Friday, December 12, 2008
Uluru / Ayer's Rock (Oz)
Uluru or Ayer's Rock is one of Australia's best known natural wonders. It is a massive, red sandstone rock erupting from the flat desert floor in the middle of the Northern Territory. Its color subtly changes throughout the day with different sun angles and is most dramatic at sunset. It is also one of the most important sacred places of the local aboriginal tribes and is currently under joint care of the Australian National Parks and the Anangu people. The park website is a good place to find additional information.
Getting to Uluru in most cases will be by plane as it is very remote. There is an airport at Uluru which most people use though if you are considering touring more of the central Outback, you may want to consider flying into Alice Springs and out of Uluru or vice versa. To travel to Uluru directly from Alice Springs is a 5 hour drive so it is not wise to try to do Uluru as a daytrip. I flew into and out of the Uluru airport on a 3 night trip in November 2006. The next time I visit I would like to do a week long trip in the winter (June through August) and drive from Alice Springs to Uluru so that I can see some of the less well known attractions of the desert.
If you fly into Uluru there is a complimentary bus that will take you to the Voyager's Resort. Voyager's has a monopoly on accommodation in the area, but they offer six different standardtypes of accommodation from a campground to a premium hotel. Plus there is a five star luxury option that is not given on the main page called Longitude 131 if you are looking for a truly unique experience (and have deep pockets).
I did not have deep pockets so I spent 3 nights at the hostel section of the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge. This was the most basic of accommodation, but it included air conditioning and is the most economical aside from the campground. Uluru is very isolated which leads high pricing since everything must be trucked in to the resort from far away. The closest city is Alice Springs which is a 5 hour drive and is itself pretty isolated. The resort offers a little shopping plaza in the middle of all the standard accommodations, but options are limited. Meals are also pricier than you will find in other parts of Australia.
The resort sits several miles from Uluru so one must either rent a car or take a tour to actually visit the rock. The park has a $25 fee for a 3 day pass which must be paid whether you are self driving or on a tour. On my visit we went for the tours option since I had not been out to the Northern Territory previously. A list of tour options can be found here.
Almost all tours are at sunrise or sunset as for most of the year, it is not advisable to be out in the sun anywhere near the middle of the day. This means in the summer you are waking up every morning around 3 am. Even if you do not take a tour, it is strongly advised to pay attention to their schedules and plan a similar one for yourself.
I did a tour that walked around the base of the rock which is around 9 km, but very flat. I thought the tour was well guided, and I learned things I probably wouldn't have otherwise. However, I mostly took this tour because we had not rented a car, and I was somewhat intimidated by the Australian Outback. In the future I would not do this tour again since the path around Uluru is very well defined and safe. The desert floor has sparse vegetation, but visibility is good so you should not suddenly happen upon any snakes or other undesirable critters. The greatest danger is from dehydration which is a constant problem. In the summer time no matter how much water you have been drinking, drink more. Also, this is an environment where Powerade and Gatorade are very useful because you are sweating much much more than you realize. My traveling companion ended up dehydrated after this walk even though it was at a relaxed pace and I watched her drink several liters of water.
I also did the award winning Sounds of Silence Dinner which really did not meet my expectations. I am not sure if I caught it on an off night or what, but while it was a nice experience, I did not feel that it was worth the cost. It was an opportunity to try dishes with Australian kangaroo, crocodile, and emu, however. The tour/dinner includes drinks on a small rise that gives a good view of the sun setting behind the Olgas which are another interesting desert formation. Next dinner is served on the open desert floor. There is entertainment in the form of digeridoo playing and an astronomical talk. There is also supposed to be a minute of silence to enjoy the desert sounds, but we were next to a Spanish table that either didn't understand the request for silence or didn't care since they talked the entire time which was disappointing. Another aspect that disappointed myself and my traveling companion was that part of the dinner includes an astronomical talk, but because of the time of year, the sky was full of familiar constellations that can be seen in the northern hemisphere instead of exotic southern ones. Luckily, I was able to point out the southern cross to her then next morning while we were waiting for our tour bus.
One morning we took a camel ride which was fun and unique. I determined that about an hour is all I ever want to spend on a camel at one time.
My favorite tour while in the desert was a sunset walk offered by Anangu Tours. This set of tours are guided by members of the Anangu people, and give a much better appreciation of the local aboriginal perspective and relationship of the land. In retrospect I wish we had taken more of their tours. When I get out to Uluru again, I am definitely going to do another tour by Anangu Tours.
While at Uluru, it is also good to go out to see the Olgas or Kata Tjuta which is another rock formation 40 km away from Uluru. From a distance the Olgas resemble a series of giant heads. Once again you can take a tour or self drive. There are numerous hiking tracks through the Olgas which are covered at the park website, but they are a bit more challenging than the hike around Uluru as they go up and down. I chose to take a tour lead hike on my visit, but on a repeat visit, I think I would self drive and chose my own hike.
Historically, a lot of visitors liked climb to the top of Uluru, and it is still allowed some of the time when weather conditions are mild, there have been no recent deaths, and there are no traditional ceremonies being performed. However, climbing is now discouraged as it is a sacred place to the local tribes that was forbidden to climb so it is disrespectful. Additionally, it is not safe and even with the precautions and frequent closing of the climb, people die every year in the attempt. To climb or not to climb is a personal decision, but going to Uluru intent on climbing could be disappointing since the climb is often closed.
To see the Uluru and Kata Tjuta, I would recommend 2 nights stay at one of the Voyager's Accommodations. We were a bit bored by the third night.
Be very careful of dehydration while in the central desert. If you aren't feeling well, it is important to keep drinking water or a Powerade.
If possible, visit during the cooler part of the year from June to August.
If it is summer, make sure you have some plans of what you want to do during the day from around 10 am until 4 pm which it is not advisable to be outside.
Be prepared that this could be one of the more expensive parts of an Australian Tour because it is so remote.