Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park
Driving through the dry, desolate outback it quickly becomes apparent you’ve left civilization behind…at least the civilization you know. The red, arid earth rolls out in front of you with limited elevation change aside from the soft rolling hills or vivid red sand dune. Here the charred trunks of native bush burned by fire stand out against the red carpet of sand they are laid in. In the distance, Uluru rises from the earth as if it’s an intruder in foreign land. The ever-changing rust coloring of the rock glows in the light of early morning, shines in the afternoon heat and is emblazoned as the sun falls toward the earth basking the rock in its final light of day.
For many the spiritual powers of Uluru are overwhelming, but why remains a uniquely personal experience for each visitor. It’s not as if many outsiders believe in the ancient lore of the local Anangu people that makes Uluru the ultimate place of spiritual guidance. Still, grasping and ultimately truly appreciating the power of this symbol in their culture is enough to have you standing in awe of this natural wonder.
For the Anangu people Uluru is sacred; its markings equivalent to more traditional religious scriptures. Their creation begins with the creation ancestors – animals, plants and people – who traveled the land forming the natural world as they know it today. Their journeys are referred to as iwara and you can often follow one ancestral being for hundreds of kilometers along the iwara. The land, and more specifically Uluru,is still inhabited by the spirits of those ancestral beings today.
The physical markings left behind by the creation beings – the rocks, caves, plants, trees, waterholes, etc. – are referred to as Tjukuritja. The stories of Tjukuritja are still passed down through families today.
The cultural beliefs of the Anangu people lie deeply rooted in Tjukurpa (chook-orr-pa), which is the basic laws that govern the Anangu way of life. Tjukurpa itself refers to the time of creation from which their religious heritage is derived. The Tjukurpa lays the foundation for how the Anangu people treat each other and the land the lived from. It like many other religious scriptures holds within it the base for moral and just actions. Some parts of Tjukurpa are only passed on to those who have apparently earned the right to the knowledge.
With that in mind, it’s important to know that the stories told to visitors are only the children’s fairytale versions. As not to scare tourists, and to protect the sacred nature of their beliefs, the actual detailed and violent stories of ancestral beings are not shared. However, you will learn the dumbed-down and incomplete story of three creation ancestors ..the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) people, Kuniya the woma python woman and Liru the poisonous snake man as well as Wati Lungakata the blue-tongued lizard man.. all while wandering through the Cultural Center at the base of Uluru.
The center itself is formed from mud bricks to represent Kuniya and Liru. There is also an information desk and a viewing room where a series of films play throughout the day. I highly suggest making one of these films part of your trip to Uluru – although rather dated, they detail the struggles of the Anangu people to protect Uluru including recounting the introduction of white settlers and how trading with them changed their culture forever. The film also details how the Anangu felt about the rush of visitors to Uluru at the time the film was shot (it’s pretty old), but I imagine they still view us as outsiders or “ants” scrambling up the surface of something extremely sacred.
Nearby the film room you’ll find the growing collection of “sorry rocks” and the accompanying “sorry book” filled with letters from people who took home a piece of Uluru as a souvenir only to find their fortune take a turn for the worse shortly after. Some letters are fairly recent but detail trips to Uluru when the writer was only an innocent child and didn’t understand the significance of the sacred place. One letter tells the story of a 9 year old boy who took a piece of Uluru home with him only to have his Dad suffer a heart-related incident just miles down the road in Alice Springs. His father died two years later and his fortune continued on a downward spiral thereafter. Others simply detailed their climb up the rock, only to find their luck too changed for the worse after their visit.
Uluru is still open to be climbed, but to say it’s highly frowned upon by the Anangu people is an understatement. “The Climb” follows the same sacred path walked by Anangu men to the peak of Uluru. It’s a very important part of their spiritual guidance, yet hundreds of people scramble up the side of the rock without giving it a thought. Signs posted at the base of the climb detail why the Anangu ask you not to climb it, but those pleas for respect seem to be disregarded by many. If you do choose not the climb the rock and want to share your pride with others, you can sign the “I didn’t climb” book located near the information desk in the Cultural Center.
At the center you’ll also find the Ininti Cafe and Souvenir shop as well as the Walkatjra Art Gallery and Market and Maruku Arts. The workmanship displayed in the traditional Anangu paintings and wood workings is phenomenal. You can pick up a authentic piece of art from anywhere from 15 to hundreds of dollars. It’s here you’ll also see some of the Anangu artists themselves at work.
The national park along with the Anangu people have set up several ways for you to explore Uluru. There are sunrise and sunset viewing areas set in the optimal place to catch the sun rising and falling on Uluru, and there are a series of walks near the rock itself. Signs detailing each area of significance mark the trail making it extremely easy to give yourself a tour of Uluru. However, each morning at 8 am a free, ranger-guided tour leaves from the Mala car park and wanders along the Mala Walk. The Mala walk is a simple 2km return walk, but a slightly longer Lungkata walk (4km) takes you from the Mala car park to other areas of significance including the Mutitjulu Waterhole. If you’d like to see the waterhole without the walk, simply drive to the Kuniya carpark and make the 1km trek to the waterhole.
For those looking to soak in the sight of Uluru from every angle there is the 10km Uluru Base walk, which as the name elludes circles the entire base. Along all walks there are sights which are of great significance to the Anangu people and are off limits to photography. They ask that those sights not be seen anywhere except at Uluru, and information on what makes those sites sacred is not released to the public except to detail whether it’s a men’s or women’s site. These sights are marked by signs that have an arrow directing you to the area that is not the be filmed; another sign will alert you when it’s appropriate to photograph again.
A free visitors guide available at the information desk in the Cultural center has additional details on the walks, the Anangu people and Uluru Kata Tjuta State Park.
50 km from Uluru lies Kata Tjuta also known as the Olgas. While Kata Tjuta doesn’t hold the same sacred significance as Uluru, it is still a sacred Anangu men’s site. The massive mounds of conglomerate rock (a mix of rocks cemented together by mud and sand) rise above the landscape toward the sky so much so their shadow can been seen towering above the land from Uluru. Like Uluru, the park service has set up an area for sunset viewing and there are several walks that showcase the beauty of this natural masterpiece.
The Kata Tjuta Dune viewing walk is a very simple walk from a car park up to the top of a line of sand dunes. It offers fantastic views of the length of Kata Tjuta but not much else. The Walpa Gorge Walk is a 2.6 km, 1 hour hike to the Windy Gorge, which because it has a water source is home to a number of plants.
The Valley of the Winds walks may be the most popular for a reason. They each offer spectacular views of Kata Tjuta and allow you to traverse a portion of the rocks. There are two turning points along the walk, or you can chose to tackle the entire circuit. The Karu Lookout point is just 1.1 km from the car park and is a steady climb up some loose rocks. The Karingana Lookout is a 2.7 km one-way. It passes the Karu Lookout and traverses down into the valley and up between two beautiful rock formations. If you chose to do the full circuit be prepared for a 7.4 km hike including the first two lookout points and an additional track that rolls through the valley floor offering sweeping views. Guide books will tell you the full circuit should take 4 hours to complete, but it can be done much faster depending on your level of fitness.
Remember to take plenty of water on any walk around the park – they recommend 1 liter per hour per person, which is most likely needed in summer heat. There are water stations along some walks (the Uluru Base Walk and the Kata Tjuta Valley of the Winds Full Circuit) so remember to stop and fill your water bottle.
No matter what you chose to do in Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, please remember it is a sacred place for the Anangu people, and just as you wouldn’t want someone to disrespect something you hold dear, they don’t want you walking off pathways or onto the rocks themselves unless on a specified track. The park opens each morning at 5am and closes at 8pm, and costs $25.00 per person for a three-day, unlimited access pass.
If you’re looking for a more personal experience, you can join one of many tours including aboriginal tours. Here is just a sample of tours and pricing (remember availability and pricing change often!):
Uluru Aboriginal Tours: an Anangu owned and operated tour company offering The Rising Sun indigenous experience including a sunrise viewing, breakfast at the Cultural Center, an interpretive walk at the base of Uluru, and a campfire lesson on traditional bush skills (departs one hour before sunrise returns at noon)
.. $175.00 AU per person ($25.00 park entry fee not included)
Voyages Ayers Rock Resort Sounds of Silence Tour: Sunset Uluru viewing with a multi-course dinner and buffet including wine, didgeridoo music, cultural dance and guided night star viewing (4 hours)
.. $185.00 AU for Adults
.. $95.00 92.50 for Children (10-12 years old)
Seit Outback Australia Tours: offers a variety of tour options including guided walks at Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Mt. Conner. They offer more cultural aboriginal experiences or more generic tours. Here is just a sample..
..Uluru Trek $139.00 AU for adults or $112.oo AU for children
..Kata Tjuta $137.00 AU for adults or $110.00 AU for children
..Seit All $265.00 AU for adults or $210.00 AU for children
..Seit Culturally $518.00 AU for audlts or $410.oo AU for children
Uluru Camel Tours: offers sunrise and sunset tours as well as short ten minute camel rides
..Camel to Sunrise $119.00 AU per person (2.5 hours long)
..Camel to Sunset $119.00 AU per person (2.5 hours long)
..Camel Express $75.00 AU per person (45 minute camel ride through desert)
..Short Camel Rides $15.00 AU per adult or $10.00 AU for children (10 minute ride)
There are a wide variety of other tour options as well that can be found online or by visiting the information center located in Yulara at the Ayers Rock Resort.