Unsettled at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Ayers rock and the olgas

The Ayers Rock Resort has the monopoly on accommodation at Uluru, whether you’re looking for a luxury cabin or a campsite. Unless you’re into bush camping (I am not), you’ll be staying at the resort, which is in a town called Yulara. The nearest alternative is at Curtin Springs, 80km down the road.

High season at Uluru is in winter, and we arrived in the thick of it. When I called up a week before our arrival, I was told that there were no powered sites left. However, we could stay in the unpowered overflow section, a large paddock of red dust at the back of the main campground.

No need to book, the woman told me. Just rock up.

We rocked up in the afternoon a few days later and found a man directing traffic at the entrance of the campground.

“Got a booking?” he asked. When we said no, he shook his head and sucked air in through his teeth.

“You might be lucky to get a spot,” he said. “Yesterday we had to turn people away. First time in 12 years.”

Ayers rock campground

To the left, caravans in the overflow; to the right, the resort’s power station.

We waited in a queue that snaked around the reception area, which was also a shop. The three staff members behind the counter had to juggle check-ins, ringing phones, and customers wanting to buy cans of coke or packs of citronella candles.

It was absolutely manic, and I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling in my stomach. I’d dreamed of visiting Uluru for years, but obviously, so had everyone else. We were lucky; twenty minutes later we got a spot for three nights in the overflow.

Walking back to the car, I felt like we’d unwittingly driven into an outback Disneyland. It was crawling with people in Uluru hats and t-shirts, families in huge caravans, and signs pointing to the nearby ‘Outback Pioneer Lodge’ where you can get a beer for A$8.50.

The overflow paddock was a different world: no designated sites, just an enormous patch of red dust packed with caravans. We chose a spot directly opposite the power station, slotted between an elderly couple in a caravan and a young family in a camper trailer like ours.

Camping uluru

Soaking up the solar power and, by default, the red dust.

As it often does, a good sleep did wonders for my perspective on life. That, and actually going to see Uluru itself. The rock is mammoth, 348 meters high and nearly 10 kilometers around. The Anangu people ask that you respect their wishes and avoid climbing it, though plenty of people blatantly disregarded that request.

no climb uluru

Just say no to climbing.

We opted for the base walk, an easy meander around Uluru with a few side tracks to see rather unexpected features, like a waterhole and a gorge. Along the way we passed people on Segways and bicycles, but the path was wide enough for all of us.

Ayres rock

Uluru looking stunning in the daytime.

yellow flower uluru

Stop and smell the wattles.

Since Uluru is sacred, there are some areas where you’re asked not to take photographs. Be mindful of the signs and you’ll be fine. I was amazed by how diverse Uluru was, much more than just a giant rock. Dark streaks on its side indicate waterfalls, and trees grow out of cracks in its side.

Uluru sweeping side

Every time I look at this I think of flowing hair.

Ayers Rock cave

Wave cave.

Uluru from the side

My humps, my humps.

That night we returned to the national park to watch Uluru at sunset, an experience which well and truly shook me out of my funk.

Uluru at sunset

There she glows.

On our last full day we got up at 5:45am to get to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) for sunrise. The park gates opened at 6:20am, and we were at the viewing platform just as the faintest hint of first light started to appear. Uluru was to our right, a small shadow in the distance on the horizon.

Sunrise kata tjuta

Kata Tjuta at sunrise. Not pictured: freezing cold temperatures.

Kata Tjuta at sunrise

So many trees! Apparently deserts are more than just sand.

Kata Tjuta is often overshadowed by Uluru, but it is spectacular—the sandstone domes are estimated to be more than 500 million years old, a number that is too large for me to make sense of. The beautiful 7.4km Valley of the Giants walk was like stepping into the Land Before Time (unfortunately without Littlefoot).

Valley of the giants

The Valley of the Winds.

Kata Tjuta holes in side

The dark line of past water flows.

the olgas

Kata Tjuta has 36 domes that are spread out across more than 20 kilometers.

Now when I look back on Uluru and Kata Tjuta, what I remember isn’t the carnival atmosphere of the resort, but the commanding presence of the natural landscape, the explosion of stars at night, and the final sunset from the overflow paddock that had all the campers staring at the sky as the power station hummed in the background.

Uluru campground

Final sunset was a doozy.

Tips for visiting Uluru & Kata Tjuta

  • Ayers Rock Resort is in the ‘town’ of Yulara, about a 15 minute drive to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park entrance. Book in advance, especially during busy periods.
  • We stayed in the overflow campground (A$25/night), which is unpowered but has several water taps.
  • Entrance to the national park is A$25 per person for 72 hours; tickets can be purchased at the gate.
  • The Uluru base walk is approximately 10.6km and took us 2 hours 45 minutes. Bring water and snacks.
  • Kata Tjuta is approximately 30km from Uluru, in the national park.
  • The Kata Tjuta Valley of the Winds walk is 7.4 km and took us 2 hours 15 minutes.
  • The Kata Tjuta gorge walk is 2.6 km and took us 40 minutes. There is some nice scenery but if you have time I highly recommend the Valley over the gorge.
  • Read more about Uluru at sunset here.

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