The majestic red monolith rising in the middle of the outback is one of Australia’s symbols. If you are planning a trip down under, you are probably considering visiting the Red Centre. Without a doubt it is a beautiful place but it is far from everywhere in Australia. Is the detour worth the time and money?
YES, it is! We believe that without seeing the Red Centre the visit of Australia would be incomplete. It is far away but it is not that difficult to get there.
The fastest and most convenient way is by air. The closest airport is Ayers Rock Airport (AYQ) which is located just about 25 km (16 miles) from Uluru (Ayers Rock). Another option is the airport in Alice Springs (ASP) which is bigger and therefore there is better choice of flights. The downside is the location – it is about 460 km (286 miles) far away. There are flights to both the airports from most major cities in Australia.
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If you like adventure (like us!), you should go on a road trip. We rented a car and stopped in the Red Centre while crossing Australia from north (Darwin) to south (Adelaide), before continuing farther east. It was a really long drive but it was a great adventure which we will never forget.
Driving is the best way to experience the Red Centre because it gives you flexibility to explore the place at your own pace. You don’t need to be an experienced driver at all because there is not much traffic and the roads are in good condition. But if you don’t drive or you aren’t comfortable with driving abroad, you can choose from many group or private tours which are on offer. Be aware that they are expensive though.
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When To Go
The best time to visit this region is Australian winter (summer in Europe and North America) because the temperatures are more pleasant. However, we were there in December, which is the middle of summer, and we experienced rain and storms. Seriously – what are the odds of getting a rainy day in the desert?! During sunny days it can get very hot in summer. It is a good idea to start early in the morning because most trails are quite exposed. Don’t forget a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water.
Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort)
Don’t expect to be spoiled for choice when it comes to the accommodation. The location is literally ‘in the middle of nowhere’. The only accommodation base for the park visitors is Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort) which is the area service centre. There are a couple of hotels, campsites, shops and restaurants, a supermarket, visitor information centre, bank, petrol station (not open 24 hours!) and some other facilities. Most services are concentrated around the resort town square. There is a free shuttle bus servicing the town and also the airport.
Visit the information centre to see which free activities and programmes they offer. We have seen the Putitja Dancers’ performance. It was interesting to learn more about Aboriginal culture and see some bush dances. Sometimes the audience can join the performance (Kat did). Yes, it is touristy but still worth seeing if you have travelled so far.
There is a lookout point just beside the resort where you can enjoy stargazing.
The prices in the area are high because of its unique location and lack of competition. The availability can get limited, especially during holiday season. Make your reservation in advance if you can.
We stayed at the Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge which was the cheapest option at that time. We made the reservation at the visitor information centre in Alice Springs just two days ahead. The availability was very limited and the best we got was a four-bed dorm with shared facilities. Nobody else arrived so we had the room for ourselves. The room was basic but clean. There were no towels provided, luckily we had our own.
It is a large resort with many accommodation options for every budget. The bar and restaurant are lively and there is great atmosphere. There is a band playing live some evenings. The highlight for us was the self-service barbecue. You can buy various types of meat, fish or seafood and cook it yourself at one of the barbecue stations. We tried the kangaroo, crocodile, emu, beef and prawn combo, and it was delicious. The useful cooking instructions on the wall made cooking easy.
Our original plan was to stay in Yulara just for one night. Fortunately, we took the advice at the visitor information centre in Alice Springs and stayed for two nights. We recommend staying in Yulara for at least two nights if you want to see both Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). However, if you have more time, you can stay even longer to explore the area better and enjoy different activities or walks.
If you are driving on your own, you need to take into consideration the long distances. Depending on where you are travelling from and to, it might take you up to one day to get to or from Yulara.
Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park
The park is a Unesco World Heritage area. The land is owned by Aboriginal people who lease it to the Australian government. You will need to get a permit to be able to access the park. You can get it at the entrance, they will issue it on the spot for you. There is only a three-day pass, they don’t offer any one or two-day alternatives. After paying the fee you will get the pass and the park map.
The highlights are Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). It is about 20 km (12.5 miles) to drive from Yulara to Uluru. Then it is 52 km (32 miles) to get from Uluru to Kata Tjuta. The park is easy to navigate, the roads are sealed.
Uluru (Ayers Rock)
The area is flat, so you will be able to see Uluru from long distance. For the best views (and photos) stop at the signposted lookouts. There are separate viewing areas for tour buses and cars. Come early to secure your spot because it can get busy with visitors trying to take the perfect picture. ‘The Rock’ changes its colours during the day but seeing it during the sunrise and sunset is unforgettable.
Climbing Uluru is a controversial topic. Even though it is not prohibited, the Aboriginal people ask the visitors not to do it because it is an important sacred site of theirs. The climb also isn’t as easy as it looks. High temperatures and slippery surface can make it challenging.
The reality is that the climbing route is closed quite often. If the park management thinks that it is not safe (when the temperature is too high, it is windy or the rain is expected), they close it down. When we were there, the climb was not possible because an activist had cut the chain leading to the top and the rock was still wet from the rain anyway.
It is a personal decision but try to learn more about the place before you make up your mind. There is a trail going around the rock and plenty of other shorter walks allowing you to explore the site without climbing it. You can also join the daily free ranger-led Mala Walk to discover more about this special place.
Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)
Kata Tjuta is another must-see in the area. It is not as well-known as Uluru but still worth a visit. It is a stunning group of rocks set in the outback.
You can get the best views from a few dedicated lookouts along the road from Uluru. However, the best is to put your hiking shoes on and walk one of the trails among the rocks. The landscape is spectacular. Expect a lot of annoying flies, head nets and a repellent are live-savers.
We have done the full Valley of the Winds Walk. It is quite steep at the beginning but the second half is rather flat. It takes about four hours to complete. Carry plenty of water and wear your hat and sunscreen because the second part of the trail is quite exposed and it can get very hot. It is a good idea to start early in the morning because the walk can be closed if the temperature gets too high.
Uluru–Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre
While you are in the national park, visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. You can learn more about traditional Aboriginal culture and local nature. You might consider buying some of the hand-crafted paintings, ceramics and other artwork to support the local artists. There are some free presentations as well, check the centre website for details and times.
You shouldn’t miss the Red Centre on your trip down under. It will become one of the most memorable places you have ever been.
What about you – are you tempted to visit the centre of Australia? Or have you been there already?