YesYou’ve seen it on tea towels, TV commercials and kitsch memorabilia. But chances are you haven’t seen it up close and personal in all its red-earth glory. Uluru is almost a victim of its iconic status. We Australians know it so well that many of us don’t know it at all.
While international travelers circle the globe to marvel at the red center icon, Aussies tend to be jaded about what’s in their own backyard. Maybe we feel it’s not going anywhere, and will still be standing when we finally get to visit. Or maybe it’s the cost of traveling to the heart of the country that’s keeping it on the back burner. It may, after all, seem cheaper to go to Fiji.
But we shouldn’t leave it on our to-do list. Uluru is the geographical and spiritual heart of our country. More than that, it’s breathtaking. Nothing can prepare you for your first meeting.
The visit can be expensive, but it is worth it. While there really isn’t a cheap way to do this, there are plenty of cheaper options and ways to save if you plan ahead.
Uluru is very remote and the gateway is Yulara, the town which was established in the 1970s to support rock tourism. It has become a village that provides both tourist accommodation and quarters for the staff serving it.
If you’re flying, ask for a window seat for a great aerial view of Uluru. Round-trip flights with Jetstar can be found for as low as $270 from Melbourne and around $350 from Sydney, but can reach $800 and more during peak August and September. Cheaper options can regularly be found as long as you are flexible on flight days.
If you are driving to Uluru, be prepared for a road trip with very few stops. It’s a four and a half hour drive from Alice Springs.
Although getting to Uluru can be expensive, entering Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is only $38 for three days. Entry is free for those under 18 years old. The two sites, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, rising majestically in a seemingly barren landscape, are just a 40-minute drive from each other.
Uluru is easier to understand and more accessible given its proximity to Yulara and the wealth of tours and options to navigate it.
At Uluru, getting up before sunrise isn’t just necessary (temperatures get too hot for long mid-day walks), it’s breathtaking.
Regardless of the time, you’ll also want to bring a mosquito net for your hat – when the sun comes out the flies can get unbearable (mosquito nets sell for $10 in Yulara). I would also recommend buying fly cream to dab on the back of your ears.
Out of the heat of the day, even a moderately fit person can do the 10km flat walk around its base. You can’t get lost as you’re basically walking in a circle, although a guide (Seit tours run multiple trips, their sunset tour starts from $73, up to a trekking tour for $177 $) can enrich the experience.
If you choose to do it for free by yourself, and wander around at your own pace, plaques installed by the national park provide insight into the cultural significance of various caves and waterholes. They also tell some of the treasured stories to the local Anangu traditional owners, such as at the Kapi Mutitjulu waterhole, where it is said that the spirit of Minyma Kuniya combined with her nephews to become Wanampi, a water serpent .
For those who don’t like to walk, you can pedal a bike ($60 for three hour rental from Outback Cycling), ride a Segway (from $149), or ride a Harley Davidson (from $139).
One visit to the rock may not be enough and you might find yourself stepping back in time for sunset, when temperatures return to bearable. If you do, you’ll join a contingent of tourists near their cars and RVs, all equipped with cameras, patiently watching the colors of Uluru change in the fading light.
“Many people don’t realize that because many parts of Uluru are sensitive sites due to Anangu belief, much of it is not in the photos that most people will have seen before coming here,” notes Steve Baldwin, a park ranger. .
Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas) is often Cinderella’s sister. Many visitors travel to Uluru without going down the road to see the equally striking domed rock formations. And that’s a mistake.
As with Uluru, Kata Tjuta is best visited at sunrise or sunset, away from peak heat. Given that, you’d be hard pressed to do full hikes around both sites in the same day, but you could possibly spend a few hours in Kata Tjuta in the morning and see Uluru at sunset..
As you approach, the site appears to be made up of incredibly large, rounded rocks, leaning against each other and impregnable. But for the intrepid adventurer – and you must commit to this sometimes challenging three-hour self-guided free walk – there is the magical Valley of the Winds, which stretches out before you once you have scaled the jagged landscape and steep. inclination. By the way, it is not called the Valley of the Winds for nothing. Prepare to be literally blown away. It is quite cool.
Most tourists settle in to take a look at Walpa Gorge, which is a specialty in itself: two giant walls of steep rock offering a small slice of sky above.
Getting around – do I need a car?
Uluru is not walkable, so it’s your car or a tour bus.
If you are traveling solo, the Uluru hop-on hop-off service offers a round trip to Uluru, for $49, and $80 to Kata Tjuta. These bus trips operate for sunrise and sunset time slots.
For more flexibility, you can rent a car at Yulara Airport. Having your own wheels (you need to book in advance) means you can come and go in the national park whenever the mood takes you.
Although deals can be made, the cheapest options from most car rental companies will cost around $320 per day. (As in the rest of the country, car rental companies have been stung by a shortage throughout the pandemic, and rental prices in Uluru are also higher than average.)
What remains to be done?
One attraction that won’t cost you a dime is the brand new Gallery of Central Australia (Goca) in Yulara. It’s a platform for local indigenous artists, admission is free and there are daily tours starting at 10:30am. Goca is truly impressive – the vibrant use of color in the artwork on its walls makes it a rewarding place to visit. The gallery showcases work by emerging and independent artists from across Central Australia, with paintings and sculptures available to purchase.
There are a number of free experiences available at the resort, ranging from didgeridoo workshops to dot painting lessons. The Bush Food Experience, a guided walk through the resort town of local ingredients – such as sweet bush plums used in food and medicine. Tour guides explain when and how to pick the fruit, as well as the cultural and nutritional importance of the plants.
However, you might just want to spend your free time escaping the heat at one of the resort’s many pools, which are free for those staying at the resort.
Finally, look up. Far from the light pollution of a city, looking at the night sky is like watching a movie, as layers of stars and patterns become visible. Several stargazing tours are available, but the key really is to get out of Yulara a bit, turn off all car and phone lights, and look up. It’s also free.
Where to stay
Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara is the (only) place to stay. Hotel options have a two-night minimum, starting with the luxurious Sails in the Desert (from $475/night) and Desert Gardens (from $400/night) which offer views of Uluru from the bedrooms.
The cheapest option is the 3.5-star cabin-style Outback Pioneer Hotel (from $300/night). Emu Walk Apartments (from $420 a night for a one-bedroom apartment that sleeps four) are suitable for families and groups who want to cook in their rooms.
For RV travelers and those looking to save money with tents, there’s a campground at the resort, with shared cooking and bathing facilities, from $43 per night.
Where to eat
Once you’ve booked accommodation, it’s worth thinking about some of your meals. For serious, well-paid foodies, there’s the Tali Wiru Experience, a $380-per-head “foodie adventure” served in a private dune under the stars.
There are plenty of much cheaper restaurants available around Yulara town square. The Kulata Academy Cafe trains resort staff and sells pies and sandwiches ($10.50, served with a salad). There are several other take-out options and cafes on the plaza, and an IGA supermarket for supplies (they do take-out BBQ chickens for $11). The Outback Pioneer Kitchen pub near the campground offers pub fare with burgers for $18 and pizza for $25.