Truly a great wonder of the world and one of the most iconic structures in Australia, Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) is perhaps one of the most naturally remarkable places I will visit on this 6-month backpacking adventure. Standing at 318m tall and 8km wide, the red rock is what you might call an ‘island mountain’ remaining after the slow erosion of an original mountain range. It is believed to be around 700 million years old and is sacred to the indigenous Aboriginal people. And no wonder. Both Uluru and her sister Kata Tjuta (36 red-rock dome formation), are breathtakingly beautiful, ever-changing and strikingly dominant features of the Northern Territory’s red desert. At every point in the day, they change colour with the light, and the marks and imperfections in their surfaces tell so many stories.
If you ever get the chance to go to Uluru, take it! I was lucky enough to be invited along for a long weekend break with 3 friends who live in Australia. The trip was packed from beginning to end with unforgettable moments. From watching the sunrise and sunset over the rocky giants, to eating bush tucker and star-gazing in the middle of the outback, to watching camel racing and witnessing 50,000 bulbs of light illuminating the red centre. Needless to say there’s a lot to do in the relatively small vicinity that Uluru, Kata Tjuta and the only resort in the area, occupy.
For those of you interested in visiting, here’s what our amazing weekend at Uluru entailed…
First things first, Uluru is not particularly close to anywhere. In fact, it is a considerable 500km away from the nearest main town, Alice Springs. So if you want to get there quickly and not waste time on a precious weekend break like ourselves, it is best to fly directly into the centre. There are 2 flights per day direct to Uluru, running from Melbourne and Sydney (so if you’re in any of the other major cities, you’ll need to look into other travel options).
Our flight took off from Melbourne at 9am and landed around midday, in time for some lunch before checking into our hotel. As previously mentioned, there is only one resort anywhere near the national park (in an area called Yulara), containing 4 different hotels, so you will have to stay there while you’re visiting Uluru…unless you want to camp in the outback!
One of the great things about the resort is that it runs an endless amount of different tours in the area, some of which are unmissable during your stay. The first of which, ‘The Sound of Silence Dinner’ we had booked for the Friday evening when we arrived. We spent the afternoon organising a vehicle, logistics and stocking up on snacks for the next day, and then at 5pm, we all hopped on a bus out into the bush! In fact, while we were there, the bush was thriving and apart from the brick-red sand, the ‘red centre’ was a little more green than expected. Arguably, this made for even more stunning photos! We sipped champagne and munched on canapés to the tones of a live didgeridoo as the sun set across Uluru to our left and Kata Tjuta on the right.
There is a 50km distance in between the two rock formations and our 3-course dinner was set up somewhere in the middle. A cluster of white linen-covered tables, candles, heaters and a buffet station are parked next to a roaring fire in a clearing. This was our base for the next 3 hours.
As the last of the sun set behind the dramatic clouds and Kata Tjuta, the sky went through all the hues of orange, red, pink and purple. Each table seats 10, so it’s a fairly sociable affair; exchanging stories with others about what brought them to the middle of nowhere just like you! There was a short indigenous song and dance performance while we ate our pumpkin soup. The rest of the dinner consisted of an endless supply of wine and a huge buffet full of hot and cold dishes, vegetables, meat, fish, kangaroo, crocodile and other Australian delicacies.
After the main course, we were treated to a fascinating star talk, which was of particular interest to a girl like me from the opposite hemisphere! Our guide used a powerful laser pointer to highlight a variety of constellations and planets while telling us some beautiful Aborigine stories about their origins. Afterwards we were able to use the telescopes to get a close up view of Saturn and Jupiter. Once the clouds crept back in and the star talk was over, pudding was served at the buffet counter and people began to disperse across the area, some eating, some huddling by the fire as the cold night air set in.
At 9pm, the buses came to pick us up and take us back to the warmth! We rounded the Friday night off with mellow drinks at the swankiest hotel on the complex, followed by a trek across the bush land to a roaring party at the backpackers bar! By the time we crawled into bed we only had 4 and a half hours until we had to get up for sunrise. It didn’t matter though because we had had an incredible evening!
After rising from the dead like zombies, we bundled into our exceptionally spacious family car, laden with packed breakfasts from the hotel and a ton of other snacks, and headed out into the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. We picked a point in the middle of the two to watch the sunrise and arrived just in time! Like the night before, the sun contended with the clouds, but regardless, it was a truly peaceful moment in such sacred land.
Once the sun was up, we headed to the base of Kata Tjuta and embarked on a leisurely 7km hike through the rock formations. Around 7am is definitely the best time of the day to go, when it’s still cool, the flies aren’t yet out in full force (the outback has a serious fly problem), and no tour buses have arrived! You will note that the signs say the 4km hike is difficult…it’s absolutely not if you have a moderate level of fitness. There is a bit of steep incline in certain areas but it’s a leisurely hike that you can easily accomplish in a couple of hours and it’s beautiful. The only downfall about going early was that the cloud cover didn’t lift until the final half an hour of the walk, but that’s when it also got much hotter so swings and roundabouts I guess!
The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent exploring other areas of the national park, with a fair amount of snacking in between. We stopped at a number of lookouts to admire the red rock, visited the cultural centre where we learnt some of the aboriginal legends involving Uluru, and then looked for the markings that they spoke of as we ventured around the entire base. Getting up close and personal with Uluru is an amazing experience as you discover how varied the surface is and how beautifully diverse it looks from different angles.
After a cultural, active and most of all LONG morning (let’s not forget our hangovers here). We decided to check out another unique aspect of the Australian outback…camels. Not everyone is aware of the vast numbers of wild camels roaming around the outback, but since they were imported in the 19th century from India, Arabia and Afghanistan for manual work in the outback, their population has boomed. The locals have finally taken advantage of the camel community, and created the annual and high-regarded (can you sense the sarcasm?) Camel Cup. Once a year, Yulara hosts a bogan-fest where the camels are bet on, and raced! This all takes place alongside ‘best-dressed’ competitions, the whip-cracking world champion and a couple of big old knee’s ups either side. In fact, the party at the backpackers on the Friday had been part of the celebrations. One way or another, the Camel Cup was a random turn of events that happened to be taking place while we were in Uluru (whatever you would like to think, we did not organise our trip around it…). For someone who has never had the joy of watching the spindly limbed creatures uncomfortably bound around an arena with overtly passionate riders egging them on, it was a very memorable experience. Sprinkles on top of a fantastic day.
The real cherry on the cake was still to come. Field of Light, an art installation of 50,000 delicate light bulbs illuminating the outback in front of Uluru is currently running until March 2017. It is the creation of British artist Bruce Munro and the product of many years of experimentation and development. Bruce was inspired by Uluru back in the eighties. He was affected by the amount of energy in the form of light and heat emitting from the red centre and its presence as the spiritual heart of Australia. Field of Light is a magical garden that symbolises the power and natural wonder of the area. We visited the installation on the Saturday evening after dark, and although we could only briefly make out the looming shadow of Uluru behind Field of Light, wandering through the artwork was a truly enchanting experience.
Each lightbulb is extremely fragile and organically positioned so that they resemble flowers in a glowing field. The pastel hues of light slowly change as if with a resting heart rate and from far away or above, the overall effect is similar to Aboriginal dot paintings. Field of Light was like no art installation I’ve ever seen. And the location and reflection of the stars causes you to be silent in contemplation as your float through. Truly beautiful and a must-see attraction in the National Park. If you are only able to stay in the red centre for one night, I would suggest spending $235 per head on the ‘Night at Field of Light’ event that combines the Sound of Silence dinner with visiting the installation. You arrive for sunset so that you see the light fade over Uluru, and then illuminate in the field below. Dinner and all the extras are included.
There’s no denying that a visit to Uluru is not going to be the cheapest option for a long weekend, but it will certainly be one of the most memorable. If you want to do a few of the experiences/tours, fly straight into the red centre and stay for a couple of nights, you are looking at a minimum of about $1,000 AUD per person (not including extra meals). Once again, I was incredibly fortunate to be invited along and would never have been able to go otherwise, but it was one of the most outstanding experiences of my entire backpacking trip and I cannot recommend it enough. Ideally, aim to go before Field of Light finishes.
Just beware of the flies!