Rising from nowhere, the massive sandstone Uluru is a symbol of Australia. I would see it almost every day on the cover of my Lonely Planet: I had to go and check it out. I joined a bus tour from Alice Springs to Uluru and around the Red Centre to explore the must-see in the region.
Although it is in a desert area, it is easy to reach Uluru by flying to Ayers Rock airport or Alice Springs. Hence, this trip can be made on a weekend trip from the capital cities of Australia. I highly recommend visiting more of the Kata Tjuta National Park and going to the Olgas. If you have time to add an extra day to your weekend, I loved exploring Kings Canyon (300 km from Alice Springs). From my experience, you can skip Alice Springs with no regrets and fly directly to Uluru if your budget allows it.
I wrote this article below after exploring the Red Centre for three days with the Rock Tour in December 2010. The tour was cheap, and I was a broke backpacker/student. Hence, I had low expectations regarding food and comfort. You’ll find many different kinds of trips to choose from on TripAdvisor*. Browse the reviews to ensure it matches your needs!
If you plan to drive from Alice Springs to Uluru yourself, please note that you’ll need a different itinerary if you have a 4WD or not and driving time can vary. We were in a 4WD for this tour. Make sure you don’t drive at night as it’s hazardous because of the wildlife. You’ll see many cattle, camels and kangaroos.
Arrival in Alice Springs
I had no pleasure exploring Alice Springs and the place kind of made me sad. Yet, it was an interesting place to see to understand a bit better Australia and the Aboriginal history, and the country’s challenges. But maybe I didn’t spend enough time researching things to do in Alice Springs. If you have planned to spend time there, you’ll find many Aboriginal art galleries and museums, and a few sites to visit nearby.
Day 1: Alice Springs to Kings Canyon
We didn’t go from Alice Springs to Uluru directly but took a detour to explore Kings Canyon. We reached Kings Canyon after 5 hours in the van. It was already lunchtime, and the dry heat was at its peak. Not the best time to hike. Well, according to the guide, we were lucky as it was only 42°C. I read that many tourists suffer from heat exhaustion while visiting this region, so make sure you stay hydrated, you fill up your water bottles every chance you get and have a hat.
We walked the 7km Kings Canyon Rim loop. It took us around 4 hours to complete it, and this was not an easy walk. The access can be restricted in case of hot weather, and it is highly recommended to do it early in the day. Indeed, the midday summer heat and the 3L water (1L for each hour of walking is the rule) would make any exercise challenging. And this walk begins with a steep climb (called “Heart Attack Hill” by the locals) to the top of the Canyon! Up there, the view of the gorge and its surroundings are stunning, and it is worth all the effort. The walls are 100 meters high and it was my first time in such a big canyon, I was overwhelmed. The walk in the canyon gets much more relaxed after the climb, hiking around the maze of sand domes and massive cliffs.
We then drove again to reach our camp in the middle of nowhere. Some of us lit the fire while others were preparing the food, and we all had a nice moment at the dinner around the fire.
We slept under the star, in a swag, and it is maybe my best memory of this trip… The sky is full of stars at night. I had never imagined it was possible to see such a sky with that many bright stars with just my human eyes. Stunning. It was hard to close my eyes; I could have watched the stars all night long. But we had a big day and the next days were promising too, so I finally fell asleep!
Day 2: Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park
We woke up with the sunrise to drive to the Olgas.
We did the Valley of the Winds Walk. It took us around 4 hours. Although it was not as challenging as the one in Kings Canyon, it is not flat and still required again to fight the heat and carrying 3L of water per person. A big sign recommends not to start the walk after 11 am due to extreme weather.
After the hike, we went to the Cultural Center, at Uluru. It is an introduction to the Aboriginal culture: their way of life, their connection to Nature, their beliefs, their stories… It is an excellent start to learn about one of the world’s oldest living cultures and open our minds to an entirely different system of society.
The short walk we did after that was perfect to “put into practice” our recent learnings. Our guide shared with us his knowledge of this culture, telling us stories… and History. All this touched me a lot. This culture is remarkably wealthy. Colonisation is a complicated topic, and it is sad how the destruction of a culture often happens (taking territory and destroying the culture and the people living there before). Australia has a recent history, and many facts happened only around 50 years ago. The dodgy atmosphere in Alice Springs, with drunk Aborigines wandering the streets like zombies, made more sense suddenly considering what they have been through, taken away from their culture, their lands and from all, they knew to be put into an entirely different model.
I am so glad the country has recently reacted to it (there was a referendum to give back to Aborigines their land – even if there are some conditions… It is still better than putting them into camps – and the Prime Minister’s excuses about what happened are examples of a step forward). Our guide gave us many hints to explore more about it and made me think a lot about my own society and the way we live. It is not the only model, and I hope other models can cohabit together because it is so wealthy to learn from them as well.
Finally, that is what made Uluru so special to me. I did not find the rock itself more impressive than the Olgas but the opportunity to learn about the aboriginal culture, and the stories around it turned my visit to Uluru into a trip I will never forget.
This is why I would highly recommend hiring a guide for this visit.
We then watched the sunset on Uluru. The changing colours were gorgeous.
Day 3: Uluru
We woke up very early to have breakfast while watching the sunrise on Uluru.
When I visited, it was still possible to choose to climb Uluru. But our guide and all the signs highlighted it was not recommended as Aborigines ask people not to do it. Uluru is for them a sacred place and climbing is an offence to their culture. Moreover, due to the extreme weather, the climb could be dangerous, and there were injuries or deaths regularly. After the moving talk from our guide the day before about respecting the Aborigines’ wishes, I did not feel at all the envy to climb it. Anyway, on the day we were there, the climb was closed because of the wind, and I was glad to avoid any debates in the group. Nowadays, it is not possible to climb Uluru.
We did the 8-kilometre walk around the big rock. It was easier than the two other walks we did during this tour as it is always flat. Uluru is an important symbol of Australia, and it is great to see it, but the walk itself is repetitive, and I preferred the landscapes from the Olgas and Kings Canyon. It takes six hours to drive from Alice Springs to Uluru.