Uluru and the Red Centre

With most of our time in Australia spent near the coast, a trip to the outback was high on our list of priorities for this year. We therefore decided to escape the beginnings of winter in Sydney for a long weekend in Uluru. This meant venturing into the Northern Territory, and completing the set of Australian states and territories visited – not bad having only been here for just over a year!

Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it was named in the 19th century by a European explorer, is a vast sandstone rock formation that rises from the desert, and an important sacred site for the area’s Aboriginal people. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is situated within the larger Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The Park is extremely remote, with the closest town of Alice Springs 450km (280m) by road.

After a three hour flight from Sydney we arrived into the Ayers Rock Airport, which is little more than an airfield. We were struck by the sparse landscape as we came into land, with no sign of civilisation in sight. We picked up our rental car and made the short  10 minute drive to the Ayers Rock resort town of Yulara, getting our first glimpse of the vast rock as we arrived.

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The town was purpose built for tourism and despite being small has a post office, bank, supermarket and a number of other small shops, with the permanent population of 800 mostly catering to tourists.

Unfortunately the remoteness of Yulara means the resort has something of a monopoly on the area, and the accommodation was therefore very expensive. There are five different choices depending on how well you are doing in life. We chose the motel style accommodation of the Outback Hotel. One level up from camping, but still several rungs below the luxury five star Sails in the Desert option.

For our first night at the resort, we had booked the highly recommended Sounds of Silence experience, which offers the chance to dine under the stars. The dining site was just a short journey from the resort, and we were greeted on arrival with a glass of champagne and canapés.

We arrived just in time for sunset and the view across to Uluru from the viewing platform was perfect. It was amazing to watch as the rock seemingly glowed orange while the sky behind gradually turned a deep purple.

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With the sky beginning to darken, we were led through to the dining area and taken to our table for the evening. With each table seating eight, we were thankful that everyone else at our table seemed relatively normal.

The food for the evening was a three-course buffet, incorporating native bush ingredients, although not the kind you see on ‘I’m a Celebrity’! With great food, and unlimited wine also on offer, there was very little to complain about.

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Our attention was then turned to the sky above us, where the most incredible array of stars had appeared. With unnatural light almost nonexistent this far into the outback, Uluru is renowned as one of the best places in the world to view the night sky.

We sat and listened as our guide explained what we could see, including the Southern Cross, the Milky Way and a number of planets. Having always lived in cities, it was quite amazing to see the night sky with such clarity.

For the final part of the evening, we were taken on a short walk to the Fields of Light art instillation. The exhibition is by the British artist Bruce Munro, and having initially opened in April 2016, has now been extended until 2020. It was created using over 50,000 hand-crafted glass spheres, which are connected by optical fibre, illuminated entirely by solar power.

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After ensuring we had got our money’s worth with the unlimited wine, finding our way along the dark path was challenging, and with the installation covering an area the size of nine football pitches, the lights seemed to stretch far into the distance.

Finally making it back to the coach, it was time to return to the resort after what had been a brilliant evening.

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Unfortunately despite a late night, there was no time for a lie in the following morning. With life at Uluru centred around sunrise and sunset, we were up and on our way out by 6am, making the short drive into the National Park and to the purpose built sunrise viewing area.

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The area was opening in 2009 at a cost of $21m to deal with the increasing number of visitors. Despite there being lots of fellow early-risers, with several viewing platforms connected by a boardwalk, it did not feel too crowded. A separate viewing area for coaches has also been built, again helping to separate the crowds.

Having taken lots of photos, we left in search of a much needed coffee, and found our way to the cafe located in the Park’s Cultural Centre. Now a little more awake and a lot warmer, we decided it was time for a closer look at the rock.

As we arrived, it was immediately clear that there was lots of people climbing to the summit of the rock despite this being very disrespectful to the Aboriginal people. It is also very dangerous, and the steep climb combined with extreme weather conditions have claimed the lives of over 35 people. While there is currently signs asking people not to climb the rock, the Park’s Board intend to close the climb for good from October 2019.

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We decided instead to go with the much easier base walk, which is a 10km loop around the rock. It was fasinating to see the rock up close and the many holes and shapes carved into it over thousands of years.

Despite it being winter, with the sun now increasing in strength we were soon taking off our many layers, and by the end of the walk we were actually too hot and glad to be getting back in our air-conditioned car.

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We made our way back to the resort, and after enjoying a poolside lunch at Pira Pool Bar (in the fancy accommodation), it was time for an afternoon nap.

Before we knew it we were returning to the Park, this time to the Sunset viewing area. We arrived to find a crowd already forming, with many people far more prepared than us, with camping chairs and picnic tables already set out.

We were slightly closer than the previous evening, and the orange glow of the rock was even more impressive, although some people (Rachael) seemed more interested in ruining photos than taking them.

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Both mesmerised by the stunning view, we hardly noticed as the crowd began to disperse, and we were soon one of the last remaining cars there. As darkness set in, we decided we should probably get a move on and leave before the park closed for the night.

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For our final day we were awake even earlier, and despite having to check out first, we managed to be the fourth car in the queue to enter the Park. We decided this time to make the slightly longer drive to the Kata Tjuta viewing platform.

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Kata Tjuta is the name of a group of huge sandstone domes which are located 25km (16m) to the west of Uluru. Although far lesser known than their famous neighbour, the domes are equally as impressive, and the viewing platform was situated perfectly to watch the sunrise.

Keen to make the most of our remaining time in the Park, we then drove to the rocks and began the Valley of the Winds walk, a 7.4km route which takes you through and around the vast formation.

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The walk initially took us to the Karu Lookout before we climbed higher between two of the domes to the Karingana Lookout. This involved a steep climb and some scrambling across rocks, but it was worth it for the incredible views across the valley. Unfortunately, with a flight to catch we had to turn back at this point and we were disappointed not to be able to complete the rest of the walk.

After a quick lunch back in the ‘town square’ we returned to the airport ready for our flight to Sydney. We arrived home late that evening with backpacks full of clothes and shoes covered in red dust, as well as lots of incredible memories.

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