Beyond the rock: the best experiences around Uluru

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Making the pilgrimage to Australia’s most iconic rock is an essential travel experience. While there are now a variety of ways to experience Uluru (Ayers Rock) in a culturally sensitive and responsible manner, there are also plenty of other off-the-beaten-path attractions in the Northern Territory desert to really get the most of your trip.

Get ready to rock and roll through the Red Centre experiencing stunning climbs and hikes, a wealth of fascinating culture and history as well as a handful of quirky festivals and events.

Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas, at sunset on a clear winter evening © Maurizio De Mattei / Shutterstock

Exploring the other rocks

Uluru might be the key draw of visiting Australia’s Red Centre, but it’s not the only big rock out there. Roughly 30km from the most renowned rubble in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the 36 striking red domes of Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) are well worth a journey. Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’, and is of great tjukurpa (relating to Aboriginal law, religion and custom) significance. It is for this reason that only two walks remain open to tourists: the short and beautiful Walpa Gorge walk (2.6km return, 45 minutes), and the more challenging but rewarding Valley of the Winds loop (7.4km, between two and four hours). Tourists are urged to stay on the tracks, and climbing on the boulders is not permitted.

Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta looks particularly beautiful at sunset, and the dune viewing platform is a fantastic place to be during sunrise, when the morning sun crests directly behind majestic Uluru in the distance. The domes can be visited independently with your park entry ticket ($25), or on one of many tours that can be booked through Ayers Rock Resort.

Atila (Mt Conner) is known as ‘Fool-uru’ © Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

And then there’s ‘Fool-uru’. Known as Uluru’s forgotten rock, Atila (Mt Conner) was formed during the same period of uplift that created its likeness approximately 550 million years ago. The majestic mesa sits on Curtin Springs cattle station, 80km north of Uluru. Tourists were once allowed to drive freely through the area, but following one rescue too many, the station owners enlisted the help of local operator SEIT Outback Australia to run tours from Uluru.

On a half-day 4WD tour of the property, you’ll visit the spectacular salt flats of Lake Swanson, featuring free-roaming cattle and feral camels (half a million camels are thought to run wild in the Aussie outback!) on your way to get a close-up of Atila. If you decide to grab dinner at Curtin Springs on the way back to Uluru, you might be lucky enough to meet iconic local character Peter Severin, who set up the station with his wife Dawn in 1956.

The Aussie outback is full of salt lakes like Swanson Lake, near Uluru © Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

Learning about Aboriginal culture

It would be remiss to leave Uluru without taking time to learn more about its deep spiritual and cultural significance to the Anangu, Uluru’s traditional custodians. The excellent Cultural Centre (and attached Walkatjara Art Centre) near the foot of Uluru, and the base walk itself (the daily Mala Walk is often led by indigenous guides) both offer fascinating insights, but the opportunities don’t stop there.

Ayers Rock Resort offers half a dozen cultural experiences ranging from free garden walks and dot painting workshops, to the on-site Mani-Mani Cultural Theatre which screens the story of Aboriginal ancestral beings, Walawuru, Kakalyalya and Kaanka.

Next to the Desert Gardens Hotel, the Wintjiri Arts & Museum provides a glimpse into the region’s history, geology, flora and fauna, showcasing Anangu-made art and products. The Mulgara Gallery in the foyer of Sails in the Desert hotel exhibits fascinating indigenous art and craft. Local artists also sell pieces at the daily art market held in the resort’s modest ‘town square’.

Intrigued? It’s currently possible to visit private Aboriginal lands on two 4WD drive tours offered by Uluru Family Tours that can be booked through SEIT Outback Australia. The Patji Tour allows you to explore Anangu Country with a member of the Uluru family. You will visit sacred sites, try your hand at traditional food gathering, and learn about the family’s struggle for land rights. On the Cave Hill Tour you will visit one of the most significant rock art sites in Central Australia accompanied by an Anangu guide, who will teach you about its tjukurpa.

Hiking Kings Canyon

Located 300km from Uluru, it is entirely possible to hike the legendary Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park on a day trip from Ayers Rock area. If you’re driving and hope to do the famous 6km Rim Walk (between three and four hours), aim to arrive before 9.00am on days forecast to hit 36°C, when rangers close the gates for safety reasons.

A veritable Garden of Eden lies at the heart of Kings Canyon © Sarah Reid / Lonely Planet

If you don’t have your own set of wheels, you can book a return guided hiking tour with AAT Kings, who also offer onward passage to Alice Springs (320km north) at the end of the day. The tour stops at quirky Kings Creek Station for breakfast (where you can stock up on bottles of water if you haven’t already brought the required three litres), and the plush Kings Canyon Resort for lunch following the hike.

The Rim Walk begins with a steep, challenging climb (ominously nicknamed ‘Heart Attack Hill’), but once you reach the peak it’s a relatively easy amble through spectacular landscapes including the beehive-like domes of the so-called ‘Lost City’, followed by the lush oasis at the heart of the canyon known as the Garden of Eden. Those looking for a less strenuous walk may prefer the 2km Creek Bed Walk (one hour), which highlights impressive views of the canyon periphery.

If you are driving, there’s also the Kathleen Springs Walk, a 2.6km (1.5 hour) return walk to a waterhole, situated just down the road from Kings Canyon. Serious hikers can head for the Giles Track, a 22km route, typically undertaken as an overnight hike. Like Uluru and Kata Tjuta, part of the gorge is a sacred Aboriginal site and visitors are discouraged from straying from the walking tracks.

Kings Canyon is criss-crossed with trails of varying difficulty, all featuring breath-taking scenery © Stanislav Fosenbauer / Shutterstock

Attending festivals and special events

Cooler autumn climates spell festival season in Uluru, kicking off with the Tjungu Festival in April, which celebrates the best of Australian indigenous culture with lively markets, musical performances, delicious culinary experiences and sports events. At the end of the May there’s Uluru’s Camel Cup, with plenty of entertainment both on and off the racetrack. Ayers Rock Resort also hosts a changing roster of special events, from astronomer-in-residence programs and yoga retreats, to British artist Bruce Munro’s exquisite Field of Light exhibition, which runs until the end of March 2018.

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