I mean, I’ve travelled quite a lot around Australia and the world and I count the four days I spent staying outside Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park to be in my top three holidays, full stop. That’s saying a lot, I think!
So, I’ve spent hours compiling what I hope, is a helpful guide for anyone wanting to make a visit out to Australia’s Red Centre.
Settle down with a cup of tea or a big glass of wine (I may have indulged in one myself whilst writing this tome of a blog post, forgive me). It’s a long one.
Some background information on Yulara and Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
The Anangu Aboriginal People are thought to have been living off the surrounding lands of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (which means “many heads”) for some 30,000 years. The first white explorers to this region were William Giles and William Gosse. Giles called Kata Tjuta “The Olgas”, after Queen Olga of Wurttemburg. Gosse reached Uluru first and named it Ayers Rock, after his superior Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia. I ‘d heard Gosse had his eye on Ayer’s daughter and that she unfortunately ended up running off with another man, but can’t verify it for myself. Let’s pretend that it happened, because it makes the story more interesting.The government claimed ownership of the land in the 1900s and tourism in the Red Centre first kicked off in the 1950s, which led to an airstrip and campground being built quite dangerously close to the famous rock.
In the 1970s, the village and airstrip was moved outside of the National Park, as it was having a detrimental effect on the land. And so the small town of Yulara was developed. All the hotels are located here, along with facilities such as a supermarket, information centre, swimming pools and a petrol station (we call them “servos” in Australia. You’re going to learn a little bit about Aussie slang in this article. Are you excited? YOU SHOULD BE. IT IS UNIQUE AND BEAUTIFUL).In 1985, the Commonwealth Government of Australia handed the Ayers Rock (Uluru) National Park back to the Traditional Aboriginal Owners and Uluru was allowed for the first time to exist outside of parenthesis. The park is now known as the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park.
There was, however, a catch – the traditional owners were required to lease the park to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service for a period of 99 years. This is why visitors to the area are allowed to climb Uluru, despite the fact that it is frowned upon by the Indigenous owners. More on that later.
Entry to the park is $25, which can be paid for at the gate. This gives you access for three consecutive days.
When to go
Australian summers are, well… awful. To be fair, I’m someone who finds the heat quite intolerable, but I don’t rate them at all, despite popular opinion (our autumn, winter and spring are so nice! Visit then).
As such, the best time to visit Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park is in the dead of winter, when it’s quite nice during the day and absolutely freezing cold at night.
The on-season is officially May to September (I travelled there in August, 2015). Yet, going in the shoulder season probably wouldn’t be too brutal.
However, the middle of summer? Only for the very brave… or foolish!
What to pack
This list varies of course, with the seasons.
If you’re travelling to the outback in the winter months, expect the temperatures to be quite warm during the day, but then plummet at night (to temperatures below zero Celsius, believe it or not). I was quite happy with leggings or jeans and a t-shirt during the day and brought a thick jumper and coat to wear at night. I did bring shorts to wear during the day and my “active wear” tights, which I wore whilst exploring Uluru.
Mind you, I was staying at a hotel and indulging in minimal outdoor activities at night. If you’re camping, I strongly advise you to bring thermals, a fleece, a beanie, trakkie-daks (that’s Australian for tracksuit or sweatpants and they can double up as pyjamas), thick socks (hiking, bed socks and sport socks will all serve you well) and some long-sleeved shirts. You will get cold.For shoes, I was fine with my normal joggers, because I wasn’t planning on climbing Uluru (as already stated, more on that below). If you have a pair of those oh so practical adventure hiking sandals, bring them to wear during the day. I also brought thongs (flip flops), because I am Australian and I don’t really leave home without them.
In the summer, expect it to be mercilessly hot. Shorts and t-shirts will serve you well, although if you’re skin is of the delicate European rose variety, use your clothing as cover from the sun.
Make sure you bring some kind of fly net, as well as insect repellent. You’ll be absolutely fine if you visit from May to September, but those annoying little insects will be out in droves at any other time of the year.
No matter the season, be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and a broad brimmed hat. The Australian sun has a nasty bite to it, more so these days than ever before (hooray for global warming!).
And don’t forget a drink bottle, to take when walking around Uluru, or exploring Kata Tjuta!
Where to stay
Accommodation in this part of Australia is rather limited and I encourage you to book your digs the second your plan to visit the Red Centre is set in stone.
Here are the options, arranged from most to least expensive.
Sails in the Desert
This is a 5-star hotel with its own swimming pool and art gallery. It is also home to the Red Ochre Spa. Certainly the place to stay it if you want to splash out a bit and enjoy the finer things on offer at Yulara.
Emu Walk Apartments
Rather than a hotel, these are self-service apartments of one or two bedrooms, which would be ideal for families not wanting to rock it at the local camping grounds, or groups of friends who are travelling together.
Food at Yulara is notoriously expensive, so you would probably save quite a few dollars in preparing your own meals. Not many, but enough.Desert Gardens Hotel
This was the hotel I eventually ended up picking – it seemed just as nice as Sails and had lovely looking gardens. I opted for rooms that looked out onto the desert – yet, they gave us a room with a beautiful view of Uluru, regardless. A small bottle of champagne was left for my mother and I to enjoy (we were there for a milestone birthday of hers) and the hotel had everything we needed. I had thought at the time that breakfast had not been included in my booking and when we checked in, nothing was said of the meal, so I assumed I was right. I later discovered that I had actually paid in advance for breakfast (there’s a lesson here – always check your own booking when checking in!). Distraught at the amount of money I had lost, I emailed the hotel, explaining our predicament and they refunded me the money. Such generosity is almost unheard of in the world these days. They’ve guaranteed my loyalty for life, now!
Outback Pioneer Hotel
Yulara’s only “budget” hotel, the Outback Pioneer offers affordable lodgings, that come with their own private bathroom. I imagine it is much like staying in the private rooms of a really nice hostel. Mind you, the rooms have air con, heating and their own tea/coffee making facilities, so it’s definitely not all bad.
Ayers Rock Camping Grounds
The camping grounds feature three options – air-conditioned cabins, powered sites for caravans, campervans, motor homes and camper trailers, or non-powered sites for traditional campers that arrive armed with tent only.
When I am a “grey nomad”, travelling all over Oz armed with my trusty caravan, you can bet your bottom dollar I will be staying here.
Outback Pioneer Lodge
This is Yulara’s actual hostel, where you can choose between the twenty bed female and male dormitories or the four bed mixed sex dormitories (I usually choose this option when staying in hostels, because I grew up with two brothers and would rather eat my akubra than live in the same room as nineteen other girls). The dorms have air-conditioning and heating, with shared bathroom facilities.
This is the perfect option for young or budget travellers wanting to experience Uluru-Kata Tjuta, but not wishing to bankrupt themselves at the same time.Longitude 131°
I’m throwing this into the mix for a lark, as chances are that it is not for the likes of either me or you (of course, I am blissfully unaware of your financial situation, but if it is anything like mine, then no). These luxury tents look like fun and games, but it comes at a price – of $2,700 for two nights. On the upside, you get your own exclusive tours, which are included in the cost, so that’s something – I guess!
I stayed in something similar at Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, for a fraction of the price. Read more about it here.
What to do
For a little settlement out in the middle of the Australian outback, there’s more than enough going on, that will keep you busy for whatever amount of time you spend there.
I can’t speak for all the activities available, but here are the ones that I did. We certainly jammed a lot into the four days that we were there!Camel Tours
There are many options for alternative methods of exploring the surrounding Australian outback – ATV tours, bike rides, even cruising along on a Harley Davidson.
For me, it had to be a camel ride.
Camels were introduced to Australia during the 19th century. They were ideal for transportation whilst building railroads, but were eventually released into the wild, where they ran rampant. There are now hundreds of thousands of camels living in the outback and they are a destructive force.
This is led to the introduction of camel ranches, where camelboys and girls (cowboys seems wrong) hunt them, break them in and allow travellers to the outback traverse the desert by camel back.So that’s what we did, riding for an hour on the back of these gorgeous, but slightly ridiculous creatures. I have a soft spot for camels.
Outback Sky Journeys Astro Tour
I didn’t expect this tour to be as good as it was, which is silly, because I could honestly spend hours staring at the night’s sky (and have in the past).
The Central Australian sky at night, particularly in the wintertime is… something else and astronomer’s flock to the region for that reason.The tour consists of an astronomer in residence telling stories about the night’s sky then allowing you to look through their beautiful telescopes to see exactly what it is they’re talking about. A highlight was seeing Saturn sitting happy – rings and all. It reminded me a bit of those glow in the dark planets that were all the range when I was a child, which kids used to beg their parents to buy so they could stick them on their bedroom ceilings. It looked a little like that.
I’m going to be an astronomer in my next life, for sure.Tali Wiru
Tali Wiru was hands down my favourite part of my time spent in Yulara. Briefly, it’s a wonderful dinner, had in full view of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. I wrote about it in full detail, if you want more information on the subject.
This was the only activity we booked that I didn’t think was worth the money.We were taken to the same site as for Tali Wiru, but the food was lacklustre – it did not possess the same enthusiasm that the dinner had had. I don’t think we even ate any home made damper (an Australian bread), which was a disappointment, for sure!
After breakfast, we were taken to Uluru, where we were told a little bit more about some of the Indigenous stories. That bit was interesting, at least.
Overall, I don’t think the tour was worth the price, particularly when pitted against everything else we did and saw, which was exceptional.Scenic Flights 40 Minute Helicopter Tour at Sunset
I’d never been in a helicopter before and to be honest, it’s not something I’m all that keen to repeat (those of you here with a terrifying fear of heights raise your hands… you can bet your bottom dollar that my hand is raised!).
My Mum, sweetheart that she is, encouraged me to sit in the front with the pilot. Unfortunately, the floor was made out of glass, which did next to nothing to calm my nerves.I distracted myself by taking photo after photo. Eventually, I put the camera down and enjoyed the sight. It didn’t end up being too traumatic, as I felt it was a “best of both worlds” scenario. I did end up trying the age-old thing of living in the moment and I got some pleasing photographs out of the experience.
Visit Uluru or Kata Tjuta
Of course, you’re going to want to visit Uluru or Kata Tjuta! I mean, that’s why you’re there… right?
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get out to the Olgas, what with our jam-packed schedule that you just read through, above.We did however, make it out to Uluru and spent three hours on my Mumma’s birthday walking around the rock. It was a ripper of a day and a wonderful experience.
Be warned – most hotels in Yulara are located 20kms away from the park entrance (and the campsite 15kms). Unless you have your own vehicle, you’re at the mercy of the shuttle bus, which I think was sixty dollar for a round trip, which we’ll all agree is an upsetting price. Yet, what can you do? Make it a day trip, that’s what and ensure you get your money’s worth by walking around Uluru!
Until March 2018, you also have the chance to see the Field of Light, a temporary installation that is spread out in front of Uluru. You can ride camels past them, dine in their presence or simply book to go check them out.
To climb, or not to climb Uluru
Here’s the million-dollar question. Should you, or should you not climb Uluru?
Some travellers to the outback argue the fact that as Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park is such a trek to get to (and incredibly expensive, to boot) that they feel that they won’t get their money’s worth, unless they climb the rock.
Maybe it’s part of a hiking mentality – some feel they need to “conquer” the rock in a way. I’m not a hiker and avoid any activities that involve walking up sharp inclines, but my refusal to climb the rock runs a bit deeper than just that.A few things to consider.
First up – you can’t climb the whole rock. There’s a small section that visitors are allowed access to – you walk up beside a chain, stand on the top for a bit and enjoy the view of essentially nothing, apart from the Olgas in the distance. Uluru is at its best when you’re looking at it, not from it.
You’ll then march down to the bottom, brush the red sand off your trousers and call it a day.
Walking around Uluru, on the other hand, takes around three hours, depending on your speed and level of fitness. You get to see the rock from all angles, read some of the traditional Indigenous stories surrounding certain features of the monolith. It’s a bit of a trek and you certainly will feel like you’ve achieved something upon its completion. I can tell you this from experience – I walked all 12,300 steps around Uluru, 18 months ago.Not to mention that climbing Uluru is incredibly dangerous. Trust me, you’ll look at the path and a voice in your head will scream “DANGER, DANGER”. A guide we had during one of our tours there told us that a German man had recently climbed it, got to the bottom, had a heart attack and died. Another tourist had ventured off the path, fallen, broken multiple bones and had to be airlifted to safety. He hadn’t had health insurance either, apparently and was hit with a pretty hefty bill.
Uluru is considered a sacred site, but the Indigenous people (the Anangu people) who still call the area home (and have for tens of thousands of years). When they were handed back rights to the land 30 years ago, it was done on the proviso that visitors to the area were still within their right to climb the rock for the next 99 years. However, it is considered a sign of disrespect to defy their wishes and believe me when I say that the Indigenous people of Australia have faced more than enough of that since Europeans first stepped foot on the country 230-odd years ago. Talk about your white guilt and I’m not even white.So, that’s my two cents on the subject. Make your own decision… but I do hope it is the right one. There are plenty of ways you canmake the most of your time at Uluru, without offending anyone in the process.
After walking or riding a bike around Uluru (because, you can do that too!) I highly advise visiting the nearby Cultural Centre, where you can learn about the traditional landowners, the Anangu people. It is wonderful. Also, get an ice cream – I recommend Maxibons or Golden Gaytimes (yes that is what they’re called and I think it’s fabulous that they’ve never changed their name, unlike the amazing lollies of my childhood which were once called Fags but are now called Fads. Sigh. Damn you political correctness).So, there you have it. That is absolutely everything I know about visiting the Red Centre of Australia. I hope I have convinced you to place this destination firmly on your bucket list… Uluru and Kata Tjuta are truly both phenomenal sights that are worth a visit. If you’re Australian yourself, you really have no excuse – I can’t believe it took me as long as it did to get out there, but it was worth the wait.
Have you been to the Red Centre of Australia? If not, pin this post for later reference! (Please… manners)
All prices are in Australian dollars.