerie Brumby talks through an interpreter about Tjukurpa – the law and stories of ancestors, and her own paintings. Little arrows symbolise emu tracks, a cluster of circles represents the sun or stars, four straight lines means rain. We spend the afternoon adding dots to our little black canvases, appreciating the meticulous skill of the local artisans and creating our own stories in the artistic language of their people.

Close-up of brush dot painting on canvas.
An immersive art workshop is a great way to learn about local history.

My finished work is a view from the air, concentric circles denoting Uluru, little curves illustrating desert dunes, dots representing tufts of spinifex. It is the spiritual land of the Anangu people. And this time, that’s the message I’m taking home.

Where to stay in Uluru

If you’re looking for places to stay and eat when visiting the Red Centre, Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, 20 kilometres from Uluru, is a mini-township where visitors can choose from one of five accommodation options to suit different tastes and budgets, from dorm beds at the Outback Pioneer Lodge to five-star rooms at Sails in the Desert. Dining and drinking venues are found throughout the resort, from the Pioneer BBQ & Bar at Outback Pioneer and Ayers Wok noodle bar in the town square, to the Arnguli Grill at Desert Gardens Hotel and the upmarket Ilkara buffet restaurant at Sails or the famous under-the-stars Sounds of Silence dinner.

Here’s how to explore more in the Red Centre.