YYou’ve seen it on tea towels, TV ads, and tacky souvenirs. But it’s a good bet you haven’t seen it up close and personal in all its red earth glory. Uluru is almost a victim of its cult status. We Australians know it so well that many of us don’t even know it.
As international travelers circle the globe to marvel at the red center icon, Australians tend to be indifferent to what’s in their own backyard. Maybe we assume it’s going nowhere, and it’ll still be standing when we finally come to visit. Or maybe it’s the cost of traveling to the heart of the country that keeps it on the back burner. After all, it may seem cheaper to travel to Fiji.
But we shouldn’t keep it on our to-do list. Uluru is the geographic and spiritual heart of our country. What’s more, it’s incredibly impressive. Nothing can prepare you for your first encounter.
A visit can be expensive, but it’s worth it. While there’s no such thing as a truly cheap option, there are plenty of cheaper options and ways you can save if you plan ahead.
Uluru is very remote, and the gateway is Yulara, the town established in the 1970’s to support tourism to the Rock. It has developed into a village that offers both tourist accommodation and accommodation for the staff who look after it.
If you fly, request a window seat for a great aerial view of Uluru. Jetstar return flights are as low as $270 from Melbourne and around $350 from Sydney, but can go up to $800+ in the high season of August and September. Cheaper options can regularly be found as long as you are flexible on the days you fly.
If you drive to Uluru, be prepared for a road trip with very few stops. It is a four and a half hour drive from Alice Springs.
While getting to Uluru can be expensive, entering Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is only $38 for three days. Admission is free for under 18s. Rising majestically from a seemingly barren landscape, the two sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta are just 40 minutes’ drive from each other.
Uluru is easier to map out and more accessible due to its proximity to Yulara and the abundance of tours and options for navigation.
At Uluru, not only is it necessary to get up before sunrise (temperatures get too hot for long walks in the middle of the day), it’s breathtaking.
Regardless of the time, be sure to also bring a fly net for your hat—when the sun comes up, flies can become unbearable (nets cost $10 in Yulara). I would also recommend buying fly repellent cream to dab on the backs of your ears.
Outside of the heat of the day, even a moderately fit person can do the flat 10km walk around its base. You can’t get lost because you’re basically walking in circles, although a guide (Seit tours run multiple tours, their sunset tour starts at $73, up to a trekking tour for $177) can enhance the experience.
If you decide to do it yourself for free, and Walk around at your own pace, panels set up by the National Park provide insight into the cultural significance of various caves and waterholes. They also tell some of the stories dear to the traditional owners of the local Anangu, such as at the Kapi Mutitjulu waterhole, where legend has it that the spirit of Minyma Kuniya bonded with her nephews to form Wanampi, a water snake.
Those who don’t feel like walking can bike ($60 for three hours at Outback Cycling), ride a Segway (from $149), or climb a Harley Davidson (from $139).
A visit to the rock may not be enough, and you may dash back in time for sunset when temperatures return to bearable. When you do this, you will join a contingent of tourists with their cars and RVs, all with cameras, patiently watching the colors of Uluru transform in the fading light.
“A lot of people don’t realize that because of Anangu beliefs, many parts of Uluru are sensitive places and so much of that isn’t reflected in the photos most people saw before they came here,” notes Steve Baldwin, a park ranger .
Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas) is often the Cinderella sister. Many visitors make it to Uluru without going down the road to see the equally distinctive domed rock formations. And that’s a mistake.
As with Uluru, the best time to visit Kata Tjuta is at sunrise or sunset, away from the heat peak. Given that, it would be difficult for you to do comprehensive hikes around both sites in the same day, but you could spend a few hours in Kata Tjuta in the morning and see Uluru at sunset.
As you approach, the site appears to be made up of impossibly large, rounded boulders, leaning against one another and impregnable. But for the intrepid adventurer – and you must commit yourself to this sometimes difficult three-hour self-navigated free walk – there’s the magical Valley of the Winds that unfolds before you once you’ve scaled the rugged and steep climbs. By the way, it is not called the Valley of the Wind for nothing. Be prepared to literally be blown away. It’s getting pretty chilly.
Most tourists are content with a view of Walpa Gorge, which is very special: two huge opposing walls of sheer cliffs offering a little slice of sky above.
Getting around – do I need a car?
Uluru is not walkable so it is your car or a tour bus.
If you are traveling alone, the Uluru hop-on hop-off service offers round-trip tickets to Uluru for $49 and to Kata Tjuta for $80. These bus trips operate during sunrise and sunset time slots.
For more flexibility, you can rent a car at Yulara Airport. With your own bikes (must be booked in advance) you can ride around the national park as you please.
While deals can be made, the cheapest options from most car rental companies cost around $320 per day. (Like the rest of the country, rental car companies have been plagued by a lack of supply during the pandemic, and rental prices in Uluru are also above average.)
What else is there to do?
One attraction that won’t cost you a dime is the brand new Gallery of Central Australia (Goca) in Yulara. It is a platform for local indigenous artists, admission is free and there are tours daily from 10:30am. Goca is truly impressive – the vibrant use of color in the works on the walls make this a worthwhile place to visit. The gallery features work by emerging and independent artists from across Central Australia, with paintings and some sculptures available for purchase.
There are a range of free experiences at the resort, ranging from didgeridoo workshops to dot painting classes. The Bush Food Experience, a guided walk around the resort featuring local ingredients – such as sweet bush plums used in food and medicine. Tour guides provide an overview of when and how fruit is picked, as well as the cultural and nutritional importance of the plants.
Or maybe you just want to spend your free time beating the heat in one of the several swimming pools throughout the complex – which are free for resort guests.
Finally look up. Away from the light pollution of a city, looking up at the night sky feels like watching a movie as layers of stars and patterns emerge. There are several stargazing tours, but the key really is to just drive a little way out of Yulara, turn off all car and phone lights, and look up. It’s also free.
Where to sleep
The Ayers Rock Resort complex in Yulara is the (only) accommodation. Hotel options have a two-night minimum, starting with the luxurious Sails in the Desert (from $475/night) and Desert Gardens (from $400/night), which offer views of Uluru from rooms.
The cheapest option is the 3.5-star cabin-style Outback Pioneer Hotel (from $300/night). The Emu Walk Apartments (from $420 per night for a one-bedroom apartment, sleeps four) cater for families and groups who want in-room cooking facilities.
For travelers in RVs and those looking to save on camping, there’s a campground at the resort with communal cooking and bathing facilities, starting at $43 per night.
where should we eat
Once you’ve booked accommodation, it’s worth thinking about some of your meals. For the serious and cashed foodie, there’s the Tali Wiru experience, a $380 per head “gastronomic adventure” served in a private dune under the stars.
There are many far cheaper restaurants around Yulara town square. The Kulata Academy Cafe trains resort staff and sells cakes and sandwiches ($10.50, served with a side salad). There are several other takeaway and cafe options on the plaza, and an IGA supermarket for supplies (they have BBQ chicken to go for $11). The pub at Outback Pioneer Kitchen near the campground offers pub grub with $18 burgers and $25 pizzas.