Australiaís spiritual heart and as big an icon as the Sydney Opera House or kangaroos, Uluru (Ayers Rock) is far more that just a big rock in the middle of the Outback. Owned by the local Anangu people, Ayers Rock, officially known now by its Aboriginal name Uluru, is a World Heritage area and the most sacred place in Australia to the Aboriginal people. Itís a Northern Territory travel destination full of spectacular Outback landscapes and intriguing Aboriginal dreamtime stories.
Itís worth taking a guided Aboriginal tour around the 9km base walk to get an understanding of the many sacred sites that surround Uluru, while an essential Australian travel experience is finding a good spot to perch and watch the Rock change through its many different colours at sunrise and sunset.
The only nearby accommodation is at the Ayers Rock Resort (Yulara), which has everything from camping to mid-range and luxury hotels. Expect to pay way above average whichever level of accommodation you go for.
You can book a multitude of different tours, whether on motorbike, bus, foot or camel, plus arrange scenic flights and helicopter rides.
Many people on vacation will hire a car or join a tour from Alice Springs, about a four-hour drive away. One of the best options it to do a three-day tour from Alice Springs, which also travels to the Olgas and Kings Canyon.
The ideal time to visit the Red Centre is in autumn or spring. In winter the days are quite short and the nights very cold. In summer expect long, extremely hot days.
Many holiday-makers travel to Uluru wanting to climb to the top of it. Despite regularly being closed due to high winds, doing the walk is perfectly legal, at least for the time being. It is, however, massively disrespectful to the Anangu Aboriginal people. The Anangu place much spiritual importance in the climbing route and mourn terribly every time somebody is injured or killed attempting it. To climb Uluru is as culturally disrespectful as jumping up and down on an altar in a cathedral. Put simply, if you have any respect for Aboriginal culture you wonít climb Uluru (Ayers Rock). If youíre desperate for a good hike and Outback views there are much better alternatives in Kings Canyon or the MacDonnell Ranges.
Also known by their Aboriginal name Kata Tjuta, or ďmany headsĒ, the Olgas are a collection of 36 domes which rise dramatically from the surrounding Outback about 50km from Uluru. The Olgas are also highly sacred to Aboriginal people, meaning that much of the area is out of bounds to tourists. One of the permitted walks, however, through the 7km Valley of the Winds, is a real highlight of any holiday to the Red Centre. Itís generally included in multi-days tours from Alice Springs. If travelling independently, go there in the morning to avoid the tour buses.
The two-hour Rim Walk along the top of Kings Canyon, in Watarrka National Park, is another highlight of a Red Centre vacation. The initial climb is pretty strenuous so try to avoid doing it in the midday heat. At the top youíll be met by great Outback views and the bizarre sandstone domes of the Lost City. Itís worth going off track and clambering down to the palm-fringed pool at the Garden of Eden. Thereís camping and hotel rooms at the nearby Kings Canyon Resort.
Alice Springs is the largest town in central Australia, but, with a population of about 30,000, is far from big. Many tourists arenít that impressed by Alice Springs, but it definitely has a dusty charm and thereís a surprising amount of things to do. The Telegraph Station, Royal Flying Doctor Service and Alice Springs Desert Park are all interesting diversions, especially the Alice Springs Reptile Park, one of the best mini-zoos in Australia for holding all sorts of lizards and snakes. Top of the list should be a hot air balloon ride over the desert at dawn. Itís also got a lively Outback nightlife and is one of the best places in Australia to buy genuine Aboriginal art. Thereís plenty of hotels, budget backpacker hostels and restaurants, nearly all clustered around Todd Mall. Practically all the hotels on offer will be far cheaper than the Ayers Rock Resort. Itís worth trying to time your holiday to coincide with one of Alice Springsí numerous and bizarre sporting events. These include the Camel Cup (camel racing) in July and the Henley-on-Todd Regatta in August, in which teams carry rowing boats in races through the waterless Todd River.
The MacDonnell Ranges
These rocky ranges, stretching east and west from Alice Springs, offer more spectacular desert landscapes away from the Uluru crowds. You can easily travel around the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges in a hire car to explore the quality walking trails. The Western MacDonnells boast spectacular gorges and tracks into the Simpson Desert for the really adventurous.
Getting to Uluru (Ayers Rock)
You can get a flight to either Alice Springs Airport or Ayers Rock Airport. If youíve got a short vacation and canít spare too much time on travel to Uluru, Ayers Rock Airport is your best bet. Itís just 6km from Ayers Rock Resort. You can get flights there from Sydney, Perth, Cairns and Alice Springs. Flights to Alice Springs, however, tend to be cheaper, more regular and fly from more Australian cities. You can also take The Ghan train to Alice Springs from either Adelaide, in South Australia, or Darwin, further up in the Northern Territory.