It seems too perfect to be true that the world’s largest rock stands in solitary isolation at the geographic heart of Australia. As we drove towards Uluru and the rock rose in front of us, my companion said, “I’ve never been here before but it all seems so familiar”.
However, the dominance of this singular landmark is such that it distracts from the rest of the Red Centre. In the unimaginable circumstance that it wasn’t here people would still flock to the other attractions at the very heart of Australia.
“It’s a bloody long way to go to spend five minutes looking at a rock,” a friend once told me as I prepared to set off for the Red Centre yet again.
I explained that viewing Uluru was a 24/7 activity. At dawn it shifts instantly from a leaden presence in the gloom to a vibrant glowing entity dominating the desert. During the day, the play of light and primary colours of red sand, orange rock and deep blue sky are endlessly fascinating. Then there’s the moment at sunset when the rock itself appears ethereally lit from within. And, at night, the stars in the clear desert air illuminating the distant rock make us feel part of the dreaming.
Until March 2018 nature is being enhanced by art. Bruce Munro’s installation “The Field of Light” consists of more than 50,000 solar-powered lights that come to life as the sun sets and lights the dark before dawn illuminates the landscape. In local Pitjantjatjara it’s called “Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku” that aptly means “looking at lots of beautiful lights”.
AAT Kings is the principal tour operator in and around Uluru offering everything from simple transfers to Yulara Resort to a 19-day tour from Adelaide to Darwin. The range of tours offered around Uluru is impressively extensive.
Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) rise up majestically out of the desert and their canyons offer hours of exploration
There are several other remarkable features in the area, too. To the west of Uluru is Kata Tjuṯa, which some of us grew up knowing as the Olgas. These are a series of giant domes with canyons between them, like the Valley of the Winds and Walpa Gorge, that await exploration.
Surprisingly, this rock formation is geologically quite different: Uluru is a sandstone monolith and Kata Tjuṯa is a series of conglomerate domes. Both have a rich Aboriginal heritage going back at least 22,000 years.
Between Uluru and Alice Springs, the bustling town at the centre of Australia, stands Kings Canyon within Watarrka National Park. This is a palm-filled valley lined by sandstone walls 100 metres high. It’s a perfect walking destination – particularly the renowned 6km Rim Walk that looks into areas evocatively known as the “Garden of Eden” and the “Lost City”.
Besides the deadline of getting to Uluru while the Field of Light is on, AAT Kings is currently offering free flights on some of its tours at present, including its Outback Adventure from Adelaide to Darwin. The starting price for the 15-day journey is $5750. It’s certainly a comprehensive journey through the heart of Australia, taking in Wilpena Pound, Coober Pedy, Uluru, Kata Tjuṯa, Kings Canyon, Alice Springs, Katherine, Kakadu, Litchfield and Darwin.
The tour operates every few weeks from now to October, then starts again in April 2018. However, several departures are already booked out.
Kings Canyon's sandstone walls are awe-inspiring, and the Rim Walk allows you to fully appreciate their immense size
Whether you’re considering just a few days at Uluru or a whole trans-continental journey, AAT Kings has a tour to suit. One exclusive experience that AAT Kings offers at Uluru is the chance to be at the Field of Light before sunrise and see the shift of light as the illuminated installation dominates then is quickly equalled as the light in the sky competes with then overwhelms the lights on the ground.
AAT Kings also offers the chance for an exclusive barbecue dinner in the desert where the food, wine and beer is matched by the chance to do some star gazing into some of the clearest skies in the world.
The cool of the morning is the best time to explore the base of the rock on a 10.5km walk. There are many nooks and crannies to investigate here, some with waterholes and some with ancient rock art. It’s best done with a guide who can interpret what you’re seeing. Alternatively, you can be driven around the rock on a tour with a walk into Mutitjulu waterhole.
The Mutitjulu waterhole is the perfect oasis to visit on a long day of walking around the Uluru perimeter
There’s another way that an Uluru holiday varies from the average: it will be even more special if it rains. Out in the desert, rain is a rare event and few have been lucky enough to see the rock turn slate-grey as waterfalls plunge into the gorges around its base.
A visit to the Red Centre really is an exploration of Australia’s beating heart and a journey through our rich cultural heritage. While a few days of touring will give you some understanding of how this part of the country is central to who we are, it will probably also leave you wishing for more.
Fortunately, there’s a lot more to explore on a return visit including the West MacDonnell Ranges with Glen Helen Gorge, Simpsons Gap, the Ochre Pits, Ellery Creek and Angkerie (Standley Chasm). Of course the Alice itself has the Old Telegraph Station and the Devils Marbles to the north and Rainbow Valley and Chambers Pillar to the south.
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