If there is one iconic image of Australia, it has to be Uluru. This massive monolith, sitting in the heart of the continent, combines the drama of the outback with an incredible heritage, and a silhouette which is recognisable the world over. Thousands flock to the former Ayers Rock every year; but how do you get a different perspective on a landscape that is so well known? Well, the answer is simple: take an Uluru base walk.
If you look for Uluru on a map, you will find it just southwest of the centre point of Australia, in the bottom corner of the Northern Territory. Hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town of any size, the tourist industry surrounding it has created its own: the settlement of Yulara, with its own airport receiving flights from all across Australia. Everyone arriving has come for the same reason, to explore stunning Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Yulara is really one large resort, with accommodation for every budget from campsites to luxury hotels. Having said that, a cheap destination it is not; even the most basic accommodation is pricey, but for those who can afford it the destination is one of the highlights of a trip to Australia.
Uluru is actually just the uppermost part of a massive sandstone rock, extending far beneath the desert floor. Over millennia the surrounding land has worn down, leaving a massive, domed portion exposed to a height of 863m above the desert landscape. Deeply spiritually important to the local Anangu people, the Aboriginal tribe who are the historic keepers of this land, Uluru has long been a subject of controversy. To the outsider, the Rock presents an appealing challenge: the 1km climb to the summit, steep at first but made easier by a fixed rope before it levels out higher up, is comparatively easy to undertake for those of reasonable fitness – although it can be dangerous, and even lethal in the summer heat when the climb is often shut. But, to the Anangu, for anyone other than a member of their tribe to climb Uluru is, quite simply, sacrilegious and deeply offensive.
For me, visiting Uluru for the first time, the decision was ridiculously easy. Quite aside from not wanting to be disrespectful (not to mention that the climb is still HARD), standing on top of the rock wasn’t going to give me a better view from the one on the flight into Yulara the previous day. I wanted to see the rock up close, examine its folds and canyons, and learn about the culture. Which is where the base walk comes in.
There are actually a number of different walks, of various lengths, that can be taken from the visitors’ centre at the base of the rock. The base walk is the biggie, a full 10km around the full circumference of Uluru. Taking around 3.5 hours to complete, the walk is best at sunrise, before the heat hits the desert, and in the company of a local guide who can explain the significance of the various portions of the rock.
We therefore set off early, the sky lightening in the east in an arrange of spectacular colours which silhouetted the desert vegetation and gave the rock a purple tone which was only a taste of the variations to come. Uluru at sunset draws the big crowds, but Uluru at sunrise had a calm and peaceful beauty all of its own. As the sun rose, the rock turned gradually more orange, but in a range of stripes and striations that were unlike anything I was expecting. It’s easy to think of Uluru as a regular structure, a smooth dome; but it is full of rifts and valleys and rocky overhangs, striped yellow and orange and red and purple. The bright green of the desert trees and bushes stand in stark counterpoint, and waterfalls either crash or trickle down the sides of the rock depending on the time of year. Mostly they appear as a series of narrow ribbons, shaping the sides of the rock and plunging into little oases of vegetation at its base. Uluru up close is beautiful and varied, and can only be appreciated in such close proximity.
The further the walk takes you from the starting point, the more the crowds thin out and the more you have the place to yourself. We could spy the Anangu township in the distance as our guide explained the various parts of Uluru and their significance to the local people. Sections of the rock are particularly sacred, and signs request that visitors refrain from photography in these areas. It makes them even more special, and forces even the most enthusiastic photographer (myself included) to breathe in and really absorb the landscape. As well as the spiritual significance of the area, Aboriginal artwork, centuries old, decorates caves and overhangs. Despite the number of visitors to Uluru each year, we felt like the first people to discover its secrets as we explored the nooks and crannies of this incredible place. It was magical.
My walk around the base of Uluru was eye-opening, both in the history and spirituality of the site, and in the beauty and variety of the landscape. It may be 10km, but the walk is level and easy, and cool in the early hours of the day, even in the summer months when I visited. It is, for me, the very best way to get the most out of your visit to this Aussie icon.
How to get to Uluru:
The only easy way to reach Uluru is by plane. It is possible to drive from the Outback city of Alice Springs (470 km / 6 hours), but otherwise, a scheduled flight into Yulara (YUL) is the only option.
Where to stay at Uluru
All accommodation in the area is at the Ayers Rock Resort. Located 20km from Uluru itself so as not to encroach on the beauty of the area, the resort has a monopoly but offers many different standards of accommodation in a variety of hotels and campsites. In July 2018, the cheapest campsite pitch costs AU$43 per night (approx US$32).
A multitude of different tours are available in the area, to Uluru itself as well as to neighbouring Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. For options, check out the Ayers Rock Resort website or AAT Kings, among others. Or why not consider a Segway tour if you don’t fancy the walk?
Doing it yourself
Fancy putting together your own self-guided trip to the Red Centre? Crystal at Castaway with Crystal has plenty of advice on how you can create your own Uluru adventure!
However you do it, it’s well worth the effort.
Heading Down Under? Get more ideas for your trip!
- Ultimate Australia: Top things to do in every state!
- Bondi Beach coastal walk, Sydney: From Bondi to Bronte
- Uluru base walk: Up close with an Australian icon