I always had in my mind that one day I would visit Uluru, Australia. It would probably be on a road trip, quite possibly once I was retired. Or maybe I would fly to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and hire a car to drive myself to explore Uluru and the surrounding attractions. This all changed recently when I found the 3 day Uluru tour from The Rock Tour. Here is the review of all my Alice Springs to Uluru experiences.
Finding the Best Uluru Tours
In the past I have not been a fan of multi-day tours. I see them as restrictive, often including things I am not interested in, and don’t even get me started on spending multiple days in close quarters with the same group of people I possibly won’t get along with! I may be a gen X’er, but I am not ready yet to take luxury coach tours (will I ever be?) with a mass tour company. And when I started searching, that is mostly the type of Uluru packages I came across.
While I am not adverse to a little luxury, this trip was all about experiencing the Red Centre, and to me that’s more about camping under the stars and enjoying the wide open spaces rather than a resort. I was looking at glamping Uluru travel packages but didn’t quite find one that I felt to be value for money. I changed my focus to camping, and soon came across The Rock Tour company and their 3 day Uluru tour!
I really liked the options of these Uluru camping tours – they didn’t have to be 3 days, they could be 2 or 4, and could either start or finish at Uluru rather than Alice Springs. Now I had some flexibility to plan the rest of my trip.
Before our Uluru Adventures
Before I even booked our Uluru travel, I made two different phone calls to the folks at The Rock Tour offices to discuss the options. I was considering ending the tour early, and spending a night at one of the many places to stay at Uluru rather than travelling back from Uluru to Alice Springs with the group.
I wanted to stay to see the Field of Light. I didn’t see a mention of it on The Rock Tour website, but on the phone I was told that could be accommodated on the night we were to camp at Yulara, the small tourist township right next to Uluru.
I was also given information explaining that sometimes the Uluru itinerary runs in the opposite direction. Some begin with the Uluru part of the tour so that people could be picked up in Yulara (or from the Uluru airport) to begin the tour, others finish at Uluru to allow similar drop offs in the area. This means that those doing the full tour from Alice Springs and back again may go in either direction.
Once we arrived in Alice Springs, we called into The Rock Tour office on Todd Street to confirm we were in town and to also go through everything we needed for the trip. Things like the necessity for water, sunscreen and a hat were explained, and also the remoteness of where we were travelling. We again went through the itinerary, were told who our guide was and had the opportunity to ask any questions we had. While we were well aware of the conditions we were likely to encounter, and were therefore prepared, this would be an invaluable part of the tour for an international visitor.
Day One – Kings Canyon
Our pick up time was 5:30am, and we were dutifully waiting outside the gates of our accommodation. Our bus arrived only a few minutes late and we received an apology from the driver for the delay.
There were two or three more pickups done throughout the town before we started on the almost 500km journey from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon. Due to the early hour, our driver introduced himself, then left everyone to sleep for the first two hours or so until we made a stop at the Erldunda Roadhouse.
It must be mentioned that there is absolutely nothing out here except red dirt, saltbush and a few small shrubs. There might be a little bit of excitement if some of the cattle housed on the massive stations have wandered near the road, but that is about it for hundreds of kilometres at a time. Sleeping therefore is a great option to pass the time – you will not miss anything! I am terrible at sleeping on any type of transport, so instead I had brought along a nice thick book to occupy my time.
On leaving Erldunda, our guide told us a bit more about himself and we all briefly introduced ourselves to the group. There were 17 of us. Nine were 20-something backpackers from European countries, four were retirees from South Korea, another two were also from South Korea, a mother and her teenage son, and then there was my husband and I. A varied and motley crew!
We were covering the miles to Kings Canyon and I started to notice how green the landscape was. This area is one of the driest in Australia, but along the roadside and as far as the eye could see were tufts of green grass, even occasionally a darker patch of earth showing the remains of a puddle. I had heard there had recently been rain in the area, but did not expect to see such an impact. Normally out here it’s red dirt and the green/grey of the sparse vegetation that lives with very little water.
All of a sudden our guide hit the brakes and pulled over. He jumped out of the bus and started running in the direction we had come. As we all watched in consternation, we saw he was carrying something back to the bus. It was a thorny devil! I had seen these in the area I grew up, but I don’t think any of the international visitors had even heard of them before let alone seen one. Another of our strange Australian animals!
We arrived at Kings Canyon at around 12pm and the hats and sunscreen quickly came out. The temperature was around 37 degrees Celsius, but we were lucky to have cloud cover so at least we didn’t have the hot sun beating down on us. A quick lunch of sandwiches, and we were on our way.
It was a hot and sweaty hike up to the top of the canyon, but the views over this ancient landscape were breathtaking. Once we got to the canyon itself we could see a small waterfall flowing over the far edge, a testament to just how much rain had fallen in the area recently
Due to the heat we could not do the full Kings Canyon Rim Walk – the path is closed on days when the temperature is forecast to be 36 degrees or above. After a much needed rest overlooking the canyon, we had to double back and return the way we came. We were required to carry three litres of water each on this hike, and I think many of us were down to our last litre by the time we returned.
You would think after more than five hours in the bus in the morning, we would all be sick of sitting in there, but we clambered in, turning the air conditioning vents to full. We started the drive to Curtain Springs Station where we were going to venture out into the bush to sleep in our swags under the stars. This would be a proper bush camp with nothing around us except for what we were bringing with us. Yep, no showers here!
We had about three hours of driving to get to Curtain Springs. As we progressed, the clouds got darker and darker, until eventually the heavens opened. One thing I did not expect to see out here in central Australia was rain!
We arrived at the Curtain Springs roadhouse to two pieces of information from our guide. The first was that we were not going to spend the night here after all, we would continue on into Yulara so that we could have at least a little shelter if it continued to rain.
The second thing was that if we wanted to be able to have a beer that night or the next, this was the last place we would be able to buy it. Most people went in together to buy in bulk, but after seeing the prices, my recommendation is to stock up in Alice Springs before you leave.
As if we hadn’t had enough time in the bus that day, we now had another hour or so before we could call it a day.
We arrived into the Uluru Campgrounds at Yulara just as the sun was starting to go down. We all quickly set our swags up under the shelter, then got on to cooking dinner. It was all hands on deck as everyone pitched in to create a simple but delicious and filling meal.
Once all the cleanup was done, we took advantage of the showers then sat around talking over a few drinks. It wasn’t long before we all started to drift off to our swags as the early morning and long day caught up with us.
Day Two – Kata Tjuta and Uluru Sunset
There was one good thing about doing the extra driving into Yulara the day before – we were able to have a bit of a sleep in. Of course that is not really my style, so I was up before the sun and went for a short wander around the campsite. As the sun was coming up I came upon an area that gave me amazing views across the plain to see the colours all around Uluru.
I came back to camp as the rest of the group was starting to stir, and began to pack up. Even though we were back in this same campgound again tonight, nothing was left out. No one fancied cuddling up with a centipede or other creepy crawly in their swag.
We were on our way by 8am, fully stocked with water, expecting an even hotter day, with a forecast of 38 degrees. Again though we were blessed with at least a little cloud cover to make it a bit more bearable. This was our first foray into the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park. It was about a 45 minute drive to reach Kata Tjuta. You may have heard about these rock formations under the previous name of The Olgas. Like Uluru (previously Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta has reverted to its indigenous name now that the land has been returned to its traditional owners.
At Kata Tjuta we were doing the Valley of the Winds walk. This walk consists of two lookouts. The first is the Karu Lookout, which has some really nice views, but the real goal was the Karingana Lookout, which had absolutely spectacular views.
Since it was so hot we were given two choices. After the Karu lookout the path splits into two different routes. Some of our group chose the shorter route, but most of us took the longer, full loop. This meant a steep – but thankfully quite short – climb towards the end to reach the lookout, but the countryside is worth the effort.
Again we needed some recovery time before we began the journey back to the bus. As we walked back past the Karu Lookout we noticed the path had now been closed. When the forecast temperature is 36 or above it is closed at 11am, so if you are planning to visit here in summer and want to go to the Karingana Lookout, go early in the morning. Our guide recommended we carry two litres of water each for this hike.
Our next stop was only five minutes away at an area that had picnic tables and also toilet facilities. Again we all pitched in to help with lunch which was a choice of meat and salad veggies to make wraps. Cleanup in this area consisted of taking everything with us to ensure as little environmental damage as possible. Even the dirty dishwater was poured into a jerry can for waste rather than on the ground.
It was almost possible to feel the anticipation on the bus as we – finally! – were going to Uluru itself. We had seen it in the distance as we approached Yulara the previous evening and again when we went to Kata Tjuta, and everyone was keen to get up close and personal with the rock.
At the foot of Uluru is the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, and we spent an hour here reading some of the dreamtime stories and learning about the local people and bush foods. There is also an art centre here, and it’s possible to watch and interact with some of the local people creating the amazing local paintings. I just love Aboriginal dot paintings. I love the meanings and the stories and I was quite mesmerised watching some of the women paint.
No photography is allowed at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre due to the Aboriginal beliefs around seeing photos in the future of deceased people. There are also many sacred areas around Uluru where visitors are asked not to film or photograph out of respect for the indigenous people.
Next we approached the famed rock; we were all ready to explore Uluru. I’ve seen it in thousands of photos, TV shows, ads and promotions, so I was surprised at how many caves marred the surface. In those many distant images Uluru looks smooth, but up close it is not.
Our guide took us on the Mala Walk and showed us some of the caves used by the local indigenous people in the past and explained the uses. We were also able to see a lot of the paintings on the caves. We visited a waterhole that the Aboriginal people used for their water supply, and learned some of their stories. This is where the free Uluru walking tours take place every morning at 8am.
This walk ended at the place where the Uluru climb begins. In the past many people have climbed to the top of Uluru. It’s still possible, but only for a few months more. Finally, in October 2019, the climb is being closed. Uluru is an important indigenous site, and climbing it is very disrespectful to the land owners. Since this land was handed back to the traditional owners, it has been widely publicised that they do not want people to climb the rock. It has got to the point now where almost no one does it. It’s also dangerous, with over 40 people dying while doing the climb, the last one only a few months ago.
From here we started the 2km Lungkata Walk around to the Mutitjulu Waterhole. Our guide went back and picked up the bus and met us at the other end. The path was wide and well marked, and flat, so even though it was really hot, thanks to the clouds it was still bearable. I think we were all pretty happy to see the bus again at the end though!
We had some time to spare so our guide took us to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area. This area is mostly used for sunrise/sunset viewing, so we were the only bus here. It gave us a different perspective of Uluru and some time to just sit and chill.
It was back around the other side of Uluru next to get the best spot for the sunset. Our guide started cooking up dinner while we admired the changing colours on the rock. The cloud was fairly thick at this stage so we weren’t expecting it to be a fabulous sunset, but just before the sun reached the horizon the clouds parted and we had some great views of the rock lit up with those last rays of light.
Dinner was again basic, marinated chicken fried up in the wok with some noodles mixed with vegetables, but just like all the other meals, it was tasty and filling. There really is only so much that can be done on a portable cooktop and with only an esky to keep food cold!
It was back to the campsite for everyone else, but Simon and I had also chosen to go to the Field of Light. This was an added extra and not part of the tour, but we were able to be dropped off at the Outback Pioneer Lodge to meet the bus to take us to the Field of Light.
By the time we arrived back at the campsite it was around 10:30pm, and after a quick shower it was straight to sleep. We were not getting a sleep in the next morning!
Day Three – Uluru Sunrise and Base Walk
It was 4:15am when I crawled out of my swag. By 5am everyone was up, packed up and we were in the bus on the way to the sunrise viewing point – which ended up being the same place we watched the sunset. This meant instead of seeing the sun shine on Uluru, it would be coming up behind it. Only two or three other buses joined us at this location – I am guessing the rest were at the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area we had visited yesterday afternoon.
As the sun came up we took plenty of photos and enjoyed our breakfast. Everyone was surprisingly energetic for the early hour of the morning and the amount of sleep we had.
We were then on to our final Uluru hike, this time to walk the remainder of the Uluru Base Walk. We had about 7km left to walk, and as the sun was getting higher in the sky, the last few wisps of cloud were blowing away. It was going to be a proper hot day of around 39 degrees with the full sun blazing down on us.
Seeing Uluru from so many different aspects was awe-inspiring. It really is one huge rock! It’s not a nice oval shape like it appears in the photos either, it’s actually almost triangular. I loved seeing the dimples down the side showing where the waterfalls would flow during rain. Unfortunately we missed seeing that by only a few days.
By 8:30am we were back at the bus and our guide had laid out some fruit and cakes for morning tea. It was already uncomfortably hot and we were happy to be back in the bus again – even if we were now going to be there for the next five or six hours as we travelled from Uluru to Alice Springs.
The trip back was a quiet affair with many people sleeping for a good proportion of the journey. We had dropped four people at the Yulara airport so there was more room to spread out. I managed to read another good portion of my book!
We stopped again at Erldunda Roadhouse and enjoyed lunch at a picnic shelter overlooking an area with emus. When we had passed a few days earlier only one or two emus were hanging around, now there were at least a dozen, all trying to keep out of the full sun in the shady areas.
It was about 3:30pm when we were dropped back at our accommodation in Alice Springs. I was looking forward to a decent shower. There was just time for a quick rest before heading out again.
The Rock Tour Aftermath
When each group from The Rock Tour returns to Alice Springs they get together again for dinner and a few drinks at The Rock Bar. Most of our group turned up, including our guide, and many of us danced and drank until the early hours of the morning. It was a fantastic, relaxing way to let our hair down and reminisce about the past three days before we all went our different ways, unlikely to ever meet again.
My Overall Opinion
I really enjoyed this tour! Yes we were sleeping on the ground in swags, yes we had to get up at the crack of dawn and yes we had to help cook our own food, but it was done with a fantastic group of people. With such a varied group I was afraid it might not go so well, but everyone pulled their weight and everyone was on time.
Our guide Ben was great! He admitted he is only 21 years old (I have a daughter older than that!) but he ran this tour so well. The driving he did on day one alone was enough to test many older people. He was knowledgeable and experienced beyond his years. When things didn’t go as planned (the rain) he made the right decision to change our location for the night. He was friendly, patient and open, but also ready to delegate and pull people into line when needed. I hope his manager reads this and gives him a big pat on the back!
I wholeheartedly recommend taking an Uluru tour from Alice Springs using The Rock Tour. I cannot think of one single criticism to make about the way the tour was run. Yes this is one of the cheap Uluru tours, and the value for money is fantastic. We covered a huge amount of ground without ever feeling rushed (okay, maybe we felt rushed when we were packing up at 4:30 for sunrise, but I think that’s fair enough!) and I didn’t feel like we missed out on anything the more expensive tour groups offered.
**Note – I was not paid nor reimbursed in any way for this review, I paid my fare in full. My opinion above is completely independent.
Some Other Useful Information
I’ve mentioned the temperature during this post to give you an idea of the conditions that could be faced on your trip to Uluru. We did this trip at the end of October, so springtime. In the middle of summer temperatures can go well into the mid-forties. This is not the sort of environment that makes hiking easy. The best time to visit Uluru is therefore during winter. This is also the busiest time too.
If you want to extend your tour and you are wondering where to stay at Uluru, all accommodation is located in the small township of Yulara. In fact, this is not really a town, just a collection of different Uluru accommodation options.
To enter the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park there is a $25AUD park fee. This is included with your tour cost.
Further Uluru tourist information can be found at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre.
There are not a whole lot of other Uluru tourist attractions than the ones I have mentioned. There are more Uluru experiences though such as seeing it from above in a helicopter or doing a segway tour around the base.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.