Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park – A Guide to Australia’s Magical Red Centre
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park is home to the colossal red-ochre monolith Uluru – formerly called Ayers Rock – and the striking monumental rock domes of Kata Tjuta, once known as The Olgas. The next months are the time to visit.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park is one Australia’s most ancient places and one of its most sacred sites, especially for the Anangu, the Aboriginal peoples who are the traditional owners. It’s one of our favourite parts of Australia and has a special place in our hearts.
Most of you are probably dreaming of European summer escapes this time of year – if you’re not already trundling on a train through Tuscany or lying on a Calabria beach. Perhaps because we live in sultry Southeast Asia, I’m wistfully recalling winters in Australia – the warmer northern tropical part of Australia that is: Broome, Darwin, Kakadu… I’m missing my home country, Australia, and one place I’ve been dreaming of returning to is Uluru, which is especially stunning in winter.
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park lies in the ‘red centre’ of the Northern Territory in the heart of Australia, around Alice Springs and south to Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. I love the contrast in colours between the ochre of the rock formations and red dirt roads and the clear blue winter skies. But go prepared: while the days can average a lovely 20 degrees Celsius, temperatures overnight can go as low as zero.
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park – A Guide to Experiencing Australia’s Red Centre
I first visited Uluru, then called Ayers Rock, with my family in 1980 when there were no facilities other than the caravan park and camping ground – we had to take everything we’d need with us and there were just twenty or so other campers at most when we parked our van.
We loved it so much we stayed a week, doing walks, doing the climb (sadly, everyone did it in those days without a second thought), buying Aboriginal crafts from the local community (now off limits), and tucking into simple barbecue dinners as the sun set. Bliss.
Terence and I explored Uluru Kata Tjuta for the first time together researching guidebooks in 2009 and once again got to stay a week. While it was a very different experience to my first visit – now there’s a small settlement with a supermarket an array of accommodation choices, restaurants, cafés, and pubs – it was still magical. There’s an energy about that place that’s hard to describe.
We did incredible tours with indigenous guides, walked around the base of Uluru instead of climbing to the top, enjoyed fine dining meals, including a feast under the stars with a few hundred other people and an astronomer pointing out stars, and we lapped up some luxury of Longitude 131° (which has since changed hands and been spruced up).
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park is one of our favourite places in Australia and we’d return in a heartbeat. Here’s our guide to visiting Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park – The Most Important Things to Understand
Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park may be remote, located on the edge of the red centre’s Western Desert region some 460km southwest of Alice Springs and 250km from the Stuart Highway, but it’s still Australia’s most popular attraction. And with good reason. After spending a few days here you’ll understand the appeal of its natural beauty and spirit. It’s magnetic.
The most important thing to know before you go is that Uluru and Kata Tjuta have an immense spiritual significance to the Anangu, the Aboriginal peoples who are the traditional landowners, whose culture is rooted in a holistic cosmology and belief system that encompasses the land, its laws and morals, and straddles the past, present and future.
The Dreaming – which is also called The Dreamtime – refers to a period when ancestral beings created the world, establishing relationships between the land and its peoples, plants and animals. This is the time of the creation stories that comprise the Dreaming. Ever since that time, the knowledge of how relationships were formed and meanings created have been passed down from generation to generation through ceremonies, culture and traditions.
The Dreaming stories, often prompted through rock art, teach the Anangu peoples about the past and provide moral guidance as to how they should live and behave. To the Anangu, however, the stories are not dreams in our sense, but are very real with complex meanings.
Uluru is thought to be at a place where the Dreaming trails intersect, which is why it’s such a special place for Australia’s first Australians and that’s why this is the most important thing to understand before you go.
While Uluru itself is special, there are a number of sacred sites at its base and at Kata Tjuta and you need to take care not to photograph these.
Visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – The Practical Details
All Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park accommodation is around a 20-minute drive from Uluru and a 40-minute drive from Kata Tjuta. It’s clustered together on Yulara Drive, the central ring road, under the umbrella (or shade sails!) of the Ayers Rock Resort and there’s something for every budget, from camping grounds through apartments and mid-range hotels to a 5-star resort.
This is where you’ll find most facilities, centrally located at the Shopping Square off the north side of Yulara Drive, which has cafés, takeaways, a supermarket, newsagent, ATMs, post office, and a Visitor Centre (open 9am–5pm) with engaging exhibitions on aspects of Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park and the Anangu peoples.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is jointly managed by Parks Australia and the traditional Aboriginal owners, the Anangu, which means you will need a Park Pass to visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Park passes are valid for three days but can be extended to five days at no extra cost. They cost: A$25 adults (16+ years), A$65 family (2 adults + 2 or more children), A$12.50 child (5-15 years), while children under 5 can enter for free.
You can buy your Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Pass online and if you have an iPhone you can save the Pass to the Wallet app on your phone and it will automatically appear on the lock screen as you approach the park. Or you can buy a Park Pass from the entry station.
Because the national park is on Aboriginal land, you can only visit the Cultural Centre, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and use the roads and paths linking these. You cannot visit the Aboriginal community, Mutujulu. Make sure you don’t miss the excellent Cultural Centre.
Uluru–Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre
Located after the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park national park entry station, 1km before Uluru, this superb cultural centre (open 7am–6pm, last entry 5.30pm; free) has an engaging exhibition on the traditional customs and everyday life of the Aboriginal peoples of the area. The exhibition including displays on the Dreaming and creation stories related to Uluru, Aboriginal bush tucker and medicine, and art and crafts.
The stunning-looking complex that houses the Cultural Centre is also home to the National Parks Information Office, arts and craft galleries, a souvenir shop (which has some beautiful gifts), and Ininti Café (7am-5pm), operated by the Mutitjulu community, which has terrific Uluru views.
National Parks Information Office
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park boasts diverse habitats from desert oak woodlands to spinifex-covered sand dunes that are home to more than 400 plant species, around 70 reptile species, some 25 native mammals, and almost 180 birds.
You’ll find a fascinating exhibition covering this, along with Park Notes on the subjects at the National Parks Information Office. You can also book a place here on the ranger-guided walks. If you’re photographing in the park for commercial, editorial or artistic purposes you’ll need to get permission here, which includes a briefing on what you can and cannot photograph, including sacred sites.
Walkatjara Arts and Maruku Arts
Beside the National Parks Information Office are two fine galleries. Walkatjara Arts specialises in vivid art by local Anangu painters from the local community, Mutitjulu, some of which have been exhibited at Australia’s finest museums and galleries. The gallery supports the artists, providing them with a space to paint and for visitors to watch artists at work and speak to them.
Maruku Arts sells traditional handicrafts, wooden tools and implements, pottery, baskets, dilly bags, music sticks, boomerangs, and spears, and jewellery, made by Anangu artists, as well as other artisans from the Central Western Desert.
In future posts we’ll cover where to stay at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, things to do at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and where to eat and drink at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and then we’ll cover the rest of the Red Centre, Darwin and Top End of the Northern Territory, our most favourite part of Australia, in a series of posts.