Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The big red rocks

Sorry my blog is ridiculously behind at the moment, I had major internet issues in the last month traveling in Northern Australia. Will try to get back on track this month!

The iconic image of Australia: Ayers Rock! I had booked flights to Ayers Rock already last November when I booked my RTW-ticket so I didn’t have to think about whether to include a visit to the rocks on my trip. It was one of the highlights of this trip that I had been waiting for. 

There’s a couple different sites there: firstly there's Uluru or Ayers Rock and secondly Kata Tjuta - they are two separate sites, two massive rock formations. They are both located in the same National Park area and they're both an easy 20-40 min drive from the small town of Yulara where most visitors are based (or I might say all since there are no other places to stay there). Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed in the same time period and are the same colour but they have different geology - read more about that at the bottom of the post.

There’s also a third popular site there, Kings Canyon, but that’s a 3-hour drive from Yulara and I didn’t want to make my schedule too hectic so decided to skip that – at least there’s something more to see in case I come there again! 


The main thing for me was the see Uluru. I really wanted to have enough time to see all of it so I didn’t join any of the day tours since primarily all of them would just drive around the rock for the most parts. I wanted to take my time so I just got a transfer there and back, leaving me however much time I wanted to walk around it. First I went to see the sunrise – there are separate sunrise and sunset viewing sites where hundreds (and probabaly thousands in high season) flock to see the rock change colours. It was very scenic and you could see the entire rock formation from there – which I would later see up close.

The different colors of Uluru at sunrise

After the sun was up I caught my ride to the actual rock. There’s some free activities you can do at Uluru, one of the best ones is definitely a tour with the park ranger and an aboriginal elder. I made sure I would be there for the tour as it would be the only guided activity I was doing at Uluru. I surely wasn’t the only one, there were about 50 of us that showed up but the tour was very interesting. The aboriginal elder told in his own language about the flora and fauna of the area, how to survive in such harsh, dry conditions, about the history of his tribe and the rock. Some of the stories were about how the families lived there in real life, some were about the mythical happenings and beliefs about the rocks – and both were told with equal “seriousness”, as if the mythical stories were just as real. The park ranger translated the stories to us. During the winter season the tour starts at 10am, during summer at 8am, from the start of the Mala walk and it takes about 1,5-2 hours – recommended!

Tour guides - both experts of the local history
Paintings that were used to teach the children about the life in the desert
All the natural shelters had different functions in the aboriginal  community - some for women & children, some for men, some for elder members, some for cooking, some for teaching...
Here's where a big angry dog left his footprint, according to the story... Was a really big dog!
After the tour I continued my walk around Uluru. It’s about 10km to walk all the way and it can get quite hot even in winter time – it was the start of May and 25-29C in the afternoon, though I have to say the morning was chilly. Allow yourself about 3-4 hours to do the walk since you will be stopping at several points to marvel the rock and take pictures. There wasn’t too much people there so I could enjoy Uluru pretty much on my own. There’s a couple places along the walk to fill your water bottle so you don’t need to bring that much water and several maps so you know where you are. I finished the walk at the Aboriginal Centre in the afternoon, 9 hours after I had left the lodge so that was pretty much how I spent my day.

Going around the rock - it's THIS BIG!
Different sides + different lighting = different colours!
So where am I?? The maps were handy as the rock was so big it was hard to tell how far you had gone or how much was still to go.
End of the walk - yay!

I could see the Uluru at sunset from a viewpoint just right behind where I was staying and I did go see it twice there. It was quite nice just to sit there for an hour, listen to music and see the clouds pass on the pink sky behind the red rock.

Kata Tjuta

For a visit to the Kata Tjuta I booked a sunset tour with a Valley of the Winds walk. At the start of the tour there was an interesting briefing about the geology of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, a topic which they didn’t cover at all on the Uluru's Mala walk with the aboriginal guide. We walked to the first viewpoint of the Valley of the Winds with the whole group and after that the “less fit” returned the coach where they could take an easier walk on another part Kata Tjuta. 10 of us continued through the valley to the second viewpoint where they had a much better view of some of the domes though the valley. It wasn’t a strenuous walk but there were lots of uneven surface – but to compare it with how demanding terrain the walks go through in Peru, anyone can do this one. The Kata Tjuta tour ended at the sunset viewing point with some nibbles and wine (lots of it!). Definitely the best way to end the tour!!

Walking through the Valley of the Winds

At the Kata Tjuta sunset viewing area - beautiful!

It's not just the red rocks there, you’ll also see plenty of wildlife in the area. Lots of birds and different creepy crawly things but you can even spot camels and wallabies. Beware of the poisonous and venomous things though, even though I'm sure it's quite rare to have a close encounter with them but one lucky spider did manage to crawl up my leg. Didn't have time to look close enough to say what kind it may have been with all the jumping and screaming...

Even some very colorful brids there!
And lots of other wildlife in the Red Centre .. plus one "wild thing"

What? Where? When? How?

There’s a couple ways you can get there: 1) Fly to Connellan (better known as Ayers Rock) airport. 2) Fly to Alice Springs where you can hop on bus or join a 3-4 day camping tour to Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. 3) Drive. It’s a long way from anywhere on red dirt roads with virtually nothing to see for hours and hours. I chose the option 1.

Ayers Rock Resort is basically the only accommodation there in the little town they call Yulara. They do offer a bit of variety in the attempt to cater to all visitors, starting from camping to luxury suites. The cheapest options (camping aside, which isn’t cheap either) are in the Outback Pioneer Lodge where there are self-catering accommodation with dorm rooms for either 4 or 20 (yes, 20) people, 46 and 38 AUD respectively per night. The rooms are pretty rustic but clean and comfortable. You feel like you are in a military base, maybe it’s all the concrete buildings… But there is an ok kitchen, restaurant, bar and best of all, a pool – I spent a couple hours every day just relaxing at the poolside. There’s also a lookout with nice views to Uluru and more in the distant also Kata Tjuta!

Yulara has a small “town centre” with tourist information, cafes and restaurants, a post office, souvenir shops and one grocery store. All very very expensive. On the positive note there is a free shuttle bus every 15 minutes that takes you between all the different accommodations and the town centre – they’re all located along one ring road and about 10-15 minute walk from one another, tops. Though during midday (especially in the hottest time of the year when the temperatures can reach +45 C) you will be happy to take the airconditioned shuttle. There is also a free shuttle that takes you from the airport to the resort and back! In the village they host some free activities daily such as aboriginal painting workshop for kids and aborginee dance and music performances.

Well those are the only free things. For the internet you’ll pay either 1 AUD for 6 min, 10 AUD for an hour or 24 AUD for 24 hours. Laundry (self-service) is a fairly standard 4 AUD, a small bottle of water 3,5 AUD, small soda 4 AUD. Even basic transport to either Uluru (50-60 AUD for a return transport) or Kata Tjuta (80-90) is well marked up and there’s only one company that offers that, the Uluru Express. Though you can freely decide your transfer times from about 8 times they offer and a couple different locations in the National Park: and they will come pick you up even if you were the only one (like I was). For the King’s Canyon there is also only one tour company that will take you there, AAT Kings, and they will charge 139 AUD just for the transfer (it is a 3-hour ride though from Yulara).

So what kind of tours are there? They will take you to the rocks with a bus, plane, helicopter, motorcycle or on a camel. Unguided or with a guide. With or without meals. In small group or a bigger one… To Uluru I went simply on a transfer for the sunrise and another ride to the base of Uluru and back to my lodge. That was 60 AUD and I was out on the rock from 6am to 3pm, morning tea & cookies included on this tour. The sunset tour to Kata Tjuta was 115 AUD from 2 to 7.30pm with AAT Kings group that included a couple guides and a nice spread of nibbles & wines at the sunset point.

One of the best things to do might be to book a scenic flight - though if you fly directly to Ayers Rock airport (make sure you have a window seat!!) you'll have amazing views on the way!

When is the best time to go? Summer is very hot so I would recommend the spring/autumn or even winter. The days do get shorter then but you’ll still have plenty of daylight to see one sight in one day – two if you’re really pushing it. 

What are these rocks?

Here's a brief lesson from the park guides and Australian Government parks and reserve's site:

What are Uluru and Kata Tjuta made of?

Uluru is sandstone but Kata Tjuta is conglomerate rock. The sandy sediment which hardened to form Uluru was eroded from huge mountains composed largely of granite. Kata Tjuta has more of an uneven texture, it consists of gravel, pebbles, cobbles and boulders cemented by sand and mud. But where does the red colour come from? It's created by the iron that’s in the soil – when it reacts with oxygen it turns red and that makes the whole central Australia red (a.k.a Red Center). 

How and when were Uluru and Kata Tjuta formed?

Uluru and Kata Tjuta lie near the southern margin of an area called the Amadeus Basin. Hundreds of millions of years ago the Amadeus Basin was a shallow sea. During those times mountain ranges uplifted in the area but bacteria and algae started to break down the high, jagged mountain ranges. The bare mountains eroded easily with huge amounts of sediment washing away when it rained - this rock material is what formed Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

About 500 million years ago the region was again covered by a shallow sea in which many kinds of animals lived. As they died, they settled on the sea floor with sand and mud, gradually covering the rock material which was at least two and a half kilometres thick. They were buried by fine silts and other sediments. These overlying sediments compressed and cemented the sand and rocks into sandstone and congolomerate rock.

The sea receded from the Amadeus Basin approximately 300-400 million years ago and the rocks were folded and fractured. It raised the region above sea level and the horizontal layers of the Uluru were folded and turned nearly 90 degrees which is their present position. The Kata Tjuta conglomerates tilted 15 to 20 degrees from the horizontal. As the folding process began, the surface rocks eroded at a rapid rate and beginning at a much higher level than the present tops of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, this erosion process lasted over 300 million years. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are the visible parts of rocks which extend far beneath the ground. Uluru probably extends several kilometres below the surface and Kata Tjuta around five kilometres.

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