Uluru beyond the climb

Travelling Well | Jan Fisher | Photos: Anne Morley and supplied | Posted on 23 September 2019

Uluru will rock on after the climb closes for good in October. Here are six other things to do in the central Australian heartland.

The decision to ban climbing Uluru was always going to be controversial. The announcement by the rock’s board of management that visitors will no longer be permitted to climb after 26 October this year inevitably sparked emotion-charged debate about whether Australians should be denied the opportunity to fulfil one of the great Aussie bucket-list adventures.


Slides: Field of Light, Sounds of Silence dinner, Walpa Gorge, dessert camel rides, Kata Tjuta, native bush tucker, Uluru from the air. Images: Tourism NT and Anne Morley.


In fact the local Anangu people have been politely asking us not to climb Uluru for decades and the number of visitors making the ascent has dwindled from 74 per cent in the 1990s to just 16 per cent in 2015. But as the outright ban approaches, the rush is on – in recent months as many as 300 people a day have scrambled to the top, determined to conquer the rock while they still can. 

The irony, perhaps lost on the climbers, is that the only place for kilometres around where it’s not possible to really appreciate the majesty and spiritual pull of Uluru is from on top of it.

The irony, perhaps lost on the climbers, is that the only place for kilometres around where it’s not possible to really appreciate the majesty and spiritual pull of Uluru is from on top of it.


For all the fuss, the ban on climbing will do little, if anything, to diminish the singular allure of Uluru or its place in the national psyche. Standing on the red earth in the pre-dawn silence as the sun edges over the world’s most recognisable monolith will remain a truly spine-tingling experience – just as it has for thousands of years.  

And if watching the dawn shadows play across the rock turning it shades of purple, vermillion and gold isn’t attraction enough, there’s a host of other activities to keep even the most adventurous visitor enthralled, from helicopter flights and sky diving, to art classes and fine dining. 

Fine dining desert at Tali Wiru restaurant in Uluru
Colourful array of native bush foods arranged on a wooden chopping board

Learn about native bush foods (right) at the Ayers Rock Resort Cultural Centre, then see how they're transformed into an amazing feast at Tali Wiru (left).


Six compelling reasons to visit Uluru after the climb has closed  



Tali Wiru

Dining experiences don’t come more memorable than this. Even if Tali Wiru, the Red Centre’s premier dining experience, weren’t hosted on a sand dune in the middle of a desert, overlooking one of the most recognisable sights in the world, it would still be special. Sure, taking in the sunset over Uluru while sipping sparkling wine is mesmerising, but as course after delicious course is delivered from what can best be described as a tin shed, the experience transcends expectations.

The chefs work hard to incorporate the ‘larder’ that is all around them into the menu, so expect bush foods including wallaby, green ants, Kakadu plum and bush tomato. Oh, and there are matched wines, twinkling stars, soft desert winds, talks about Indigenous history and cosy blankets for when the sun sets. In a word: bliss. ayersrockresort.com.au

Segway tours

Sure, you can walk around the base of the rock, but it takes at least three hours and it gets hot out there. Which is where Segway tours come in – you can whizz around the base, all done and dusted in an hour. We set out at dawn, pausing to take in the sheer might of the rock, before heading off on our two-wheeled adventure.

Judging by some of the glances we get, we gather some of the hikers we pass consider Segways a cop-out, but we don’t feel shortchanged at all. We see just as much of the rock as we would on foot, stop to examine cave paintings and rock details, have plenty of time to take photos and are back in our hotel by lunch. Segway lessons are included for the nervous. ulurusegwaytours.com.au 

Field of Light 

The rock climb isn’t the only thing facing an end date. The astonishing Field of Light installation by internationally celebrated artist Bruce Munro will be dismantled in December 2020. If you described the theory of the artwork – a paddock filled with lightbulbs on sticks – people might run the other way, but the reality is staggeringly beautiful.

Watch it begin to glow from atop a dune as the sun sets over Uluru in the background, then wander down into the field for your close-up as the luminescent bulbs on spindles gently change colour in a ‘wave’ effect. It’s like strolling into a fairytale, albeit one that includes several hundred other people with smartphones. ayersrockresort.com.au

Close up of man holding wooden plate filled with native Australian ingredients
Group of people doing Uluru base tour on Segways

From dessert feasts to two-wheeled base walks, Uluru has something for everyone. Images: Anne Morley.


Kata Tjuta hike

Formerly known as The Olgas, Kata Tjuta might be the park’s poor cousin when it comes to famous rock formations, but it is no less stunning. The name translates as ‘many heads’ and the area consists of 36 steep-sided domes. We set off at dawn into the Valley of the Winds for a 7.5-kilometre hike which was, well, windy. But the shadow play over the formations as the sun rises is awe-inspiring – think Picnic at Hanging Rock without the pan flutes. There is a bit of climbing, but the largest trip hazard is from the constant urge to look up at the towering walls of red rock looming above. ayersrockresort.com.au

Maruku Arts

Dot painting looks easy, right? Just dots, over and over again, different colours, same dots. Maruku Arts is here to teach you otherwise. This collective, representing about 900 Anangu artists, offers workshops and experiences in Indigenous arts. We join a painting workshop run by Valerie, who explains the symbols used in local artworks before unleashing us to create our own. It’s humbling. Dots are harder than they look and, as we toil away, Valerie knocks out a stunning creation twice the size of ours and has time to clean her brushes and check her phone. You can take your artwork home but for something more presentable, Valerie’s works are for sale. maruku.com.au 

Camel tour

Up close they’re big and hairy and their teeth look quite alarming, but our camel-tour camels are pretty chill. It’s fun to watch the desert slide by from high in the saddle as your guide explains the surrounding native flora – more or less a long list of things not to eat. These tours are described as an ‘adventure’ but that’s a bit of a stretch – a more apt description might be: ‘enjoy an unfamiliar landscape from the back of a large amenable mammal at a manageable pace’. ulurucameltours.com.au

Uluru in Australia at sunset

The sun will set on the Uluru climb in October. Image: Anne Morley.



Why not climb Uluru?

The traditional owners of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park are the Anangu who have occupied the area for 60,000 years and consider it sacred.

They ask visitors not to climb the rock, not only because the site is sacred to them but also because, as custodians of the land, it distresses them when people are hurt on the climb. Thirty-seven people have died climbing the rock since records began. The Anangu do not climb it themselves.

Anangu beliefs are founded on a set of spiritual laws called Tjukurpa, which also provide practical guidance on the location of waterholes and food, how and where to travel and how to care for the land. 

Climb timeline

  • 1873: The first European to climb Uluru is believed to be surveyor and explorer William Christie Gosse in 1873, who named it after then-chief secretary of South Australia,  
    Sir Henry Ayers.
  • 1940s: Tourism takes off in the area. 
  • 1985: Uluru’s traditional owners, the Anangu, begin asking visitors not to climb the rock.
  • 1992: A sign to that effect is erected at the base of the climb. 
  • 2010: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management announces a plan to close the climb when the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, and when there are sufficient alternative visitor experiences on offer.
  • 2017: The board decides those criteria have been met and sets end date as 26 October 2019, the 34th anniversary of the return of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to their traditional owners.
  • 26 October 2019: Climbing Uluru no longer permitted.


*Jan Fisher travelled as a guest of Voyages Ayers Rock Resort.

 

Getting around

Bus tours and day trips from Ayers Rock Resort can be pricey so, if you're planning on exploring Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the best way to get around is by car. RACV members save 15% on car hire through Thrifty. Or, if you'd prefer to let someone else take the wheel, Members can also access exclusive outback adventure travel deals through APT

 

15% off Thrifty car hire for all RACV members