Uluru – the most famous landmark in Central Australia
The Red Centre, with the iconic Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas) and Kings Canyon are some of Australia’s most instantly recognisable areas. My first glimpse of the area was on a school trip in 1978. I was lucky enough to return in 1995 and my son has recently visited on a school trip. Together, we take you on a journey to Australia’s Red Centre and show you the iconic areas just waiting for you to discover. There is so much to see and do in Australia’s Red Centre. For everything you need to plan a trip to this area, look no further than this 8 day Ultimate Red Centre Itinerary.
Best Time to Visit the Red Centre of Australia
The best time to visit Australia’s Red Centre is between May and September, which includes winter in Australia. Maximum temperatures during the day reach 20 to 30 degree Celsius (68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit). These are very nice temperatures for exploring this part of the world. As the Red Centre has desert conditions, it will be nice during the day but bring clothing and other essentials to rug up at night as temperatures can be below zero Celsius during this time, particularly in the actual winter months of June, July and August.
You can of course visit between October and March but daytime temperatures rise and often reach 30 to 40 degrees Celsius (86 to 104 degreesFahrenheit) each day. The heat and the high humidity can make exploring the Red Centre difficult. The fly population explodes during this time to annoying proportions, so with the heat, humidity and the flies, you may want to rethink visiting during this time. However, many people still do!
TIP: Take a hat with a fly net. You can thank me later for this tip!
How to get to Central Australia
There are a number of ways to get to Central Australia. You can fly into Alice Springs or Ayers Rock Airports, then hire a car to get around or book an organised tour. Many drive up or down the Stuart Highway from Adelaide or Darwin, which is a sealed road as are other small roads in the area. And there is also The Ghan, the train that runs from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs.
How to get around the Red Centre
You have a number of options to get around Central Australia. You could drive your own vehicle or rent one. The main roads are sealed so a 2WD car is OK but if you are planning to go onto unsealed roads consider upgrading to a 4WD. There are quite long drives between highlights. For instance, the distance from Alice Springs to Uluru via the Stuart (A87) and Lasseter Highways is 468km and should take around 4.5 hours, depending on your speed and the stops you make. If you would prefer someone else do the driving, consider a tour. These can be arranged from Alice Springs, though I would suggest you organise it before you arrive to ensure you have a spot. Whichever way you choose, let’s get this visit to Australia’s Red Centre started.
Day 1: Alice Springs
Our 8 day itinerary for the Red Centre starts and ends in Alice Springs.
A Brief History of Alice Springs
The Aboriginal Arrernte (pronounced arrunda) people are the traditional custodians of Alice Springs and the surrounding region. It was in 1861 that a Scottish explorer, John McDonnell Stuart left Adelaide to survey inland Australia for a potential settlement. The Stuart Highway, from Adelaide to Darwin is named in his honour. Following this path of Stuart, the Overland Telegraph was constructed, overseen by Sir Charles Todd and completed in 1872. The telegraph station was built adjacent to a waterhole and named Alice Springs after Alice Todd, wife of Sir Charles Todd. Now, Alice Springs has become the second major city in the Northern Territory, behind the capital Darwin with around 25,000 people calling it home. It is basically halfway between Darwin and Adelaide, both around 1,500km away. It is a popular gateway for exploring the Red Centre, but also has many things to see and do.
What to See and Do in Alice Springs
First on the list to visit during a stay in Alice Springs could be the Old Telegraph Station located within the Historical Reserve on Herbert Heritage Drive. You will discover the history of the Overland Telegraph Line and how Alice Springs began. It is very interesting to see the technology used to create the telegraph line compared to how we communicate now.
Old Telegraph Station, Alice Springs
Other things to see and do include a visit to the Alice Springs School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum. Definitely make time to walk along Todd Street Mall and visit the many local Aboriginal art galleries. If there on a Sunday enjoy the Todd Mall Markets. And ensure you go to the top of Anzac Hill which is in the centre of town and pays tribute to those who lost their lives during wars. This peaceful place has fabulous panoramic views over Alice Springs and to the MacDonnell Ranges. If time permits you might want to visit a camel farm for a ride on a camel or take a hot air ballon ride over Alice.
Great views over Alice Springs From ANZAC Hill
Where to Stay in Alice Springs – Accommodation Options
Alice Springs has a number of accommodation options available to visitors. These range from hostels to luxury hotels, with everything else in between, so no matter your budget, there will be something for you.
Nights in Alice Springs – 2.
Hostels: Alice Springs YHA, located only 300m from the centre of town. It is built within the grounds of an historic outdoor movie theatre.
Caravan Park: If you’ve brought your accommodation with you try the Heritage Caravan Park
Budget to Mid-Range Hotels: Aurora Alice Springs offers good value only 300m from town. There is also the Desert Palms.
Luxury Hotels: Check out the Quest Alice Springs.
Day 2: MacDonnell Ranges, Tjoritja
Spend the day visiting the nearby MacDonnell Ranges, or Tjoritja. A mere 18 km away from Alice Springs there are many natural wonders to visit. The MacDonnell Ranges are a series of mountains in Central Australia, about 644km (400 miles) long. The mountain range contains many spectacular gorges and gaps to explore which are of great Aboriginal significance. On your journey to the MacDonnell Ranges stop firstly at John Flynn’s Grave Historical Reserve set at the foot of the MacDonnell Ranges. It is dedicated to Reverend John Flynn, who established the Australian Inland Mission and founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The site also marks the start of a walking track to the Mount Gillen summit.
Then onto some natural wonders in the MacDonnell Ranges including Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge, to name a few. You could spend a lot longer in this part of the world if you wanted as there is plenty more to explore.
John Flynn Memorial
Simpsons Gap, West MacDonnell Ranges
Back to your Alice Springs Accommodation.
Day 3: Alice Springs to Watarrka National Park
Distance Alice Springs to Watarrka National Park: 308km.
Time to drive: Allow around 3.5 hours.
Note: If you are exploring independently in your own vehicle, depending on your route to reach Watarrka National Park, you may need a permit to enter the area. While in Alice Springs, visit the Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre, find out what permits are required, and purchase the appropriate one. You will need a Mereenie Loop Pass permit to travel on Larapinta Drive between Hermannsburg and Watarrka National Park, or between Glen Helen and Watarrka National Park. This is why some people prefer to explore this area on a tour, because the permits are taken care of by the tour company. But its not a big deal really!
What to see and do in Watarrka National Park
Watarrka National Park is home to many plants and animals living in scenic rugged Australian landscapes including the must visit Kings Canyon. I suggest after such a long drive check into your accommodation before exploring locally. To really appreciate Kings Canyon and its beauty budget a day to explore it.
Where to stay in Watarrka National Park – Accommodation Options
Overnight camping in tents, caravans or motorhomes is not allowed in the National Park, so your best bet for accommodation is at the Kings Canyon Resort. Here you will find different styles of accommodation, include camping in tents and caravan spots, lodge and resort rooms and glamping. Unfortunately, there is no hostel here for budget travellers.
Accommodation is also available at Kings Creek Station, a cattle station some 36 kilometres from Kings Canyon. It offers a variety of accommodation options from camping to luxury tents. Check out pricing and to book here.
Nights here: 2
Day 4: Kings Canyon, Watarrka National Park
The best way to appreciate Watarrka National Park is to walk one of the five walks. You can download information on the walks here. https://nt.gov.au/leisure/parks-reserves/find-a-park/find-a-park-to-visit/watarrka-national-park. The walk we chose to do was the Kings Canyon Rim Walk.
Kings Canyon Rim Walk
You may remember Kings Canyon from the movie ‘Priscilla’ where the three performers climbed and made the comment ‘cock in a frock on a rock’. Priscilla aside, Kings Canyon is spectacular. It is estimated to be around 440 million years old and rises 270 metres above sea level. The canyon is made from layers of sandstone and hard shale, creating soaring domes and plateaus which drop to an oasis of a natural rock pool.
The Kings Canyon Rim Walk is a 6km loop walk and is graded moderate to difficult. Allow 3-4 hours to walk, but this depends on your speed and how many stops you make to enjoy the fabulous vastness of the area. It took us about 5 hours because we stopped a lot. The beginning of the walk is the most difficult with around 500 steep steps to climb, but once up there we were treated to seeing the domes of the ‘Lost City’ and panoramic views for as far as the eye could see. There aren’t any set paths but signposts with arrows pointing the way around the rim of the canyon. Follow the signs and after crossing Cotterill’s Bridge ascend into lush vegetation with a rock pool in the ‘Garden of Eden’. My words don’t really do the area justice to how spectacular Kings Canyon is, so here are some photos.
Back to your accommodation for the night.
Day 5: To Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park via Mt Connor
Distance from Watarrka National Park to Uluru: 325km
Time to drive: Allow about 3.5 hours via Luritja Road, State Route 3 and 4.
All roads are sealed. There are entry fees to enter the park. When we visited they were:
- $38 for an Adult pass valid for three consecutive days
- $50 for an Adult annual pass
- $109 for a Northern Territory annual parking pass
It is best to pre-purchase your pass online here, however you can buy one at the entry station on your way into the park.
About two and half hours in to the journey, you will see in the distance what you may think is Uluru. When we saw it we got very excited. However, this isn’t Uluru but Mount Connor. It has a flatter top than Uluru. You can stop along the road for photos at the viewing area.
Mount Connor. Often Mistaken For Uluru
Continuing on from Mount Connor, it is very exciting seeing Uluru getting bigger and bigger and we come closer. Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) is an iconic Australian sandstone rock that rises some 348 metres. As there are no other ‘big rocks’ around it, it looks huge – and it is. It is hard to believe that it is around 550 million years old. As it is afternoon, check into your accommodation and get ready to see the changing colours of the rock at sunset.
Where to stay in Uluru – Accommodation Options
There are a number of accommodation options for your stay at Uluru. Note that the accommodation is based in Yulara some 25km away from Uluru. Otions available range from camping to luxury hotels, with fabulous views of the surrounding area. My choice of accommodation was camping.
Camping: Ayers Rock Resort – The Ayers Rock camp ground has a choice of tent sites, air-conditioned cabins and powered and unpowered sites for caravans, motor homes and camper trailers.
Hotels: Lost Camel Hotel, Outback Pioneer Lodge and Outback Pioneer Hotel
Luxury: Sails in the Desert and Desert Gardens Hotel which boasts rooms with a view of Uluru.
Apartment: Emu Walk Apartments
Visit Uluru – Kata Tjuta Cultural Visitors Centre
After sorting your accommodation, head to the sunset viewing area or if you have a couple of hours before sunset, the Uluru – Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre for a self-guided tour to discover more about this UNESCO World Heritage site and its significance to the local indigenous peoples. Anangu People are the traditional owners. From a range of exhibits and presentations you will learn how the Anangu people have survived around Uluru for some 30,000 years. Then get ready to watch Uluru change colour at sunset. There are a number of viewing platforms for this, see where to see the sunrise and sunset at Uluru. If you have a car, you can view the sunset over Uluru from the Car Sunset Viewing Area. There is another place but it is only available to 4pm after which it is reserved solely for the those on buses and coach tours.
After sunset, sort your dinner and then find your accommodation.
Day 6: Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock)
How to spend a day at Uluru?
Today, is day 6 on this 8 day tour of Central Australia, spend the whole day at Uluru because there is plenty to see and do. There are six things I suggest you should not miss while at Uluru.
- Rise before dawn so you can see Uluru change colour at sunrise. The colours can be spectacular.
- Undertake the Base Walk around Uluru. Or another walk.
- Visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural VCentre (which you may have done yesterday). Other options: Segway The Base Walk; Camel Ride: Get an aerial view from the air either in a plane or balloon.
- Watch the sunset over Uluru.
- Enjoy dinner under the stars.
- Visit the Field of Lights.
1 & 4. Sunrise and Sunset at Uluru
At sunrise and sunset Uluru can change colours from pinks to purples to reds – it will depend on the weather of the day as to what colour you might get. Whatever colour, it will be spectacular even if there is rain. And it can change colour during the day as the sun moves over it.
There are three viewing areas to capture the beauty of an Uluru sunrise and sunset. The main sunrise viewing area is Talinguru Nyakunytjaku Sunrise Viewing Area. There are purpose built viewing platforms here to watch the first rays of sunlight roll across the rock. After the sunrise you could do one of the walks that will provide you with an insight into the culture of the local Anangu people.
If you have a car you can view the sunset over Uluru from the Car Sunset Viewing Area. There is another place but it is only available to 4pm after which it is reserved solely for the those on buses and coach tours.
The Walks at Uluru
There are a number of walks you can do from the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku Sunrise Viewing Area. I think the Uluru Base Walk is the best walk. It is a 10.6km track taking you around the circumference of Uluru. It incorporates a number of walks including the Mala Walk, north east face walk, Kuniya Walk and Lungkata Walk which form part of the base walk. You could do some of the walks which are shorter, or complete the circumference in about 3-4 hours. But this will depend on your speed and how many stops you make to admire Uluru up close and to take photographs. Plus you will be walking in red dirt which can be a bit sandy or muddy if it is wet. You will discover Uluru isn’t a smooth rock, but has many facets to it which have been created by years of weathering by the elements. You will also see rock art, the different vegetation and possibly some native wildlife.
TIPS For Walking Around ULURU:
- Leave before 11am to avoid the heat of the day.
- Wear comfortable shoes, light clothing and take that hat with fly screen.
- Apply sunscreen.
- Take plenty of water.
- Don’t forget your camera for those unforgettable Uluru memories.
- Take rests in the shade.
- Stick to the paths – use GPS navigation apps as a backpack if you stray off the path.
Spend time at Uluru – Kata Tjuta Cultural VCentre
If you didn’t have time to visit the Uluru – Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre yesterday, maybe visit today. Inside the building (made from mud) learn first hand from Anangu and park rangers about Anangu culture and the park’s environment through free presentations, exhibits and displays. Visiting the centre is very interesting so allow 2-3 hours which will help you to understand and appreciate the Red Centre.
End your day with Dinner under the Stars or at The Field of Light
End your day at Uluru by having dinner under the stars or visiting the Field of Light. The Field of Light is an art installation of some 50,000 spindles of light by artist Bruce Munro. My son wasn’t impressed with the light display – you cannot please everyone! Or perhaps you could end your day with a nice meal and glass of wine or a cold beer. He was more impressed with dinner and looking at the stars.
Other Things To Do At Uluru
There are other things you can do while at Uluru. Instead of walking around Uluru why not go on a Segway tour. Or perhaps enjoy a Camel Ride or maybe go up in a plane or helicopter and get a birds eye view.
Day 7: Kata Tjuta (formerly The Olgas)
Distance Uluru to Kata Tjuta: 58 kms
Time to drive: Allow 45 minutes
Today, drive the short drive from Uluru to Kata Tjuta. You can see Kata Tjuta from Uluru but the closer you get to it the more spectacular it becomes. Kata Tjuta rock is a different type of rock compared to Uluru. It consists of pebbles, cobbles and boulders cemented by sand and mud. It is easy to spend hours here, walking through the 36 domes and the Valley of the Winds. See them up close and how big they are. At the end of this experience drive back to Uluru for your last night and enjoy another sunset and maybe a barbecue and some ‘bubbles’ to celebrate the end of a great trip.
Day 8: Back to Alice Springs
Distance Uluru to Alice Springs via Erdunda Roadhouse at Ghan: 467km
Time to drive: Allow 5-6 hours
After one last sunrise, it is time to pack up and head back to Alice Springs. Head along Lasseter Highway to the Stuart Highway. You can drive straight through, though it is wise to have a stop at the Erldunda Roadhouse at Ghan. The Roadhouse is a service station with a restaurant and bar. There is also a motel and camping accommodation available, so if you want to break your journey overnight, this would be the place to do it. Book your Erldunda accommodation here.
Last Words on the Ultimate Uluru Travel Guide Australia
Uluru is such a magical place to visit. The thrill of seeing the rock change colours throughout the day is very special as are visiting the many natural wonders in the middle of Australia. Put a visit to the Red Centre on your bucket list. If you have already been, I would love to hear your comments below.
Sharyn McCullum has travelled all of her life thanks to her dad who worked for an airline. She is the creator of Live Work and Play in Australia. She loves coffee, chocolate and parmas and currently calls Melbourne home. Read More.