Formerly known as Ayer’s Rock, Uluru is a red sandstone monolith smack in the middle of Australia. The rock is massive, standing nearly as tall as the Empire State Building with a circumference of 9.4 kilometers. It towers over the surrounding desert, catching the light dramatically at sunrise and sunset. The beauty of the landscape is undeniable, and riding a camel through the Outback is one of my favorite travel experiences to date. So is Uluru worth it? As I mentioned when sharing my two-week Australia itinerary, I have mixed feelings about visiting the site. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly so you can decide for yourself.
My Sunset Camel Experience with Uluru Camel Tours was a highlight not only of the Outback, but of my entire trip to Australia. I loved every second! The camels were hilarious, all humps and legs and teeth, and prone to making guttural alien shrieks that sounded straight out of a Star Wars film. All of my irritation from the day’s hike (see below) instantly melted away as soon as I laid eyes (and ears) on them. After getting some instructions from the camel wrangler (cameleer?) we mounted our wobbly beasts and set off into the bush. Our group was small, about 15 camels holding around 13 people. (Solo adventurers got their own camel.) As we rode, the wrangler explained the history of camels in Australia along with some interesting facts about their behavior. Since the males can be violent, the Uluru Camel Farm employs only females.
Our camel train meandered through the desert for about 40 minutes before coming to a stop at the sunset viewing area. We watched the rock glow red until the sun dropped fully beyond the horizon. Night fell just as we pulled into the ranch. Pictures from the ride played on a loop while we sampled local beer, wine, and bush foods. I appreciated that the farm’s photographer took shots with our personal cameras so we were not forced to buy any. The farm is also committed to protecting the environment, making this an organization I am happy to support.
The second best part of my visit was watching the sunrise in the desert sky. I went with the Uluru Hop on Hop Off bus which picked up from my hotel at 4:30am and arrived at the designated spot about a half hour later. As we made our way through the still-dark desert to the viewing platform, I was struck by how still it was. No birds chirping, no grass rustling; just complete and utter silence. The horizon slowly brightened into a pastel rainbow as the sun worked its magic on the flat landscape. We had nearly an hour to marvel at the scene. Most people kept to the viewing platform, but I ventured down the path to get a closer look.
Imagine spending four hours in the sweltering heat constantly swatting away an unending swarm of flies. If you decide to do the Uluru base walk, this is what you can expect. The other-worldliness of the rock was not enough to offset the misery I felt trekking through the desert under a blazing sun. The Hop On Hop Off bus dropped everyone off near the rock around 7:30am. Many joined the free ranger tour, but I went ahead at my own pace – a decision I would soon regret.
At 10am, about two-thirds the way around the base, I saw a sign in the distance that said “track closed” in big letters. Thus, I finished the walk on the surrounding highway. The crucial detail I missed was that the track would be closed AFTER 2PM due to extreme heat. You can imagine my mood when I realized my error. Yes, the mistake was mine but the signs are very unclear and there is little shade. Did I get some great photos along the way? Certainly. Would I do the full base walk again? Nope.
I originally planned to hike around the neighboring Kata Tjuta rock formation the following day, but was so exhausted I could barely move. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone on a group tour of the two areas instead of attempting to do it myself. A tour would have cost more, but the experience would have been more enjoyable. At the very least, I should have reduced my walking time by utilizing the Hop On Hop Off bus. (The trouble with the bus was that it only picked up from certain points around Uluru on a limited schedule, and there wasn’t much seating or shade available while waiting for the next bus.)
If you plan to complete the full 10.6 kilometer Uluru base walk, be more prepared than I was. Take warm layers (seriously) as the desert can be quite chilly until well after sunrise. There were also surprisingly strong winds near the base of the mountain. Know that no amount of bug spray will protect you from the flies. The only way to keep them at bay is by wearing a wide-brimmed hat with an attached net to shield your face and neck. While there are stations around the park to refill your water bottle, they are widely spaced. I packed my own food, but eating it was impossible because of the flies. No toilets are available anywhere around the mountain; the only ones are inside the visitor’s center which is located two kilometers away from the start of the base walk.
Uluru is sacred to the area’s aboriginal people who believe the spirits of their ancestors reside within the monolith. Yet aside from written explanations sprinkled around the park, I felt disconnected from this culture. I expected the aborigines to have a bigger role in the telling of their own stories. Perhaps their culture forbids it or they aren’t interested in participating, I don’t know. They can’t enjoy seeing tourists continuing to climb atop one of their holiest places despite many signs begging people to reconsider. I’m not sure why climbing is still allowed at all. Could angry aboriginal spirits be sending the flies as a punishment? It sure felt that way. If you visit Uluru, please respect the wishes of the aboriginal people and DO NOT CLIMB the rock.
Ayer’s Rock Resort is the only place to stay in the vicinity of the national park and I thought it was very disappointing. I splurged on the upscale Sails in the Desert hotel in hopes of some pampering post-hike, but by the end of my stay I felt like I’d been scammed.
The property was lovely and my room comfortable, even if it was located at the absolute tail end of the resort. (The check-in clerk hinted I was being penalized for using Booking.com.) The hotel’s free breakfast buffet was decent, but wasn’t served until 7am and those who left for sunrise viewings (i.e. most people) completely missed out. Other meals were terrible and expensive, and there was literally no where else to eat but at the resort. Everything at the resort was priced outrageously high, even by Australian standards. How much of that money makes its way to the aboriginal owners of the land? The place left a sour taste in my mouth and I can’t recommend it. If there was ever a destination calling out for a campervan and picnics under the stars, this was it!
Tell me: Did you visit Uluru and have a better experience? What should I have done differently?