Saturday, 12 September 2015

Australia's outback heart: 10 ways to "do" Uluru

I just spent almost a week in the beating heart of the Australian continent, a long-overdue return after my first too-brief visit eight years ago. And although I've been back home four days now, part of me is still out there, standing on the red earth under a wide blue sky, getting up in the dark to watch the sunrise, feeling the powerful pull of Uluru. 

Iron-oxide walls and blue Uluru sky
Because, expansive as Central Australia is, Uluru is the magnetic epicentre of this place. Even when you've been there, seen that, it draws you in, impossible to resist. 

It's so much more than a red rock in the desert. It's massive, for one thing, rising 348m from the ground (it's higher than the Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Statue of Liberty stacked on top) and extending 5-6 KILOMETRES deep into that red earth. It's ancient: because it was tilted almost 90 degrees after its formation, one side of it is 100 million years older than the other. It's surprising: Uluru might look brick-smooth from afar, but up close it has caves and canyons, pools and pockmarks, and its sandstone skin is flaky and oxidised (its real colour is grey, not rust-red). 

Most importantly, it's indescribably significant and sacred to the Anangu people who have lived in and cared for this land for more than 30,000 years. 

Touching Uluru
The first tourists took days to travel to Uluru from Alice Springs, 445km to the east, in the 1950s. Today you can fly to Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, aka Yulara, a village of low-rise hotels and apartments situated a respectful 20-minute drive from Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and there are now more than 65 ways to experience it. 

But Uluru is not a place to be busy. So this "top 10" is really a list of suggestions, highlights from my recent trip that I hope will inspire you to go - or go back.

Because no matter how often you visit, how long you stay or how much (or little) you do while you're there, you can't help but be affected by the magic of Uluru. So, a few ideas:

Base walking (not jumping)
1. Walk around it. The Uluru Base Walk is a classic for good reason. This 12km track that encircles the rock is desert-flat, takes you close enough to touch it (I loved being able to put my bare hands on Uluru's sun-warmed hide) and gives you time (3-4 hours) to just be there. When I did it with AAT Kings, we even did some silent walking. 

You can do the walk independently if you have your own vehicle, or catch the Uluru Express from Voyages Ayers Rock Resort.

Biking 'round the rock
2. Ride (around) the rock. The afternoon I spent riding a rental bike along part of the Uluru Base Walk (a new experience in the national park) with a couple of friends was one of my favourite things on this trip. It's a peaceful, easy way to see Uluru, I loved not having to wear a helmet and being able to just look up at Uluru's red flanks as I rode, and Outback Cycling's bikes have fat tyres so they don't get bogged in the red sand.

Nothing beats an outback sunrise
3. See an Uluru sunrise. Or three. Yep, I saw three Uluru sunrises, each one worth getting up at 5am for. My favourite was Desert Awakenings run by Voyages: a short drive in a 4WD vehicle to an ancient, sacred sand dune (the Anangu give Voyages privileged access), where you tuck into a bush breakfast of damper with golden syrup, plunger coffee and bacon-and-egg rolls hot off the fire, while the sky brightens and your guide talks about everything from Anangu culture to bush botany. Priceless.

Tali Wiru dinner under the stars
4. Dine under the stars. At the other end of the day, there's the Tali Wiru ("beautiful dune") dining experience. This was probably THE highlight of my stay: sunset views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the same sacred dune I'd been on for sunrise (see #3 above), a five-star dinner under the stars (the chefs work out of a corrugated shed), lanterns hung in the trees and Anangu stories by the fire with hot chocolate (or cognac). There's also the Sounds of Silence in a different location; more people, but also beautiful.

Lanterns in the trees at Tali Wiru
5. Listen & learn. As well as silence, there's much to listen to in the outback -- zebra finches at waterholes, the wind in the desert oaks -- and much to learn. All guides working in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park go through rigorous training, particularly in terms of what they can and can't tell visitors about Anangu culture, and doing a few tours really adds another dimension to your stay. Not only that but the stories the Anangu have chosen to share with us have built-in lessons (about respect, not climbing Uluru, living on the land), which feels incredibly generous and welcoming.

6. Dot-paint. You'll see Anangu women sitting on the ground painting outside Maruku Arts at the Uluru Cultural Centre in the national park, and in the town square at Yulara. Photographing them isn't allowed, so I have no pics to show how serene and focused they look, but you can join them for morning or afternoon dot-painting workshops run by Voyages. Building cultural bridges through art.

Traditional dancers come
out with the stars at Uluru
7. Star-gaze. With no light pollution and low humidity, the Australian outback is one of the best places in the world to see stars. Star talks are included in the Tali Wiru and Sounds of Silence dinner experiences, including Anangu perspectives on the constellations; I learned, for instance, that the Pleiades are part of a songline that crosses the entire continent from east to west. (Wow.) Or do an Outback Sky Journeys night tour in Yulara, or talk to the resident astronomers at the Outback Pioneer Hotel.

Kulata cafe, Yulara
8. Go slow. Yulara might be a resort-village, but there's real life here too, making it a great place to just hang out, especially in the afternoons. Maybe have lunch and an iced coffee at Kulata Academy Café, staffed by trainees of Ayers Rock Resort’s National Indigenous Training Academy. 

Or wander the beautiful new Windtjiri museum and art gallery, which opened in June. The "town square" has free bush yarns, an arts market and traditional dances. You might even see, as I did, a few Anangu kids doing handstands on the grass under the river red gums. And the nearby Imalung lookout is a beautiful spot for a sunset view of Uluru, minus the crowds.

Obligatory Uluru selfie
9. Take a selfie. This must be the most-taken photograph in the park: tourist with Uluru. But it's hard to resist. Go on, you know you want to.

10. See Kata Tjuta. It's easy for Uluru to steal the show, but Kata Tjuta is ruggedly special too, a lost world of 36 domes (its name means "many heads"), the highest even higher than Uluru (548m). I did the three-hour Valley of the Winds walk, which takes you through a culturally sensitive area, so I'm refraining from posting pics. Guess you'll just have to go there and see it with your own eyes...

Big thanks to Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia who hosted me at the beautiful Sails inthe Desert Hotel (part of Voyages Ayers Rock Resort), Tourism NT and tour operators AAT Kings, SEIT Outback Australia and Outback Cycling


  1. Love love loved it Loulou!
    You have inspired me yet again, and....always appreciate your research and informative data - one should never assume that people know!

  2. Thank you, thank you, Josie! Glad you felt inspired. Uluru really is an amazing place...