under the noon sun, uluru glows a fiery vermillion that fades to a light brown later in the afternoon. at dusk, it cools to a pale violet and just before nightfall, it’s almost blue as the earth’s shadow hovers over its base under the pink belt of venus. the sky around it is light as day for a few last moments before the blue spreads across and darkens into night.
it’s no wonder that uluru is often described as having chameleon-like qualities; every hour, it takes on a different hue as its surface interacts with the changing atmosphere around. this most famous of australia’s monument is already sacred to the anangu indigenous people and its ever-changing appearance just makes it all the more magical.
from far, it looks like one smooth stone slab but up close, uluru’s many curves, ridges, caves, valleys, waterholes and openings reveal themselves. on a guided walk around the base, a loop that’s 9km in length, park rangers who know uluru better than the back of their hands clue you in on the legends and stories behind the distinctive features and sacred sites.
there’s the mick jagger or tapaji, a cave with oversized, gaping ‘lips’; kulpi mutitjulu is a cave where families once gathered to dine, under a rock shaped like a snake or lizard; the carving of the mala wallaby-man’s face tells of his heroic efforts to protect his people against the demon-dingo dog kurpany.
the experience is not unlike tjukurpa, which means stories and form the foundation of the anangus’ culture. it governs their understanding on life, the environment around them, and the relationship between all living beings and the land. without listening to these ancient tales, the uluru is nothing more than a cluster of geological features. it is the stories that give meaning to its every facet and help you understand the uluru’s significance to its traditional owners.
just as old and revered is kata tjuta, its 36 domes rising majestically from the horizon about 50km to the west of uluru. step into the gorges that separate the domes and as you hike through the entryway of walpa gorge, kata tjuta’s magnificence is unmistakable. its highest peak towers at 546m, which is almost 200m taller than uluru and similarly, its ragged surfaces change colours throughout the day. wallabies are often spotted here.
the two landmarks and their surrounding areas are protected as the uluru-kata tjuta national park, jointly managed by the anangus and parks australia, with the australian government holding a 99-year lease since 1985. this unesco world heritage site draws close to half a million visitors each year, most of them flying in to the ayers rock airport on daily flights from all major australian airports.
the adventurous traveller can drive here via alice springs, the closest town that’s a good 460km away or about seven hours by car. if you’re up for a cross-country jaunt, hop on board the ghan, a twice-weekly train that connects adelaide and darwin.
this is the same rail service that transports all food and drinks for visitors to the red centre. it is a desert after all, an expanse of land that’s the same shade as the uluru at noon. it’s a harsh, dusty environment where the uv index is constantly high and temperatures can soar to the mid-40°cs in summer.
the area receives only about 308mm of annual rainfall but that is surprisingly enough to allow a diverse species to survive. more than 400 native plants have been identified within the park, many of them consumed as food or medicine by the natives.
pretty and exotic, some of the bush flowers feature on the menus of the restaurants at ayers rock resort, the only accommodation provider here that’s made up of five hotels and resorts, each catering to different types of travellers and budgets. rough it out at camp sites or live it up at the 5-star longitude 131°, designed like a desert safari with each of its 15 well-appointed tented villas directly facing uluru.
you’d be tempted to laze in bed all day and never take your eyes off the views through the glass doors, but longitude offers many reasons to step out and immerse in the natural surrounds. catch the sunset from a dune just behind the resort over canapés and champagne, then dine under the stars at table 131° while indigenous performers dance around a fire. after dinner, study the constellations and try to spot jupiter. on a full moon night, the desert lights up and shows off uluru and kata tjuta in their full glory.
these are no mere gigantic rocks or geological wonders, but symbols of an ancient wisdom that understands man and nature should never be separate. as mighty as man may be, here he is but a small part of an existence, a speck of dust compared to the two inselbergs that have stood the test of time for 600 million years.
exploring the red centre other ways to enjoy the outback:
soar through the sky get a bird’s eye view of uluru and see this sacred land the way the indigenous people depict it in their dot paintings. there are several different tours, lasting between 15 minutes to two hours.
rev it up ride pillion or in a trike attached to a late model heritage softail harley davidson to feel the desert wind in your hair. you can choose to ride into the sunrise (with breakfast) or sunset (sparkling wine will be served), or view kata tjuta up close with stops at interest points.
sail a ship of the desert australia’s largest camel farm, uluru camel tours, is home to 50 working animals that ferry visitors on a variety of rides. there’s also a museum on site, and a saddlery where you can watch skilled makers put the finishing touches to handmade saddles and harnesses.
voices of the desert listed in the australian tourism hall of fame, the sounds of silence dinner is an unforgettable experience that begins with canapés and wines at sunset, followed by a barbecue dinner under star-lit skies while a storyteller entertains you with tales as old as time. you can also ride a camel to the location or arrive by helicopter.
dot your i’s sign up for maruku arts’ dot painting workshop to learn the symbolism behind the colourful dots that characterise indigenous art. available daily at ayers rock resort and the uluru-kata tjuta cultural centre, it is suitable for children (ages five and up) as well as adults.
pedal power missing your spinning classes? here’s one way to make up for it – rent a bicycle from outback cycling and pedal your way along a 15km track around uluru, join their mountain biking tours, or ride and explore alice springs.