Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Allure of Uluru (Ayers Rock)

The long rays of the setting sun reflected off of Uluru

Ayers Rock or Uluru as it is known in the native, aboriginal language looms large among icons of Australia. I first saw it on a blistering, January, summer day. We woke up that morning in the cool rainforest of coastal Queensland and hopped a plane to take us deep into the Red Centre of the Northern Territory. Gazing down as we soared above the landscape, I could see where it gets its name. By afternoon, all of us were in a car speeding towards the rock. Since the heat was an oppressive 45°C (113°F) at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, this drive was just a quick look-see. No family hike on this day.

Above the Red Centre

At first, I was unsure whether or not to make Uluru a stop on our tour of Australia. What if I journeyed there, took one look at it, and said, "Yup, it's just like the picture." What if I wasn't moved by the experience, and all I got out of it was checking off one more thing on the Worldwide Sights to See List? But I've always been somewhat dismayed that hubby's family made it to Alice Springs on his childhood tour of Down Under but never got as far as Uluru. So, I knew it had to be on our itinerary.

From a distance, Uluru is just a shadowy figure.

In all the pictures I've seen of Uluru, the rock looks solid and imposing rising up from its surroundings. I thought we'd be able to see it from anywhere, but we were only 25 minutes away from the base before it revealed itself from behind the low hills. As we drew closer, the sun cast shadows that highlighted the massive layers of ancient sandstone almost perpendicular to the ground. Caves pitted the surface. It wasn't as smooth as the photos led me to believe.

The pitted, less familiar "back side" of Uluru.

Another surprise is the scrubby brush and short trees that spread out all around Uluru. For some reason, I was expecting more sand dunes or barren desert. The red earth peaks out here and there between the clumps of brownish spinifex grass, but this landscape wasn't as dead as I thought.

A patchwork of controlled burns ensure that animals have a place to forage and take shelter while the burned area recovers.

The first recommended stop is the Cultural Centre to learn about the aboriginal Anangu lore surrounding Uluru. With a few displays and a short film, you can finish it in about half an hour. I thought the Sorry Book was fascinating. It's bad luck to take anything from Uluru, and the book was filled with letters from folks returning pieces of stolen rocks and their tales of woe that befell them whilst the rocks were in their possession. Some people who did the forbidden climb have even returned their shoes. The helpful ranger at the Visitor's Desk had great advice on how to plan hikes in the broiling heat. It was a mere 0.5°C from the highest recorded temperature. A small cafe and gift shop round out the cluster of buildings.

A less imposing side view of Uluru by Kuniya Piti.
See the waist-high sign at the bottom, just right of center.

Later that day, we returned to Uluru to watch the setting sun's rays reflected off the rock face. One popular tour option is the Sounds of Silence where you watch the sunset and then have a feast. But my kids and silence don't exactly go together, so we kluged together our own experience with a tailgate picnic in the car parking lot.  When we left after sunset, the temperature had dropped to 43°C (109°F) at 7:45 p.m.

The sun rising up behind Uluru.

Expecting scorching heat the next day, we hit the hiking trails early. Climbing Uluru with the kids was never in the plan, but the extreme heat closed the climb to all visitors. Both the Mala walk (2 km return, 1.5 hours) and the Kuniya walk (1 km return, 0.5 hour) were easy with the kids, save for them complaining about the early wake up and the already rising temps. These trails could even be done with a stroller or wheelchair. Interpretive signs pointed out sights of cultural significance along the way. The shallow caves with rock art were especially intriguing.

Rock art on the Kuniya Walk. The whirly circles represent water holes. This cave is located near the Mutitjulu waterhole with walls that funnel animals in and make them easy to trap. Boys would watch from the cave to learn how to hunt.

Rock art in the first cave along the Mala walk.

My favorite part was walking among the 7-10 meter (20-30 foot) trees and breathing in their woody scent. I rounded a curve in the trail just as the sun spilled over Kantju Gorge to shine down on the leafy treetops. It's not the image that comes to mind when people usually imagine Uluru.

Approaching Kantju Gorge on the Mala walk. This is my favorite picture from Uluru.

That's when I truly understood that this rock is more than just an amazing geological specimen or famous Aussie tourist site, it is a community's home. Just as my family's church or my children's school holds a cherished spot in my heart, Uluru is sacred to the aboriginal Anangu people. For centuries, they walked along these same footpaths and witnessed the sun creeping over the same gorge. This is where they taught the next generation how to hunt or forage. This is where the elders passed on the traditions of the tribe. This is where boys become men and girls turn into women. And that's why they have fought for so long to reclaim it as their own and teach visitors to respect it, not just swing by to ogle and snap pics. That would be like popping into a church to listen to a famous gospel choir but not sticking around for the sermon.

Layers of sedimentary sandstone turned sideways from the ground.

So, what special significance did this excursion hold for my kids? My oldest one describes Uluru as "wanting to be a mountain, but it couldn't quite make it. It's looks deflated." For the record, it's 348 meters (1,142 feet) high, and a vast part of the rock extends down and sideways underground. As for my daughter, when we pulled up to the second trailhead of the day, she exclaimed, "We've already seen this rock!" I suppose you could say they weren't as moved as I was. But hopefully, years from now, they'll look back and decide that visiting this World Heritage Sight was kind of cool.

The nearby Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga) conglomorate rock formation is only an hour drive from Uluru. We were worried about the car breaking down in the extreme heat, so we skipped it.

If you visit Uluru:
The Ayers Rock Resort is your only option for accommodations and has everything from luxe rooms to dorms to a campground. We stayed in a 2-bedroom apartment at Emu Walk Apartments, and the restaurants and grocery store in the resort made meals and picnics easy.

On hot days, plan your hikes to finish before 11 a.m. then take a drive around the outer road surrounding Uluru.

The park offers a free, guided Mala walk to learn more about Anangu culture and the significance of Uluru. Check at the resort or Cultural Centre for start time.

Bring plenty of drinking water, although there are a few water taps around the park, and wear a hat.

Flynets are recommended. At the resort, they are AUD9.95 for one or AUD15.00 for two. Breaking off branches to swat flies away is highly discouraged.

There are no shuttles or public transportation from the resort to the rock. Hiring a car was much cheaper than joining tours for our family of 5 people. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is extremely easy to drive around with good signage. Just remember that the resort is in Yulara. Reserve your car beforehand. All the Car Hire desks at the resort had signs up that no cars were available when we were there.

Stopping your car on sections of the road with a yellow stripe on the side is prohibited. (People used to stop to take a photo, and then the driver gawking at the rock in the car behind them would smash into the car in front.)

Fly in and out of Ayers Rock airport. The departure area has a small gift shop and cafe.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. This is one of my absolute dream trips! It looks stunning and I loved your description of it!

  2. I am an Aussie and somewhat ashamed to say that I have not been to Uluru yet. I did fly over it 35 years ago when there were direct flights from Perth to Townsville. About 35 years ago driving back from W.A. to Townsville we got as far as Tennant Creek which is 1000 km away from Uluru, but didn't drive the distance. I think we will get there one day soon, thanks to your post. I like the descriptions. I know what to expect now.

  3. I really like your son's description of Uluru.

    I was here in the 1980, and the walking trails didn't exist back then. I was just recovering from a bad case of food poisoning, so my short time here is not memorable for the right reasons. I can be remember worrying about what if I had to find a bathroom in a hurry! However, I did take a tour over the rock in a 4-seater plane and that was awesome.

    Another place I would like to revisit. Your photos are awesome!

  4. Interesting - for all the photos I've seen of Ayer's Rock I've never seen a full write-up. I'd visit for sure but - wow - I hate that kind of heat so I'd have to plan to go during winter.
    You've got some great photos and a great write-up. Thank you.

  5. I've seen photos before, but none as detailed and as interesting as yours. What a great post!

  6. Amazing photos, I love the vivid colors :)

  7. Beautifully written, Michele! Love the pictures you captured too and some of them I've never seen or expected of Uluru. One of my regrets from visiting Oz years ago was not seeing Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef. I'm not sure I can handle that extreme heat but those rock art are incredible. I'm sure the kids will be grateful for this experience years from now as adults.

  8. I'm another Aussie that has never seen Uluru! I'm not sure why but It's probably got a lot to do with my love of Europe!Whenever we go to Sydney or Melbourne, we are usually going for a reason and there's never enough time to make a detour! I loved reading about your visit there. It's always great to hear a visitor's perspective! One day....!

  9. This is on my list. I'll definitely bookmark your post for future.
    Thanks for a great review.

  10. We didn't make it to Ayers Rock on our Australia trip (I guess, saving it until next time) because we couldn't make the extra two day trip into our itinerary. It looks magical though and I would love to visit soon.

  11. 113 F, seriously? Boy that is hot but it would be so interesting to visit I'd probably go anyway. I'd really like to learn more about the Aboriginal people and their rock art is very interesting.

  12. Great shots of the rock! Beautiful!

  13. Beautiful photos of Uluru. I guess the Aussie summer time is not the best time to visit there. Thanks for the great read.

  14. As many photos as I've seen of Uluru, I've never seen the back side. I think it looks so interesting. Love the photos. Still have to make it there myself sometime.

  15. I am very intrigued - I had not seen Uluru from the other side. Beautiful photos!


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