We’d decided before we even arrived in Alice Springs that we should definitely make the effort to visit Uluru (Ayres Rock) while we were so close to it, but we didn’t want to book one of the many tours on offer from Alice – we wanted to do it our own way.
There’s plenty to do at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and neighbouring landmarks like Kings Canyon, but another reason we didn’t want to take a tour is because we didn’t have a huge amount of free time to explore. Because it was the busiest time of year for Napperby, so we had to squeeze our trip into just three days.
After wangling a free set of wheels from our very generous friend Mike, we packed up our things and headed off into the outback for our Uluru adventure extraordinaire.
Because Uluru is around six hours away, we planned to go straight to our camp site at Ayres Rock Resort Campground, have a look around the cultural centre and get a good spot with plenty of time for the sunset.
We spent that night (and every other night on our trip) sleeping in the back of our Ute in swags – it was cold, but great fun and several other tourists (including Australians) confused us for real Australians!
The next day we were up before day break to pack up camp and find a good spot for sunrise. Now, there are separate sunset and sunrise lookout points marked on all the maps of the park advising you of the best places to go. These points are designed to give you the best vantage point so you can see the effect of the sun hitting the rock and magically changing its colour. Because we’d already seen the amazing colour-change effect the night before, we decided we wanted to see the sun rise up from behind Uluru – giving us the outline of the rock – so we went to a ‘sunset’ viewing spot instead. What we saw was simply breath-taking, and because it was a sunset spot, hardly anyone else was there!
In our own time, we headed over to the busier sunrise spot, just to see the famous rock from every angle. From here you could see the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) in the distance behind Uluru.
Next up, we drove around half an hour across the park to see the Olgas a little closer.
We wanted to explore the Olgas more – there are some great trails that go right through the bulging stones – but because we had also planned to visit Kings Canyon (which was three hours away) that day. We decided we would rather use our remaining time in the part to get a bit closer to Ayres Rock itself.
Driving back over to take a free walking tour at the base of Uluru, we were shocked at the scale of the rock as we got closer and closer. It hadn’t looked all that big from the viewing points positioned further back across the bush as there’s really nothing out there to put it into perspective. But, as the road edged nearer, we suddenly found ourselves driving alongside it – it filled the entire windscreen and completely blocked out the sun.
Parking up, we hurried to the free walk (which we had just missed the start of), but we were distracted by the sight of a long line of people struggling to climb up the side of the near-vertical smooth sandstone.
We knew that climbing Uluru is controversial and strongly advised against. We had heard plenty of differing opinion of the matter in the last few months! The Anangu (the local aboriginal people) believe that this area is sacred. They explain that climbing Uluru is dangerous and when people die attempting to reach the summit (which they regularly do), it is extremely upsetting to them. They also say that the notion of reaching the top of an object gives the climber a sense of conquest and ownership – they would prefer visitors make a more emotional attachment to the area (as they do) and explore the perimeter, take in the stories of their people and consider the culture instead. Other people I have spoken to believe that this is all nonsense and purely a con to give the rock a mystical aspect for the tourists.
Having already missed the start of the walk, and considering how little time we had, we weren’t sure what to do. Watching people striving to climb up this behemoth on their hands and knees (with some clearly giving up after the first five metres) ignited my competitive nature. I brushed any guilty feeling aside and we decided to give climbing it a go.
It was steep. Obviously officials don’t want you climbing Uluru so they put a minimum of climbing supports in to help you do it, but even with the chain (which is pretty loose in places) scaling this flat wall of stone was challenging.
Halfway up the chain everyone was intent on getting to the top, but there was a friendly, jovial atmosphere. People taking a rest cheered on those that carefully manoeuvred around them, and others huffed and puffed their agreement of how difficult the climb was as they passed one another.
We were all stunned into silence though when we heard a phone ringing. One guy ahead produced a mobile and his conversation would have had me in stiches had I not been so worried about falling. It went something like this: “Hello? Yeah, hi mate. Listen mate, I can’t talk right now. I’m climbing Uluru. Yeah. Really hard work mate. Yeah. Look, if I don’t die I’ll give you a call back ok?”
When we eventually reached the end of the chain we looked around in satisfaction – we had made it! People all around us were smiling and talking about the climb, the phone guy kept his promise and made his phonecall, and it was selfie central.
Not having a lot of time, we took our pictures, caught our breath and began the climb back down – followed by some others that had made it up with us.
It was only when we were halfway down the chain we heard a shout of surprise. Turning back, we saw that someone at the top of the chain had carried on climbing – they’d found a foothold to get further up and were now above the platform where we’d all taken a rest – we hadn’t made it to the top after all!
One of the guys behind us sighed and said “well, it might not have been the top, but it was far up enough for me!” We murmured our agreement. We’d probably insulted the Anangu people enough for one day anyway.
When we reached our car we had a rethink. I didn’t feel like we’d seen enough of Uluru to leave yet – so we changed our plan. We had anticipated rushing around Kings Canyon that afternoon and staying at Curtain Springs free campsite (two hours from Kings Canyon) ready for our five hour drive home the next day. Instead, we would drive to the Kings Canyon Resort that evening – right next to the landmark – see the Canyon first thing and then take on the seven hour drive home.
The decision meant we had time to explore some of the areas all around Uluru and its many bush walks.
That afternoon, after we’d had our fill of the rock, we set off for Kings Canyon.
The next day, we would catch it just as the sun rose over the canyon walls. We had decided to do the four hour ‘rim walk’, which would show us all the best views of the canyon and its most famous features the Garden of Eden and The Lost City.
The white and red canyon the cliffs are more than 300 metres high and it’s amazing how green it is – the canyon has the largest range of plants in an Australian arid zone.
The Canyon was spectacular and we were very glad that we’d made the choice to come here – away from the crowds of Uluru. At times during our walk we felt like we were strolling through the beautiful outback alone – and experience I would definitely recommend (along with plenty of water and sun cream!)
On the way back from Kings Canyon, we decided to take a ‘short cut’ back to Alice Springs, which would cut our overall journey by two hours. It was a rough, unsealed road, and I wouldn’t recommend it for anything other than four-wheel drive vehicles, but since we had Mike’s wonderful ute, we went for it.
The drive was actually a lot of fun and we even saw something that both of us had been missing the entire time we’d been in the outback – camels!
For station owners they are a huge pest, spreading cattle diseases and breaking down fences – but for the entire six months we’d been in the Northern Territory we hadn’t seen one! Thankfully, now we’d seen three!
Arriving back at Napperby, we looked over all our pictures and agreed that it had been a tiring whirlwind of a trip – but it had been completely worth it. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to this beautiful and desolate area of Australia that we had come to call ‘home’.