How many days do I need for the Red Center? Is it even worth the hassle of getting there? There is just a big rock, right? Every time I read or hear about Australia’s central territory, I see so many misconceptions that I couldn’t wait to write this post. We had the most amazing time in Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon, and managed to pack heaps of unforgettable adventures and breathtaking sights in just 48 hours. So for me, the Red Center is an absolute must do in any Australia itinerary, I would even recommend it as a long weekend trip from Sydney.
We flew directly into Ayers Rock airport (avoiding the long drive from Alice Springs), and landed around noon, after 4 hours of looking at red desolation from the airplane window. We picked up our rental car and drove straight to the park, eating sandwiches on the road to not waste any time. When we got our tickets at the park entrance, the rangers warned us that there was an extreme temperature alert, which meant certain trails would close early in the morning and climbing on the rock was forbidden. We weren’t planning on doing so anyway, because some quick research had taught us that Aborigines consider it offensive, due to Uluru being considered a sacred site.
It did feel quite toasty when we got out of the car at the visitor center. But that didn’t bother us much… especially compared to the flies. There were so many freaking flies, that it was impossible to stand still without going crazy, or to wave them off without getting exhausted. Apparently this is the norm in the Red Center, especially during the summer months. We were not going to let a bunch of annoying insects deter us, so we bought some head nets, stocked up on water and drove the final mile to the Mala carpark. From the road, the views of the giant red rock were already stunning; its size, its mere presence in the middle of nowhere, its vivid color, and its curvy shapes were mesmerizing.
We started the Uluru base walk around 2pm, and there wasn’t another soul around. We hiked clockwise, very close to the fascinating red sandstone. We passed some tubular caves and Aboriginal rock paintings, and soon reached Kantju Gorge, a waterhole that was dry but still beautiful (getting here requires a short detour, so make sure you don’t miss the fork on the trail). The following kms of the base trail were probably the coolest, with the surface of the rock constantly changing, showing different erosion patterns… there was even an elephant head in one of the corners!
Once we reached the north side, the rock appeared to change, the color turning from fire orange to clay red, and the surface becoming more holey and less smooth. We took a break at Kuniya Piti, enjoying the shadow and refreshing ourselves in the public water tank. We moved on to the south side of the rock, and it again looked different, unique. Some of the slopes were flatter and we climbed up a couple of steps, just to feel minuscule in comparison with Uluru.
A bit further, we reached Mutitjulu Waterhole, where there was a bit of water, but no waterfall. Nevertheless, this area was absolutely gorgeous. There was also some well-preserved indigenous rock art, and we joined a ranger who was explaining the symbols to a group of tourists. This was the only place along the hike in which we ran into people (apparently the Kuniya carpark was nearby), and it actually came in handy 😉 We got going again, and soon reached our car. We had completed the 10.6km of the Uluru base walk in less than 3 hours, under extreme heat, harassed by hordes of flies, and it had been epic.
We definitely were looking forward to a sunset in Uluru, but that would have to wait until the next day. For now, we had to get on the road and make it to Kings Canyon, where we wanted to do a hike in the morning. The 300 kms separating these two places can be covered in about 4 hours. It’s a good road, but rental companies don’t allow you to drive it at night, due to common kangaroo accidents. Because we had landed with a bit of a delay, and we needed to take a break on the way for a much needed dinner, our plan to get to Kings Canyon before sunset was impossible. Instead, we decided to make a long stop and continue driving once it was dark, to avoid the twilight hours when the roos are the most active. We drove very carefully, completely alone on the pitch dark road… and only saw one kangaroo. It was eating on the side of the road, and raised when we pulled over, looked at us for a few seconds and then jumped away. When we turned the beams off and our eyes adapted, we enjoyed the most amazing stargazing.
We woke up really early at the Kings Canyon Resort, since we had been informed that the trailhead would be closing at 9am given the heat. After grabbing some quick breakfast at the gas station (Tim Tams!), we drove to the car park and started hiking. The first section has a steep climb, and we were glad it wasn’t that hot yet. Also, there were a few less flies than the previous day, maybe thanks to the wind. We reached the rim of the canyon, and later a maze of sandstone domes, shaped by erosion.
The landscape was awesome, and surprisingly different from the previous day. Some small metal arrows marked the trail, which in some parts meant simply climbing through rocks. We took the short detour to the edge of the canyon and wow, what a breath-taking view! Sitting there alone was unforgettable… we only ran into a couple other folks during that whole hike, even though it was a Saturday; seems like most people limit themselves to Uluru, what a shame.
We backtracked to get to the main trail and made it to the river. A pair of staircases allowed us to cross and observe the canyon from the opposite side. At the bottom, there was another short detour to the Garden of Eden, but we decided to skip it because it was getting really hot.
We hiked back on the south side, enjoying the sight of fiery sandstone domes, stretching endlessly in front of us. In total, it took us about 2 and a half hours to complete the trek, and we absolutely loved it. Driving back to Uluru in daylight was quite interesting. We grabbed lunch in a place that had camels, pulled over a couple of times because the red desert sand had us fascinated, and stopped at Mt. Conner Lookout, where we were surprised not only by the view of a mini-Uluru, but also a massive salt flat.
We eventually arrived in Yulara, the small, artificial town that contains all the hotels around Ayers Rock. The town was created in the 70s by relocating all the people and services in the area, and the hotels were nationalized in the 90s. Because of this, the lodging options are limited, rather low quality and expensive. We checked in at the Outback Pioneer Hotel and refreshed ourselves in the pool. We made an attempt at exploring the local area, checked out some Aboriginal art (with its characteristic colorful, dotted style) and what was supposed to be a traditional dance… but it was rather depressing. The town felt hopeless; the indigenous population in Australia struggles with many of the same issues Native Americans face, including alcoholism.
We got back into our tourist bubble, aka our rental car, and drove to the sunset carpark. For the following two hours, we looked at Uluru in awe, as the sun went down and the colors changed, from golden and copper to auburn and burgundy.
The next morning, we woke up early one more time, to make the most of the time we had left before our noon flight back to Sydney. We made it to Kata Tjuta in less than an hour, with a quick stop at the viewpoint signaled on the road. Kata Tjuta, also called The Olgas, is a formation similar to Uluru, made of the same kind of rock, but comprised of several smaller domes instead of one single piece. We set to complete the Valley of the Winds trail, a 7km loop that took us about 3 hours with very few stops. It was good to start the trek early, because it was announced to close around 9am too, when the temperatures would rise above 36 Celsius.
This third hike still managed to amaze us, particularly the views from high Karingana Lookout, with one side covered by imposing rock eroded from waterfalls, and the other offering open views of the valley and the more boulders. We also enjoyed walking in between the rocks between the Karu and the Karingana Lookouts, and then further away from them for a broader panorama as we took the longer loop back to the carpark. Less than 48 hours after landing in Ayers Rock airport, we were back there. What a terrific weekend!