The magnificent monolith that lies at the geographical – and cultural – heart of Australia has been in the news regularly lately as a best-forgotten era (in my opinion) came to a close.
On October 26, the Aboriginal owners of this sacred place called Uluru put an end to climbing the face of “the Rock”, something that has been a popular pastime for visitors for more than 50 years. Climbing is now banned under Australian law, a move too long coming for many who respect the wishes of the Anangu (a term used by the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people of the Western Desert to refer to themselves).
A bit of history: In 1979 the Australian government recognised the traditional owners and created a national park to protect Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). In 1983, the Anangu were granted ownership and the park was leased to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years. Under an agreement at that time, the Uluru climb would close permanently when climber numbers dropped below 20 percent of all visitors to Uluru, which happened in 2017. Notice was then given that the climb would close in 2019.
Uluru, once known as Ayers Rock, is a place of deep spiritual significance to the indigenous people of the Western Desert. The track worn by the feet of climbers follows the trail the ancestral Dreamtime Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) men took when they first came to Uluru.
For many people, that spiritual connection is easily felt. I’ve visited Uluru five times, and have seen first-timers moved to tears by the indefinable “presence” of this place. At close quarters, Uluru is more immense and magnificent than you can imagine, and photographs never do it justice. There is a real “spirit of place” here, which some people find overwhelming.
There are good practical reasons, too, for not climbing Uluru. The Anangu feel a duty to safeguard visitors to their country and feel great sorrow and responsibility when anyone is injured or dies. The 348m hike up the face of Uluru is dangerously steep and rutted with deep ravines; 35 people have died while climbing, either from falls or heart attacks, in the past 50 years.
I have never climbed Uluru. And I am appalled at the newspaper photos of thousands of people who high-tailed it to the Red Centre in the weeks immediately preceding the climb closure, simply in order to “tick the box”.
The good news is that there are many other ways to experience and explore this amazing place. Plan to spend at least three days here, and see and do everything you can. Take a tour with an indigenous guide, turn your face to the brilliant stars at night, have dinner in the desert at Ayers Rock Resort, or explore the fabulous Field of Light installation, by artist Bruce Munro.
These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring Uluru and the surrounding country. But as for the Rock itself, if you want to get up close, here are some of the ways you can do that:
Walk around it: “The Rock” has a circumference of 10.6km, and if you start early before the day gets hot, it’s easily do-able in a couple of hours (but may take longer because you will inevitably linger here and there). In photos, Uluru looks smooth, but the reality is much more interesting, with hidden water holes, overhangs, craters and some rock paintings. The best way to understand what you are seeing is to take a guided walk with an indigenous guide. The Liru Track is a popular shorter trail, covering 2km from the Cultural Centre to Uluru, where it links with the Base Walk.
Ride a camel: The gentle sway of a camel is a peaceful way to see Uluru. Amble through the red sand dunes with Uluru Camel Tours, watch the sun rise or sink over it, and ride back to the Camel Depot at Ayers Rock Resort for champagne or a cup of tea. Rides take about one hour.Ride a Harley: Harley-Davidson motorcycle tours are available as sunrise or sunset rides, laps of the Rock, and various other Uluru and Kata Tjuta tours with time for walks. Your Uluru Motorcycle Tours guide drives, with you as pillion passenger.
Fly over it: Scenic flights operate by light aircraft or helicopter over Uluru, Kata Tjuta, nearby Mount Conner, and as far as Kings Canyon. Professional Helicopter Services, for example, does a 15-minute flight over Uluru for A$150 per person, and a 25-minute flight, which includes Kata Tjuta, for A$255, among other tours.
Cycle around it: Hire a bike to cycle the flat and easy paths around the base. Outback Cycling is based at the Cultural Centre, where you can hire a bike and helmet for a set 3-hour period in the morning or afternoon (times vary seasonally). They also have kids’ bikes and toddler seats to attach to your bike.Whenever you visit Uluru you will have a slightly different experience. The Rock changes colour with the weather and the time of day, from pink to a deep wine red depending on the angle and intensity of the sun. And if you are lucky enough to be visiting when it rains, you will see a sight like no other. Rain brings everyone outside to see the spectacle of waterfalls cascading off the massive rock, which was formed by sediment laid down 600 to 700 million years ago in an inland sea and thrust above ground 348m by geological forces.
Uluru is ancient and mysterious, irresistible and unforgettable. It will never disappoint you. See it once and you will want to come back again, just for another look. It is a rock with a presence. Go there, see what I mean. Mere words cannot describe Uluru. You have to feel it.