I can’t remember the exact moment when I first caught sight of Uluru, whether it was on a postcard, in school or on a National Geographic episode, but it made an impression that latched onto me ever since. Seeing that iconic red mass of rock was a dream of mine for so long that, even when we were driving towards it in the Australian Outback, I couldn’t quite believe that it was all real.
When we were putting together the itinerary for our big trip, I knew that I wanted Uluru to be part of our Australian travels. It was by no means an easy fit, as we had to book extra flights, accommodation and a tour, but I had a strong sense of certainty that the effort would pay off.
And these rewards were immediately apparent. What appeared as a dot on the horizon soon transformed into the familiar geographic feature I had seen on countless posters, calendars and the like; just like that, my disbelief began to mingle with awe.
For three days we explored the key sights of Australia’s red interior. I am sharing the highlights of this adventure in this post, but you can also find some advice on what to do and what to bring if you also want to visit these locations.
– The Rock Tour –
We had a month of campervanning to look forward to after our visit to the Outback so, to make the most of our three days there, we opted to take a tour. After doing some research and relying on recommendations from our traveller friends, we decided to travel with The Rock Tour.
Tours to the Outback can range from luxury to budget. The Rock Tour falls in the latter end of the spectrum, which suited us just fine as we were on a budget that had to stretch over five months! But just because it’s one of the cheaper tours you could go with, that doesn’t mean we were only surrounded by fellow backpackers. In fact, we even had a chap in his 60s on our tour, so it’s more about deciding whether you’re comfortable with all of The Rock Tour’s features.
What am I talking about? Well, The Rock Tour takes you to all of the major sights like any other tour and meals are included but the accommodation really only consists of swags and the big night sky above you. Swags are, in a nutshell, structurally reinforced sleeping bags; you slip a sleeping bag inside and are able to zip yourself in, keeping the creepy crawlies out. It was my first time sleeping in swags and, apart from an unfortunate incident when I fell asleep only to discover that a grasshopper was in there with me, it really wasn’t that bad. In addition, the very last thing I’d see before zipping myself in was a night sky dense with stars. But, if you are uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping outside or if it’s raining, you can sleep inside the campsite dining shelters or on the tour bus.
Our tour was The Rock Tour’s three-day excursion that started and ended in Alice Springs, although Ayers Rock Airport is also a pick-up/drop-off point. If you arrive in Alice Springs the day before your tour, you can double check whether you have the right supplies by popping into The Rock Tour office in town. There’s a handy drawing that you can take a photo of (see above), plus they’ll confirm any other details you’re unsure of.
The thing I loved most about our tour was that we weren’t ever just taken to see a sight and then told to quickly move on to the next one. Instead, it felt like the bulk of our tour was dedicated to walking or hiking in almost-unreal landscapes, and this made me feel all the more immersed in my Outback surroundings.
That being said, if you are thinking of going on The Rock Tour, be prepared for some extremely early mornings but I guarantee that it will all feel worth it as you walk around the base of Uluru or peer down into Kings Canyon. We made a lot of friends on our tour – some of which we would see later on our Australian adventures – and our guides Matt (affectionately known as ‘Donk’) and Emily were informative, funny and made sure that we all got to our destinations on time. Except once: One of the unexpected highlights of the tour occurred when our bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. This meant that we spent hours sitting on the roadside waiting for a replacement bus, but during that time, we bonded with other people, saw a nightsky like we had never seen before and learned that great things can happen when you don’t stick to the plan.
Overall, The Rock Tour was my ideal way to experience the Outback for the very first time. We walked a lot, saw famous landmarks at sunrise and sunset, and met some great people along the way.
– Uluru –
I think it’s safe to say that Uluru is the landmark that draws most visitors to the Australian Outback. And, in my opinion, it’s a place that could never disappoint. Rising up out of otherwise flat surroundings, we were lucky enough to see this rocky mass at various times of the day.
If it’s your first time visiting Uluru, make sure to stop by the visitor centre before doing anything else. It’s here that you will learn about the origins of this famous rock formation, as well as the many myths attached to it. There’s evidence that the first human activity here dates back to 10,000 years ago and Uluru is, to this day, a sacred spot for the Aboriginal tribes located in the area.
After historical conflict and disputes, ownership of Uluru was finally transferred to the Pitjantjatjara people in 1985. Unfortunately, an earlier agreement stating that climbing would no longer be allowed on Uluru didn’t go through so, technically, you can still climb this landmark. But I urge you not to. Uluru is a sacred and spiritual site for the Pitjantjatjara people and they themselves ask people to refrain from climbing it. I couldn’t believe how many people were doing just that on the day of our visit, so I ask you: please don’t be that jerk who climbed Uluru when every sign around it asks you not to. The second reason for not climbing Uluru is simply because it’s dangerous. There have been numerous accidents and the handrail at the start of the climb has not been updated since the 1970s.
Now that that’s out of the way, I can get into why I loved our experience of Uluru. After the visitor centre, our guides took us for a walk around the base of Uluru. And this walk made me realise that there’s so much more to this landmark than its familiar from-a-distance profile. As we circled around the base, my idea of a smooth, consistent block was proven incorrect.
Instead, Uluru seemed to change shape, colour and texture with every few minutes of walking. Sometimes we’d see great folds of rock coming down at an angle, while a turn on the path revealed an eroded, hole-ridden surface. Appearing in shades that could be described as anything from blood red to lumo orange to earthy brown, moving closer to Uluru revealed another surprise. The hard rock forming Uluru is actually a grey/brown colour but it’s coated with a layer of orange dust. The dust is made up of iron-bearing minerals that have been oxidised and it’s these dust particles, not the rock beneath, that give Uluru its bright colours.
If you’ve done any reading about Uluru, you’ll probably already know about the heat and those pesky, pesky flies. The walk around Uluru’s base features almost nothing in terms of shade so we were told to bring plenty of water to combat the heat. But I’d also recommend that you leave the fashion sense behind by investing in a flynet. The flies in the Outback are unlike any I’ve encountered before, and they’ll swarm to your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. As you look at any photos of us here, just know that we had about 20 seconds to whip off our flynet and take a decent photo before the flies became unbearable.
Uluru has many culturally important sites, and signboards will let you know whether you can take photos of these places or not. This history, along with Uluru’s appearance, has secured its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I felt like we could’ve spent days here learning about the sacred status of this location as well as the rich mythology behind it.
We couldn’t spend all three days there, but The Rock Tour did make sure that we would get to see the full spectrum of Uluru’s many colours. We visited during the afternoon, at sunset and the following day’s sunrise, and each Uluru looked completely different. I find it impossible to choose which Uluru sighting was my favourite; each was so spectacular.
Uluru surpassed every expectation I had and, after our time there, I was worried that anything else we did in the Outback wouldn’t be comparable. Luckily, I had nothing to fear, as we had two more Outback treasures to discover.
Note: At the time of writing, there’s a AUS$25 fee to enter Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park; check with your tour provider to see if this fee is included in your tour price.
Watching the last rays of sunshine disappear from the sky at Uluru. I had dreamed of seeing this famous rock for years, and it was an incredible experience to finally do so. If you’re there, try to see Uluru at both sunset and sunrise – it looks stunning in different lights! Thanks to the @therocktournt for getting us out here!
– Kata Tjuta –
After taking in the sunrise at Uluru the next day, we drove on towards Kata Tjuta, which is also located within Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta was first sighted as a shape standing out in a rather flat landscape. But the first major difference is that Kata Tjuta is a whole group of rock formations. Otherwise known as the Olgas, Kata Tjuta consists of 36 massive rock domes that huddle together on the horizon. And it’s a mesmerising sight to behold.
Our time at Kata Tjuta consisted of a proper hike, much more so than our leisurely stroll around Uluru. If you’re also planning on hiking around Kata Tjuta, plan your walk for the early morning hours. The heat is a serious factor in the Outback and it can become a health risk when carrying out strenuous activities. As we walked along our trail, our guides showed us how to use the emergency calling stations. Mobile reception is non-existent here, so these stations are vital in case an emergency pops up.
Back in the day, there were up to 12 different walks you could do in Kata Tjuta. But since tourism has taken over at Uluru, Kata Tjuta is now the main spot for the Pitjantjatjara people to carry out their sacred rituals. Even though this is a spiritual place for the Aboriginal people, there are still two walks visitors can take on: the three-hour, 7km Valley of the Winds walk or the shorter 2.6km Walpa Gorge walk. We got to do the former, which features two spectacular lookout points.
Even within minutes of the walk, I became enamored with my new surroundings. The rich red earth continues here, thanks to the dust coming off the domes but the area also seems to be thriving with unique Outback vegetation. I found the terrain diverse, with the pathways showcasing pretty scenery while we winded our way between some of the domes that make up the Kata Tjuta range.
If you’re planning to do the Valley of the Winds walk, there are some tricky stretches to negotiate, such as trails with loose rocks and, to get to the second lookout, some steep stairs. But I promise that the physical strain is worth it, as both viewpoints offer wide-reaching panoramas over the entire area. I pretty much sent my camera into overdrive on this hike.
On all of the walks we did, we spent our time getting to know the other people on our tour and, when we got to the second viewpoint on this hike, we all used this a rest stop, as there’s some much-deserved shade up there! There are sweeping views on both sides, as the viewpoint sits right in the middle of a few domes.
It’s a chance to get closer to the domes themselves, which are made up of the same rock as Uluru, but you’ll also be able to see the valley running down below. Even though the temperatures were scorching and the air felt dry, the landscape was surprisingly filled with greenery. Just like Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a place of unusual visual juxtapositions yet this walk, which is admittedly more challenging, turned out to be my favourite of the entire tour.
Afterwards, even if you feel like you’ve been in the thick of the Kata Tjuta domes all day, drive over to the dome viewing platform. This spot is always busy with bus loads of people, but it undoubtedly offers the best vantage point for seeing Kata Tjuta in its entirety. My top tip for this specific location? Don’t just view the domes here; take a proper look around you. If you look closely, you’ll be able to see Uluru in the distance and, much closer, the chalky surface of a large salt flat.
We took in the views, and were led back to our tour bus to make our way to our last Outback destination of the tour. En route, we had our aforementioned bus breakdown, which turned out to be the best and most memorable tour hiccup we’ve ever experienced. We were admittedly exhausted the next morning, which included another early wake up, but we had the perfect last walk to look forward to.
– Kings Canyon –
Our day at Kings Canyon was the first of our walks to take us outside of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Located about 450km away from Alice Springs, Kings Canyon can be found in Watarrka National Park. Like Uluru and Kata Tjuta, this area also has a long history, as the Luritja Aboriginal people have called this place home for 20,000 years.
I guarantee that any tour guide will give you warnings about taking on Kings Canyon. I mean, the starting point of the most popular walk here is called ‘Heartbreak Hill’ or ‘Heart Attack Hill’ thanks to its steep set of stairs – it’s not exactly the most welcoming name, is it? But do not let that deter you. Yes, the initial climb is hard and you have to plan your walk for the early morning (visitors may be denied access after noon due to the heat) but I found the walk fairly easy after that initial scramble.
Like Kata Tjuta, there are a few different walks to choose from. There’s the easier one-hour, 2km Kings Creek walk, which takes you into the bottom of the canyon. If you have more time, you can do the four-hour, 6km Kings Canyon Rim walk; this is the one we did, and it’s a lovely, varied trail. If you have even more time on your hands, Kings Canyon is part of the 22km Giles Track, which leads on to Kathleen Springs.
We were lucky, as this hike fell on the coolest day we had experienced in the Outback thus far, making it all much more enjoyable. It may seem like the highlight of the walk should be, thanks to the name of the area, the canyon itself, but I finished that hike thinking that there were many different outstanding features. On the way to the canyon, for example, we had to traverse a spot that has been made famous in the movie world.
If, like me, you watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert growing up, you’ll be delighted to know that you can visit one of the film’s locations in Kings Canyon. This pro-LGBT film was made in the 90s and parts of it was filmed in the Outback, including Kings Canyon. We were making our way into the canyon when we found this narrow pass, which has been humorously nicknamed ‘Priscilla’s Crack’ (I’m not making up any of this). We had to get our obligatory photos here before moving on.
After watching everyone strike their best/most ridiculous pose, it was time to move on to the biggest landmark. Whether you’re viewing it from the bottom or, like us, from the top, the canyon is dramatically beautiful from any angle. The walls, which are formed from a dark red sandstone, are up to 100 metres high in some parts. The gorge below seemed to be filled with trees and other vegetation as the walls sloped downwards and, if we looked right across, we could see people admiring the view on the other side of the canyon.
There have been a few accidents in Kings Canyon in recent years so, no matter how strong the temptation, do not go too close to the edge of the canyon. Your guides will tell you the exact same thing, but the rocks are not as stable as they might first appear to be. While at the top of Kings Canyon, we learned that parts of the canyon used to be an ancient seabed, and, if you look closely, you’ll be able to see visual remnants from this time. I instantly wanted do some fossil hunting; that, or take the time to photograph the spooky lone trees that are left completely exposed to the elements up here.
As that wouldn’t be a terribly exciting hike, Donk and Emily instead led us down into the canyon via some stairs. It’s here that we found the Garden of Eden, a waterhole surrounded by an abundance of plantlife. Rest stops don’t get better than this, especially when you’ve found water in what looked like a mostly barren landscape. We settled down for a breather and tried to spot the buzzards and falcons that occasionally flew overhead.
It was at this point that our experience of the past three days had sunk in, and I felt so lucky to be able to see all of these places. The Outback is obviously a surprising and rewarding place to visit, but I also loved the chance to be in the outdoors where, more often than not, complete silence was our most consistent companion.
The steep start of the hike really isn’t reflective of the rest of the paths we took. In fact, the last half of the hike was a relaxing meander past domes and in between raised stacks and carved rockbeds. Every now and then we’d be confronted with a splash of colour from the flowers that bloom here despite the often-oppressive heat and lack of rainfall.
It wasn’t quite the last few steps we’d take in the Outback, as we made a stop by a camel farm on the way back to Alice Springs to partake in a much-loved activity in this part of Australia. If you do decide to do camel riding too, just know that they can run really fast, which will leave you hanging on for dear life with a look of horror on your face while you mentally formulate your last will and testament – or so I’ve heard.
– Things you’ll need to bring to the Australian Outback –
I’ve worked some of my tips into the above but if you’re suffering from a case of TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), you can get my best advice in an easily digestible format here:
- If you’re also planning on taking on The Rock Tour, hiking forms the bulk of your days on the tour. Bring sturdy walking shoes (but ones that you don’t mind getting dirty; I’d swear that that red sand is actually permanent dye), breathable activewear, a hat, a refillable water bottle and plenty of sunscreen.
- On the hiking side, make sure that you’ve scheduled your walks for the early morning. Temperatures resemble those on the sun (#halftruth) and access to some walks will be cut off at noon.
- Be kind to yourself and leave the dignity at home: buy a flynet. It will save you from a quick descent into insanity.
- We were staying in campsites with little or no lighting at night, so make sure to bring a headtorch/flashlight if you’ll also be camping during your time in the Outback.
- I know my mentions of the heat can be repetitive but the nights can also be surprisingly cool; bring along a fleece for the nighttime.
- Stock up on snacks and water in Alice Springs. There are tiny shops scattered around once you leave Alice Springs, but we found that these places were all much, much more expensive.
- I loved our Outback tour but if you’re planning on doing a self-drive version of the destinations I mentioned, make sure that you fill up with petrol at any opportunity. The distances are crazy and you don’t want to get stuck out there with no petrol.
- This applies to any adventure travel, but pack in your first aid kit. Better to be safe than sorry!
- If you’re staying in Alice Springs before and after your tour like we did, ask whether your accommodation can store your main luggage bags for you while on tour. We stayed at Desert Palms Resort and they kept our bags for free while we were away, meaning that we had fewer things to worry about.
Our visit to the Outback may have been one of the most expensive side excursions that we embarked on during our long-term travels, but I can’t, even for one reason, regret that we made the decision to go. Our three days there have ensured that I am carrying away memories that will last me a lifetime: Uluru at sunrise and sunset, Kings Canyon opening up below us, walking amongst the domes of Kata Tjuta and, in a funny twist of fate, sitting by a desolate roadside on the starriest night I’ve ever seen, our stranding immediately making solid friendships with those perched near us.
Have you been to the Australian Outback? Or is this region on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below.
Note: Our experience with The Rock Tour was discounted in return for a review but, as always, all opinions and now-forever-to-be-red sneakers are entirely my own.
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