Thursday, January 3 – Monday, January 7, 2019
Uluru Adventures – My travel diary from a long weekend family vacation to the Red Centre of Australia – Alice Springs and Uluru.
Uluru is one of those iconic Australian destinations – the Red Centre, the heartland of Australia, and a place that almost everyone is at least aware of. I feel that it’s a rite of passage for Australian’s to visit, and as such, it’s a place that has been on my bucket list, well, forever!. For the last few years, I’ve also been hearing about the Field of Light installation, and while it’s due to stay for a while, I really wanted to have the opportunity to see it, so at the tail end of my seven months of travel, I planned a long weekend trip to Uluru with my nephew Jack, niece Abi, and my parents.
Thursday, January 3
We left Adelaide on a warm and sunny morning, landing in a sweltering Alice Springs after our quick 2 hour flight. The temperature was hovering around 45°C, and just walking from the terminal to our rental car left us all dripping with sweat. Without delay, we cranked up the AC and loaded up the car. We made a quick detour to the Woolies in central Alice for snacks and supplies, and then hit the road to Uluru.
The drive from Alice to Uluru is around 440k’s/5 hours. It’s a long trip across a relatively flat, red desert landscape with lots of hardy shrubbery, a few undulations and even fewer signs of life! We kept amused with stops at the different roadhouses, refreshing ourselves with cool drinks and ice creams along the way.
Around 100k’s out from Yulara (the resort town outside Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park), we made a stop at the Artilla/Mt Conner lookout. By the time we stopped there, the temperature gauge in the car was reading at around 49°C, and stepping out of the car to take some photos of Artilla/Mt Conner in the distance, you could feel every degree of the heat radiating from the earth. This distinctive, flat topped monolith rises 300m above ground, breaking up the otherwise flat desert landscape surrounding it. We danced about on the searingly hot pavement, taking a few photos, before we jumped back in the car to prevent us from melting!!
Leaving the lookout, we were really on the home stretch to our destination. We put down the technology and played a few rounds of travel trivia from an eBook I have called 501 Questions – A Travel Game. The trivia was fun, and the If You Could, and Would You Rather questions were great conversation starters, and illuminating at the same time.
And so, while we were all discussing which type of food we would live off if we only had one choice, and what chore we could be free of forever, the miles ticked away, and before we knew it, a tiny speck on the horizon began growing before our eyes – we were approaching Uluru!.
We arrived into Yulara late afternoon, and with sunset soon to be upon us, we quickly checked into the Emu Walk apartments, and then got straight back into the car, and headed out to the Uluru Sunset Viewpoint to enjoy the much renowned spectacle of the sun setting over Uluru. The experience didn’t disappoint – the suns rays completely changed the colour of the rock, lending it a vibrant rusty hue, before the sun finally dipped below the horizon, and shadows began to highlight textures in the rock that hadn’t been evident before.
It had been a long day of travel, so we left the sunset viewpoint behind, and made our way back to Yulara and the Gecko’s Cafe to grab some dinner before heading back to our apartment for an early night.
Friday, January 4
Jack, Abi and I had a 5:00am pickup for our trek around Uluru with SEIT Outback Australia. Our guide Rick drove the group of around 12 straight out to Uluru, and we set off on our trek around the base of this amazing monolith.
Uluru is one of the best known landmarks in Australia – and was declared a World Heritage site in 1987. It stands 348m above ground, higher than The Eiffel Tower, but one of the most startling facts we learned is that there’s some 2.5kms of it underground as well! Uluru is about 3.6kms long and 1.9kms wide, and circumnavigating it involved covering a distance of around 10kms – which we did in the searing heat of a midsummer morning.
We started out walking as the sun was still rising, and Uluru was primarily in shadow, but it was awesome to see the rock light up as the sun rose above the horizon. As with the sunset, we got to see the colours and textures of the rock transform, this time at much closer proximity. The trail is at times some distance away from the rock, in respect of some of the sacred areas of the local Anangu people, and yet, at other times, we were literally walking right alongside, able to reach out, and brush our fingers on the oxidised surface of the rock.
Along the way, we stopped for breakfast, then visited the Mutitjulu Waterhole. At the waterhole, the waters were so calm that they were reflecting the walls of rock rising behind them. Nearby, we also visited the Mutitjulu Cave, where Anangu ancestors made paints from natural minerals and ash and painted directly onto the rock in this cave. Rick explained the meaning of some of the ancient rock art, and
From here, the trail closely hugged the towering walls of Uluru, leaving us feeling miniscule in comparison. As we walked, Rick pointed out different features of the rock, as well as plants that generations of Anangu people have used as food.
We were really disappointed to see that there were still people climbing Uluru. We all know well that Uluru is sacred to the traditional owners of the land, and that they have asked visitors to respect their beliefs and NOT climb, to see it as a place to connect with, rather than to conquer. We couldn’t have been happier to learn that climbing the rock will be banned in October 2019, not a moment too soon.
We had a couple more short stops on our way back to the bus. We saw some more rock art, and learned how one of the caves here was used by Anangu elders to teach boys how to travel in this country and survive. By now, we were all feeling the heat, so we were thankful that this part of the trail was shaded by the rock, and the bus was in sight! We made it – 10k’s around Uluru!
Back at the apartment, the kids recounted their experiences to Granny & Poppo, and scarfed down some mid morning snacks before we headed back out to the Arts Centre for a Bush Tucker talk. The place was full to bursting, but we still got to touch and feel the different bush tucker ingredients and see a demo on how to cook Wattle Seed shortbread, including a tasting at the end!!
The heat was fairly oppressive once again, so we spent the afternoon at the resort, heading out in short bursts for a wander around the stores in the Town Square, and then the kids and I headed to the pool to cool off for a while.
Around an hour before sunset, we headed down to the Desert Gardens hotel to set off on our Field of Light Star Pass experience. We boarded a bus that transferred us out to a dune top viewing point. They served drinks and canapes as we waited for the sun to set over Uluru. It was not quite blisteringly hot, but not far from it, and the drinks didn’t remain cool for long, but despite that, it was still a pleasant experience.
Once the sun set, and darkness began to veil the area, the hand blown spheres that made up the Field of Light began to light up before us. Created by Bruce Munro, this iteration of the Field of Light is his representation of the convergence of land and culture, inspired by a visit to Uluru in the early 1990’s. The installation is made up of 50,000 hand blown glass stems, covering an area of 49000 sq. m. (seven footy fields) including 380km of optical fibre, and it’s the first solar installation by the artist.
While I really appreciate the work that went into this installation, I’m sad to say that I didn’t experience the connection to it that I really expected to. I felt that my experience at the site didn’t really translate the meaning and inspiration of the piece to me. Perhaps it would have translated better had I seen it from above? Or maybe I just I’m just a pleb that really doesn’t get it. Art means different things to everyone, and I’m more disappointed than anything that I didn’t feel the connection, but I would encourage anyone to go out and experience it for themselves.
Saturday, January 5
I started out the day by renewing my newfound bravery in air travel and heading off on a helicopter tour of Uluru and Kata Tjuta with my Dad & Jack. Our pilot from Ayers Rock Helicopters picked us up from the resort, and transferred us out to the airport. We sat in the van in air conditioned comfort while she prepared the helicopter for our 35 minute scenic flight over Uluru & Kata Tjuta.
I was seated in the front of the Robo 44 – slightly different to the brand spanking new EC130 I’d flown in while in Queenstown! I reined in my momentary panic, and sat back to enjoy the flight. I’m not going to lie, there were a few moments when my heart rate soared, but only because I’m a nervous nellie, we were totally safe the whole way, and I had the best 270° views from the front seat!
We took off from the airport, and headed out towards Uluru for a totally different perspective on the landscape. From up top, we could see where we had been the night prior at the Field of Light, as well as spotting a couple of other area landmarks in the distance. In the distance, Uluru was enveloped in heat haze, but the views cleared up as we approached it. We flew alongside Uluru a little, before turning around and heading over towards Kata Tjuta.
Seeing the formations of Kata Tjuta from the air gave us a great sense of the scale of the formations, as they are really spread out. We flew right around to the back of Kata Tjuta and upon turning around, enjoyed the spectacle of seeing both Kata Tjuta and Uluru spread out before us.
From Kata Tjuta, we then head back across the mostly barren desert lands towards the airport, where we landed before being transferred back to the resort.
After some lunch and time to refresh in the cool apartment, Jack, Abi and I headed out to the town square to the Dot Painting workshop. We sat down with the workshop leader and the Indigenous artist, where they displayed and discussed local cultural apparatus and demonstrated many of the graphic symbols used in dot painting. Traditionally, dot paintings are created to represent the telling of events that have occurred, as well as for ceremonial or educational purposes.
We had the opportunity to create our own dot painting that represented a story in our lives. I think I can safely say that we all had a great time pretending we might be artists. Once we were all done, we shared our art and stories with the group, followed by the Indigenous artist showing us a gorgeous piece that she’d just whipped up whilst we took part in the workshop.
Visiting Kata Tjuta was next up on the afternoon itinerary, but as we wanted to time our visit with sunset, the kids and I had a moment to head down to Desert Gardens for a splash in the pool. Late afternoon, we hopped back in the car, and drove out to Kata Tjuta to do the Walpa Gorge walk and enjoy the sunset.
There are 36 domes in the Kata Tjuta formation (Kata Tjuta meaning ‘many heads’), covering 35 sq km, so on foot, we could only see a tiny portion of it. The highest dome of the formation is 546m – taller than Uluru. From a distance, it’s impossible to get a gauge on the scale, but once we started the walk into the gorge, we immediately felt a sense of wonder at the dizzyingly high walls of the gorge. The afternoon sun was lighting the walls of rock on fire as we made our way along the trail, accompanied by millions of flies.
We wandered the undulating trail deep into the gorge, to the final viewing platform, before heading back out to the car, all the while, enjoying natures spectacle as the sun set. On the way out of the park, we made one last stop at the Kata Tjuta Dune viewpoint. A short 10 minute walk led us to the dune top viewing platform that we had all to ourselves. We sat and enjoyed the view of Kata Tjuta as the last rays of light fell below the horizon, before heading back down to the car in the semi dark of twilight.
Back at the resort, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner on our last night in Yulara. We headed to the Desert Gardens hotel for dinner, and just got seated and served before the kitchen closed for the night.
Sunday, January 6
We had a leisurely morning before loading the car to travel back to Alice Springs. We took our time with the 450km drive – again, stopping at roadhouses along the way, and playing a bit more travel trivia to break up the journey.
After checking into our hotel in Alice Springs, we proposed a trip to Standley Chasm and Simpsons Gap. The kids nixed this, quoting – seen enough rocks, and too much walking as their reasons. In the end, Dad and I headed out there, leaving the kids behind with Mum, with plans to hit up the hotel pool!
The drive out to Angkerle Atwatye/Standley Chasm in the West MacDonnell Ranges took around 45mins. The 10 minute walk to the chasm ran adjacent to a dry creek bed before finally landing us right at the opening of the chasm. This location is well know for the spectacle of the midday sun lighting up the walls as the sun aligns with the north south orientation of the chasm. We were there late afternoon, so didn’t get to enjoy that spectacle, but in a way, I’m thankful. As we were there so late in the day, we got to enjoy the cool quartzite walls almost to ourselves. This rock is usually blue-grey in colour, but similar to Uluru, oxidation gives the rock its distinctive red colour.
There are a multitude of other sights along the road that leads out into the West MacDonnell Ranges, but we didn’t have time for those. Instead, we stopped at Rrengetyirpe/Simpson’s Gap on our way back towards town. The walk here was similar to Standley Chasm, with the trail meandering along a much wider and sparser dry river bed, complete with lots of gum trees, like a scene right out of a Hans Heysen painting.
The walls of the gorge eventually narrow, and we walked right down to the waterhole, where the river has forced its way through the gap. It was a nice spot to relax in the shade for a moment, and just take in the serenity of the place. We stopped and scanned the cliff faces for black footed rock wallabies, but weren’t lucky enough to see any of them. Maybe it was the wrong time of the day, too hot, or we just weren’t looking hard enough?
I’ll just have to return to see the wallabies, and explore more of the MacDonnell Ranges!
Monday, January 7
The last day of our mini vacay to the Red Centre. We had an 11:00am flight, so had a little bit of time to check out the Anzac Hill lookout before heading to the airport.
The NT tourism site says Anzac Hill is the most visited site in Alice. There weren’t many visitors there when we went, but it was stinking hot (still!). The lookout offers a panoramic view of Alice Springs and the beautiful surrounding ranges, and we looked across town to the ‘Gap’ in the ranges opposite that would lead us out to the airport.
I managed to score the window seat on the way back to Adelaide, and really enjoyed flying over the Red Centre of Australia, watching the progression from red dirt to sparse farmland, before finally transitioning to suburban development as we neared Adelaide.
Our flight path took us right by the city on a wonderful sunny day – and I LOVE this little video clip as we swung by the city.
Have you ever visited Uluru? So much to see and do, make sure it’s on your bucket list before too long!