It is a commitment to make it out to the Australian Red Center, but those that do will be rewarded. Yes, Australian beaches are some of the best in the world, but it is a different world in the Australian outback, one that is so unique to the country: the vast distances, the timeless landscapes, and ancient Aboriginal culture that is still alive today.
We spent 10 months near the coast from Cairns to Melbourne and then up to Adelaide by traveling via housesitting, camping, and HelpX along the way. The month we spent in the center was the most memorable for me.
The following is a quick guide on visiting Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon in the Australian Red Centre. I will have a full guide on driving from Adelaide to Alice Springs and Alice Springs to Darwin in the future!
All photos by my partner with the good eye and camera, Adam Greenberg.
How to get to the Red Center
By Car/Campervan: This is our method of choice, but does require more time. One can rent a vehicle that includes all things necessary for camping, but the most affordable way would be to buy your own car and sell it at the end of your trip. There are loads of free camping spots, so you also save on accommodation. The distances are vast, but there are interesting/quirky stop-off points along the drive.
We had a 2WD station wagon which was sufficient to see the major attractions, but a 4WD would be needed to see even more.
A full itinerary and guide for driving from Adelaide to Darwin will be coming soon!
By Plane: Flights to Alice Springs and Uluru are available from different points around the country. It can be expensive — especially during high season — and one must arrange transportation upon arrival. This is the least desirable option for budget travelers, but the most appealing for those without much time.
The icon of central Australia, a massive rock that juts up out of nowhere. Seeing it in person is a must; photos do not do it justice. Not only is it an impressive natural formation, it has deep historical roots of spirituality among Aboriginal people. It continues to be a place for sacred ceremonies; some areas are closed off to tourists. Additionally, they urge tourists to learn a bit and appreciate it as more than just a place to snap a photo of.
As you’re driving along the Lasseter, you will come upon a ticket booth. Cars are backed to buy tickets, so take that into account when planning your day. Tickets are $25 per person and are good for 3 consecutive days. The money goes into the conservation of the land and to the local community. If you already have a ticket, you can simply swipe your card in another lane and enter.
Culture Center: It is best to visit this site first to better understand Uluru’s significance among its owners, Anangu.
One important take-away is that they urge tourists not to climb Uluru. It is a sacred and spiritual journey for initiated men. Tourists climbing it for the sake of climbing it is disrespectful to them and shows that they are not listening to what the traditional owners have to say. A white man discovered the rock less than 100 years ago and it was rather recent that tourists flocked here, whereas Aboriginal people have been residing there for tens of thousands of years. The ownership was returned back to Anangu in 1985 and the land is leased to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service. The community continues to cooperate and work together.
Base Walk: The 10.6km easy walk wraps around the entirety of the Rock, which helps one appreciate the vastness of the monolith, but honestly isn’t the most exciting walk there is in the world. There are signs describing some stories that are embedded in the rock as well as cave painting descriptions.
It takes 2-4 hours, depending on your pace. Carry plenty of water, a hat, sunscreen, and snacks. The walk is mostly exposed and the sun can be piercing. There are a few water refill stations throughout, but there are no toilets until the Mala parking lot.
Be mindful of the signs urging tourists not to photograph sacred sights.
Tip: Read the map carefully because there are limited toilets throughout the park. We had to hold it in while walking around the base due to no toilets.
Sunset: There is a specific sunset point for cars. Get a good spot early as the parking lot gets crowded. When the sun starts to go down, the red hues of the rock deepen to an intense red. The magical experience will stay in your memory forever. When we were there, the full moon peeked up above the rock. It was nothing short of spectacular.
Sunrise: Honestly, I didn’t find it worth the effort to make it for the sunrise view. The Sunrise viewpoint is a great angle to see the rock along with The Olgas, but the sunrise didn’t look awfully different from any other time of day. The huge crowd of tourists made pre-coffee, cold, and tired Lianne grumpy. I like to keep sunrises peaceful, so next time, I would find a different viewing spot.
Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)
This spot is sometimes missed by Uluru tourists, but I think it deserves the same amount of attention. Just 50km from Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a cluster of massive dome-like rock formations. Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a place of spiritual significance.
On the road towards Kata Tjuta from Uluru, make a pit stop for a picturesque viewing point.
Get back in your car and drive another 15 minutes to Kata Tjuta. If you’re up for it, the Valley of the Winds circuit walk (7km) is a medium-difficulty walk that is more varied than Uluru’s base walk. While you don’t walk around the entirety of the rock clusters, you do go between the crevices of the rock, making for some interesting scenery. The circuit takes about three hours, so it’s best to start early in the day as it can get hot.
Another easy walk is the Walpa Gorge. The 1.3km accessible trial leads you to a gorge with impossibly high rock walls and an elusive water source, where you’ll find plants and other forms of life
Kings Canyon is within Watarrka National Park. Being a few hours’ drive from Uluru and a bit out of the way from Alice Springs (unless you have a 4WD), many people skip Kings Canyon. But I strongly recommend not to miss it because it is truly spectacular and grossly underrated. Photos cannot do it justice; you just have to go and experience it!
The rim walk is a MUST-DO! I loved this walk more than Uluru and Kata-Tjuta. The scenery changes dramatically as you traverse the rim. The red scaley rocks felt like we were on Mars. The walk is not difficult except the first part is a bit of a climb to the top. The area is mostly exposed to the sun, so bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat. The dropping cliffs are breathtaking as is the Garden of Eden, where lush greenery appears out of nowhere from an important water source. Such sights are hard to come by in the desert! The walk is about 7km but can take a long time because there are so many beautiful vantage points and ways to get distracted.
Where to Stay
The closest free campsite to Uluru has no name nor signage. We found it via Wikicamps. The coordinates are -25.222913, 131.046813. There were several campers there. If you have a 4WD, you can go further up in the sand dunes to catch a sunrise view of the rock. The campsite is basic and there are no facilities, so take all rubbish with you, including toilet paper!
We also stayed at the Salt Creek Rest Area (5512 Luritja Rd, Petermann NT 0872) the night before we went to Kings Canyon. The area is spacious, safe and comfortable. You don’t need much when living a camping life after all! The red sand dunes are particularly picturesque at sunset, so don’t miss it!
If these don’t suit you, there are plenty of free and paid camping spots along the Lasseter. I recommend zooming in and reading the comments for some of the spots on the CamperMate Map.