I am sure some of you have been wondering when we would make it out to the red center (and if you haven’t been, then get your shit together). It is, after all, iconic Australia. When people think of Australia this is what comes to mind. Despite the fact that the large majority of the people live on the coasts, the vast majority of the landscape has much more in common with the semi-arid region surrounding Alice Springs.
Also, it just wouldn’t have felt like a trip to Australia if we didn’t make it to Uluru.
So make it we did. We rented a vehicle in Alice Springs and headed into the outback. Uluru is about 460 km from Alice Springs, which turns out to be between a five and six hour drive, depending on your level of dedication and the size of your bladder. The landscape is surprisingly rich in vegetation, but there is not much to look at and little in between, so it is very much a strap in and get there ASAP kind of drive.
Your options for lodging locations are rather limited. There is a roadhouse about an hour from the park that has free camping, and there is Ayers Rock Resort; those are your options. Ayers Rock Resort is the way to go hands down. We camped there, and it cost us $54 a night for three people to tent camp. The facilities are wonderful. There is a fully furnished camp kitchen, showers, laundry, and most importantly, a pool (hugely important when the weather is hot). The resort also has four plus options for hotel type accommodations including a four star resort. There are restaurants, shops, a grocery store, and a bar that will sell take away alcohol should you be in need and willing to pay (it’s expensive!!). All and all it is more like a little tourist village then a resort. They do an Aboriginal art market, story telling, and numerous other events along side tours and camel rides. It’s a well-run little place.
The rock itself is about a twenty minutes drive from the resort. It costs $25 per person to get into the park, but the pass lasts for three days. There is a cultural center in the park that has some interesting information, including a short film that goes over much of the history of the national park and the relations with the natives, along with some interesting information about the native tribes and their relationship to the area. It is worth a stop while you are there.
Uluru itself is certainly a geological wonder. It is the largest single rock in the know world, and I love the word monolith, so it gets a few bonus points in my book just for that. It is a beautiful red color and is amazingly smooth looking. There are many wonderful holes, divots, and fracture marks in the rock, along with obvious water flow lines that make the rock aesthetically pleasing to view. From a decent distance away it is quite a cool sight.
Now I will contradict myself to a certain degree.
All in all, we were thoroughly unimpressed with the rock and the park. We woke our sorry butts up to make sure we were at the viewing platform to watch the sunrise hit the rock because we had heard it was so great. We stood on a platform with a bunch of people taking tons of pictures, flashes going off constantly, much to my annoyance, waiting for this rock to glow a spectacular shade of red. It was a waste of time. The sunrise itself was lovely, but I haven’t a clue what all the fuss is about. I saw nothing spectacular happen on the rock as the sun rose. It just went from being dark to being red with some shadows, nothing even close to the spectacular glow it has in some of the pictures. The sunrise itself was much more spectacular then what I saw of Uluru. If I were to do it again I would have slept longer and skipped it completely. Up close it is not that impressive and there isn’t really much to see, especially if you have ever spent any time in the American southwest.
We then walked the 10.6 km circuit around the base of the rock. If you are going to do this it is generally worth starting about sunrise. The trail is mostly flat and quite easy, but it is rather exposed and it does get quite warm. The earlier you get at it the better. We didn’t check the cost of bike rentals, but if they are reasonable a bike would be a much better way to do it. There was an awesome little undercut in the rock where the Aboriginals used to do some cooking that was quite cool. We stopped and had a snack in the shade, I even took a little nap. It was without a doubt the most awesome part of my experience at Uluru, which says something.
Many people come out to climb to the top, and while this is an option as long as one gets there early enough, it does pose a bit of a conundrum. Uluru is sacred ground to the Aboriginals who lived there for something like twenty plus thousand years. Climbing to the top of it is in many ways hugely disrespectful to them and their culture. Now I understand that tourism in the area was set up in the 60s and what is done is done and all that, but, to us, it just felt disrespectful to a people who have already essentially had their way of life eradicated to climb to the top. It was a personal choice for us, and I will respectfully leave that as a personal decision to any one who visits. I am sure that it would be a wonderful sight from the top though.
A bit further west from Uluru is another series of rock formations jutting up from the desert floor, Kata Tjuta.
We found this area to be a bit more exciting then Uluru. I wont spend much time describing it as you can get a decent idea of what it looks like by doing a quick Google search. I will say the geological features are much more interesting to look at. Multiple different formations of red, black, and white jut upwards. Their rounded tops are quite unique, especially with the sun setting behind them. The Valley of the Winds walk treks through the middle of the largest canyon. The valley is something of an oasis, with bunches of trees and ferns lining the trail, the rock formations rising up on either side. I was actually rather surprised by how much vegetation there was both in the valley and throughout the red center as a whole. There is a pair of lookouts, which rise above the valley floor, allowing for some wonderful views and pictures. The whole trail is 7.4 km, but about half of it looked on the map as if it ran outside the canyon, so we chose to only go as far as the second look out. I am not sure how far it was, but if I have the names right, which is questionable, the parks website has it listed as a 5.4km return. There were some challenging parts but the walk through the valley was well worth it. The scenery and colors are spectacular. All three of us agreed that Kata Tjuta was much more impressive then Uluru form aesthetic and hiking points of view.
It seemed to me that a large majority of the visitors to the area either come on a tour or pay to take one whilst there. From the brief reading and chatting with other I have done, it certainly has its advantages. The tour guides know the area well and are full of interesting knowledge on the history and geography of the area. It is something you don’t get when going it alone unless one puts in the effort to look it all up. Many of the tours also do things like sunset dinners with nibbles and wine at one or both of the rock formations. It is also nice to let someone else take care of the planning and just be able to hop on and enjoy. We are cheap, however, and would rather put in the effort to plan the trip to save some money and be free to do as we wish.
A few things to keep in mind when visiting the area: It is an arid climate, so you get both temperature extremes depending on when you visit. Peak season is during the winter months because it generally does not reach the 30 (86F) degree C mark. While the daytime temps are much more bearable, it does frequently get down near freezing at night. The resort is also much busier during those times, which means people everywhere. Spring and fall can be quite warm during the day, temperatures frequently hitting 36C (97F), which means outdoor activities are best done before 10 or 11 am. The evenings and nights are wonderful however, and the park is not nearly as crowded. The park is open during the summer but one would have to be crazy to want to do any walking in 40C (104F) plus weather. The other thing to keep in mind is the amazing amount, and absolute annoyingness of the flies. I don’t believe there are words to accurately describe the tenacity of the Australian blowfly when it comes to attempting to get into your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. They want nothing more then to be on your face at all times during daylight hours. A face net is a must if you wish to maintain your sanity.
We spent two nights at the park, largely because the temperatures restricted our walking to the morning hours, which means it took two mornings to see both formations. In the cooler months it could all be done in one day. It would probably still require two nights though due to the travel distance.
Even though we found Uluru to be lackluster, we did feel it was worth the visit. This is largely due to the image of the place as being so uniquely “Australian.” Both Courtney and I felt it was something we had to do or there would have been a small part of us that felt we didn’t quite complete our trip.