We’re heading in opposite directions, but had stopped to admire the vista near a spot called Karingana Lookout, near Kata Tjuta’s Valley of the Winds. After a quick “G’day mate”, my fellow hiker tries to describe the beauty of the ancient rock formations that are currently dwarfing us.
“Everyone said don’t bother coming out here; just go do Uluru,” he says, his bearded face wisely smothered in sunscreen. He swished away a fly. “But, jeez, I’m glad I did – I reckon it’s almost better. The views… it’s just f–king spectacular. Up there in the valley (he gestures behind him) the views… wow… f–k man… I’ve got no words.”
And then he’s off down the path, shaking his head at the wonder of it all. I didn’t even get a chance to ask his name, or where he was from.
Let’s just call him Old Mate, and say he was from Brisbane – which is where the vast majority of visitors to Uluru, Kata Tjata and the supporting resort township of Yulara have come from in the past 12 months or so as other states have gone in and out of lockdown.
He appeared to be in his mid-20s, but as he wanders off down the track, it dawns on me that Old Mate is wise beyond his years.
“I’ve got no words,” he’d said. I can’t help but agree.
I am only in the Red Centre for a couple of days, part of a fly-in, fly-out chartered weekend getaway, which is becoming increasingly popular for both the time-poor and those disinclined to spend days on the road, dodging camels, kangaroos and other potential roadkill on the way. It feels like a cheat’s way to do it, but, hey, we can’t all be Charles Sturt or John McDouall Stuart, can we?
We’d touched down just after midday on Friday and were set to fly out again mid-afternoon on Sunday, so had two nights and two days to get our fill of this ancient, majestic country.
Yulara’s accommodation options range from non-powered camping sites to the luxurious five-star hotels. My second-storey room in the Desert Gardens Hotel boasts everything you’d expect if you were staying in the heart of a major city – but also with the unique and magnificent view of the world’s most famous rock.
The town has an IGA to stock up on supplies, a petrol station (where the going rate for unleaded is $2.19 a litre) and a variety of free cultural activities for guests ranging from didgeridoo workshops to storytelling to bush tucker demonstrations. The exquisite works of Indigenous artists from across Central Australia are on display at the Gallery of Central Australia, which opened this year and is helping pour critical funds back into remote communities.
Dining options include the now-renowned open-air Sounds of Silence dinner, where we watch the sunset from a sand dune platform before settling into a magnificent three-course buffet, inspired by traditional Indigenous ingredients, interrupted only by a guided tour of the stars which make up a sparkling desert sky.
Another popular post-dusk experience is the Field of Light, where 50,000 glass spheres sway atop gently flowing stems, connected by 380km of fibre optic cables, changing colour constantly to create a sea of light over nearly 50,000sq m of the desert landscape.
But, of course, the real drawcards of the area are the two geological wonders that are Uluru and Kata Tjuta, both easily accessible on sealed roads just out of town.
Uluru is the closest and, as the most recognisable rock in Australia, boasts the highest-profile of the two. After many years of gentle requests from the traditional owners, local Anangu people, climbing the rock was finally outlawed in October 2019 – an occurrence that has allowed visitors to focus more on the cultural and spiritual significance of the landmark.
The Anangu have lived here for more than 30,000 years and their stories, religion, law and moral systems are intricately and indelibly linked to the land on which they have long roamed. A 12km, six-hour guided trek around the base of Uluru with SEIT Outback Australia presents a chance to learn about the Anangu’s belief system of Tjukurpa, and how the rock’s caves, depressions, crevices, scars, pock marks, overhangs, waterholes and more play such a pivotal role in both their day-to-day lives and traditions and support the desert wildlife which makes human existence possible.
Picture: Luke Tscharke
The rock starts as little more than a dark shadow in the pre-dawn light, but transforms to a luminous blood red when the first rays of sun strike about 6 am. The never-ending and striking colour transformation – dependent on the sun, shadows and position of the viewer – is one of the wonders of Uluru. It’s one of the reasons scenic helicopter flights are so popular, or why people join camel, segway or cycling tours around the base, or even walk it at leisure, as an alternative to our guided hike.
And it’s why visitors in cars, campervans, four-wheel-drives and coaches arrive at designated viewing parking bays an hour or two before sunset, open a beer or a wine and watch as the rock’s iron-rich sandstone gradually transforms through a million shades of red.
Kata Tjuta, which formed the same time as Uluru about 400 million years ago, is just as impressive as its more fêted geological sister. More than 30 giant domes spread over 2000ha to offer a jaw-dropping spectacle. There are no tours running to Kata Tjuta during my quick visit so I hire a car and head out on my own. The short 30-minute drive is well worth the effort.
The most common destination at Kata Tjuta (a name I continually stumbled over until someone told me it was a near-rhyme phrase to “can of tuna”) is the 2.6km return trek to Walpa Gorge, but it’s on the less well-trodden 7.4km Valley of the Winds circuit that I had my aforementioned encounter with Old Mate.
A few hours later, as we buckle in to lift off from Yulara’s Connellan Airport and I am already missing the rich red soil for which Central Australia is famed, I again ponder the wisdom of his pithy summation of the beauty of the area: “I’ve got no words.”
He was right. It’s impossible for a collection of vowels and consonants to do justice to the multitude of natural and cultural wonders that can be found in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
The writer was a guest of Holidays of Australia and NT Now.
Picture: Kyle Hunter and Hayley Anderson
NT Now and Holidays of Australia offer two-night chartered getaways, flying Alliance Airlines, direct to Yulara from 20 cities across Australia. Brisbane is the only city with commercial flights to Yulara, but Jetstar has announced plans to open routes from Sydney and Melbourne. Otherwise you can fly to Alice Springs and then drive or bus the 445km to Yulara.
Yulara is at least two days’ drive from any capital city, but you’ll be able to find a sealed road all the way. Be wary of camels, kangaroos and other wildlife.
Ayers Rock Resort has accommodation ranging from unpowered campsites to five-star hotels.
Walk around Uluru at sunrise. Watch Uluru change colours as the sun sets. Explore Kata Tjuta. Wander through Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. Attend free cultural activities at Yulara. Attend a free tour at the Gallery of Central Australia. Book a Sounds of Silence dinner under the stars. Visit Bruce Munro’s Field of Light.
About the Anangu people, and their concept of Tjukurpa – the creational period during which ancestral beings created the physical world from which their society’s religion, laws and moral systems were formed.
For information about Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, go to ayersrockresort.com.au
For information about chartered weekend getaways to Yulara, go to ntnow.com.au
This article originally appeared on Escape