What to do in Uluru (A Guide to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park)

At 1,334 square kilometres in size, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is relatively small compared to many other parks – it’s slightly smaller than Litchfield NP and less than a tenth of the size of Kakadu. But since tourism infrastructure was established near the base of Uluru in the 1950s, Uluru and Kata Tjuta have been a drawcard for tourists, with over 250,000 visitors annually (more than Kakadu, which gets around 180,000 visitors). The development of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has long reflected a balance between managing the areas as tourist destination and recognising the claims of the Aboriginal people over this area.

Brief History // Getting to Uluru // When to go // Accommodation // Experiences // Lookouts // Walks

A Brief History of Uluru

Based on archaeological evidence, Aboriginal people have inhabited Central Australia for more than 30,000 years. The Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people are the traditional landowners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park; in their language they call themselves Anangu (pronounced arn-ung-oo). Just over 100 years after the first European explorers spotted Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the Anangu people were formally recognised by the Australian government as traditional owners of the land.

  • 1872 Ernest Giles spots Kata Tjuta whjle leading an expediton through Central Australia
  • 1873 Explorer William Gosse is the first European to see Uluru (naming it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers)
  • 1948 First vehicular track to Uluru is constructed
  • 1950 Ayers Rock National Park is recognised
  • 1958 Kata Tjuta added to the national park to create the Ayers Rock-Mount Olga National Park
  • 1977 name changed to Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock–Mt Olga) National Park
  • 1987 Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park added to the World Heritage List for outstanding universal natural values
  • 1984 Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park added to World Heritage List for outstanding universal cultural values.
  • 1984 Yulara facility (including a new airport) is fully operational & replaces previous park accommodation
  • 1985 Anangu (local Aboriginal people) recognised as traditional owners of the park
  • 1993 Name officially changed to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Getting to Uluru

The easiest way to reach Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is by flying into Ayers Rock (Uluru) airport, which is serviced by direct flights from Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney). You can rent a car from the airport, or there’s a shuttle service to the resort at Yulura. You can also fly into Alice Springs and rent a car, which is a 470km (5 hour) drive. Otherwise, it’s a long drive from any capital city… the closest being Adelaide, a 1600km (16 hour) drive!

When to go

The general advice is to avoid summer, when it gets extremely hot – many of the walks are closed and it can get pretty unpleasant outside. The best time is between May and September (when the maximum temperature during the day is between 20°C and 30°C), with August and September the best months to see the wildflowers in bloom.

Source: http://www.farmonlineweather.com.au/climate/station.jsp?lt=site&lc=15635

Uluru is considered by the Anangu people to have five seasons:

  • Piriyakutu/piriya piriya (August to September): warm winds from the north and west, when many food plants begin to flower, fruit and seed.
  • Mai wiyaringkupai/kuli (around December): the hottest part of the year, with more frequent storm clouds and lightning, but little rain.
  • Itjanu/inuntji (January to March): still very hot, but the most likely time to get rain, as well as storms which bring the temperature down.
  • Wanitjunkupai (April to May): colder weather, with clouds coming from the south but not producing much rain.
  • Wari (late May to July): the cold time, when there is nyinnga (frost) and kulyar-kulyarpa (mist or dew) every morning but little rain.

And how long should your Uluru visit be…? I’ve had a few visits to Uluru, from 24 hours to six days. I’d suggest you need 2-3 days to visit the main attractions, enjoy some of the activities and do some of the walks. Plan most of the activities for dawn and dusk, and enjoy some time by the pool during the hottest part of the day.

Accommodation

There’s fairly limited accommodation options (and prices are generally high), so while there is a lot to do and see at Uluru, you’ll want to see and experience as much as you can during your stay! Camping is not permitted within the national park, and the only nearby place to stay is at Yulara, which was developed in the 1980s with tourist accommodation, staff housing and a shopping centre managed by a single operator (Voyages Hotels & Resorts since 1997). The resort caters for different budgets – but you’ll pay a premium as there’s no competition:

  • Sails in the Desert – five star accommdation, with its own swimming pool and multiple modern dining, bar and lounge option. Booking.com
  • Desert Gardens – a less-expensive hotel option, with rock view and poolside rooms, and the Arnguli Grill & Restaurant offering à la carte dining location. Booking.com
  • Emu Walk Apartments – one and two bedroom apartments; about the same price as Desert Gardens but with a fully fully-equipped kitchen and more living space, a cheaper option if you plan on doing your own cooking. Booking.com
  • The Lost Camel Hotel – a “boutique hotel” which has compact studio-style rooms, and offers more cost-effective hotel accommodation. Booking.com
  • Outback Pioneer Hotel – the most basic hotel accommodation (single and double rooms), which is slightly cheaper than the Lost Camel Hotel. Booking.com

There’s also the uber-luxurious Longitude 131, with sixteen tented pavilions offering views of Uluru. At the budget end, you can stay in dormitory accommodation at the Outback Pioneer Lodge or paid campsites at the Ayers Rock Campground, which also has two-bedroom cabins.

Experiences

As a destination that caters exclusively to tourism, there’s a huge range of experiences on offer, included guided walks, Segway tours around Uluru, helicopter flights over Uluru and Kata Tjuta and tandem skydiving. A more recent event is the Field of Light Uluru, a temporary art installation that consists of tens of thousands of solar-powered stems that light up at sunset.

Camel Tour

I generally prefer my own legs for transportation, and I’ve always thought camels were a bit fickle… but it’s something a bit different to do with the kids. We did the one-hour “Sunrise Camel Experience” from Uluru Camel Tours – I’d recommend this or the similar Sunset version, when it’s a bit cooler and you get the most photogenic views. There’s interesting commentary from the knowledgeable guides along the way.

You get a good view of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta, with a slightly different perspective!

And it’s (mostly) fun for the kids patting the camels, which are generally well-behaved.

Sunset Dinner

There are many different sunset dinners – and a “Desert Awakenings” breakfast – that provide a more private viewing of Uluru as the sun sets. Tali Wiru, which means ‘beautiful dune’ in Anangu language, combines fine dining with views of Uluru and the Kata Tjuta.

Star Gazing

One of the benefits of Uluru’s remote, desert location is the clear night sky, free of light pollution and the humidity of the coast. You can book stargazing tour if you want to learn more about the southern night sky – or just find any location away from the resort to great celestial views. (You’ll need to avoid a full moon over Uluru or Kata Tjuta if you want to get a photo of the stars and the rock formations.)

Lookouts – where to get the best views

There are four viewing areas dedicated to experiencing and photographing Uluru and Kata Tjuta at sunrise and sunset – and some (like the main Uluru Sunset Viewing Area) get very busy at peak times. So get there early, or consider other options (like a walk, tour or Sunset Dinner) to avoid the crowds…

Uluru Sunset Viewing Area

This popular viewing area, which is between Yulara (the resort) and Uluru, gets very busy, so arrive early to secure a prime position (you must be inside the parking area, and you cannot park along the road).

It’s directly in front of Uluru, and provides a great vantage point to watch Uluru change colour – this is where most of the “classic” Uluru sunset photos and Instagram posts are captured…

Talinguru Nyakunytjaku

This is the main Uluru sunrise viewing area, with three shelters and two viewing platforms providing a great view of Uluru from the east. (It’s also a much less busy option to see Uluru at sunset, although you won’t get the classic images of the rock changing colour.)

This viewing area gives you a view of Uluru as, well as the more distant Kata Tjuta in the same shot.

There’s also two short walks here:

  • Minymaku Walk (Women’s Walk): a wheelchair-accessible 1 km (30 minute) loop track that has interpretative signage about women’s business (such as how women process bush foods)
  • Watiku Walk (Men’s Walk): also wheelchair-accessible, this 1.5 km (45 minute) loop track teaches you about about men’s busine (such as how they the Anangua made tools and used fire to hunt).

Kata Tjuta dune viewing area

A short walk takes you to a lookout platform, with a view across the grassy valley to the long line of Kata Tjuta’s domes.

Although it’s further away from Uluru than the two dedicated Uluru viewing areas, Uluru is visible in the distance with the sun rising to the right or left of the rock (depending on time of year).

A long (telephoto) lens helps though – as the rock is a fair distance away.

Kata Tjuta sunset viewing area

Like the Uluru Sunset Area, the Kata Tjuta sunset viewing area gets busy at dusk, so get to this area in time to secure a good spot! There is a picnic area here.

Although the changing colour of Uluru at sunset makes the most iconic photos, I think Kata Tjuta at sunset is even more stunning!


Walks

Although the popular but contentious Uluru Climb closed in October 2019, there are many short walks around Uluru that provide spectacular views over the natural rock formations and desert landscape. If you have limited time, I would pick Valley of the Winds, plus the very short walks to Mutitjulu Waterhole and Kantju Gorge at the base of Uluru. But all walks are different and worth doing.

Uluru Base Walk

The walk around the base of Uluru is around 11km, and takes about 3-4 hours. It gives you a sense of Uluru’s scale, and goes past many sacred sites (with signage explaining the Aboriginal stories), waterholes and caves. The Base Walk is is divided into four sections, which you can do individually. If you’re short of time, at least visit the Mutitjulu Waterhole and Kantju Gorge. It’s best to go early in the morning or later in the afternoon, when it’s less hot. [Detailed walk description]

Valley of the Winds

A spectacular circuit through Kata Tjuta, the 7.4km walk takes you up close to the huge, domed rock formations, passing a deep valley between two domes. There are two lookouts (Karu Lookout and Karingana Lookout) along the loop; you can visit one or both lookouts without doing the complete circuit. [Detailed walk description]

Walpa Gorge

A rocky track passes between two of the the two tallest domes of Kata Tjuta, before reaching an ephemeral stream. The deep gorge provides a desert refuge for plants and animals, with a grove of spearwood trees at the end of the trail. The 2.6km return walk offers close-up views over the sheer walls of the huge Kata Tjuta domes.

More information

The official Northern Territory tourism Web site has an Uluru and Surrounds page covering local attractions, events, activities and accommodation.

Parks Australia, which is part of the federal environment portfolio, manages Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and their Web site has extensive information on the park’s attractions, walks and Aboriginal history. You can also buy your parks pass on-line.

Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park Knowledge Handbook [PDF] has detailed information on the indigenous culture and history of the park.

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