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Uluru (Ayers Rock) & Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), NT

One of Australia's iconic tourist attractions best seen at sunrise and sunset.

The first time you see Uluru you gasp in amazement and wonder. It is much bigger than any image you have in your mind's eye and it is like nothing else simply because it rises, red and glowing, out of a totally flat desert and, if you are aware of the larger geography, it is very nearly at the centre of the continent. The local Anangu people consider it a sacred site and most non-Aboriginal Australians consider it one of the essential experiences for anyone wanting to appreciate the richness of the continent's natural features. The facts are awe-inspiring. Uluru rises 348 metres above the vast flat plain that surrounds it. It covers an area of 3.33 sq. km and has a circumference of 9.4 km which means it takes 3-4 hours to walk around. It suffers from typical desert extremes with only 200-250 mm of rainfall falling each year and continentality producing daily temperatures which range from -8°C at night-time in winter to 47°C during the day in summer.

Location

Uluru is 1,964 km south from Darwin, 1,599 km north-west of Adelaide, 468 km south-west of Alice Springs and 268 km west of Erldunda at the Stuart Highway turnoff. It is 862.5 metres above sea level and the top is 348 metres above the surrounding countryside.

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Origin of Name

In the language of the local Pitjantjatjara and Yunkunytjatjara Aborigines 'Uluru' is the name given to both the rock and the water hole on top of the rock. It does not have a specific, additional meaning. The name 'Yulara', which has been given to the resort 21 km from the rock, means 'crying' or 'weeping'. The European name 'Ayers Rock', now no longer used on any official documents relating to the rock, was given to the monolith by the explorer William Gosse who, on 19 July, 1873, named it after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia.

The 30 rock outcrops known as Kata Tjuta, previously known as the Olgas, were named in 1872 by the explorer Ernest Giles' benefactor Baron Ferdinand von Mueller who wished to honour the reigning Queen and Queen of a German province. The term, Kata Tjuta, means 'head' and 'many' in the language of the traditional owners.

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Things to See and Do

Climbing The Rock
The one question which seems to obsess everyone who visits Uluru is whether or not to climb the rock. There are a thousand different interpretations ranging from clearly stated disapproval from the local Aboriginal community (there are signs everywhere telling visitors to not climb)  through to an argument that says the local Aborigines have no problem with people climbing the rock. Among the more interesting arguments (many of which are offered by bus drivers and dubious experts) are (a) I have seen local Aborigines climbing the rock - they don't mind (b) the only reason the locals never climb the rock is that there is no food because nothing they eat lives on the rock (c) the rock is sacred and it should not be climbed under any circumstances (d) the local Anangu people have put up signs around the rock saying that visitors should 'respect our law by not climbing the rock'. Currently fewer and fewer people are climbing the rock and there is an approach to the federal parliament (yes, they have the final say) to ban all visitors from climbing the rock.

More importantly, for those who refuse to respect the wishes of the local people, are three arguments: (a) many more people die by falling off the rock than anyone is prepared to acknowledge (b) many people die from a heart attack or a subsequent heart attack as a result of the strain the climb puts on their body (c) if you are even vaguely afraid of heights the rock is very steep and will definitely challenge your sense of vertigo. There was an estimate that one person a month dies either directly or indirectly from climbing the rock. Do you want to be part of that statistic?

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre
Opened in 1995 this excellent centre is a vital starting point for anyone wanting to explore Uluru and Kata Tjuta. The building itself sits on compacted earth foundations and comprises 90,000 mud bricks made from local soil and timbers (mostly white cypress pine, stringy bark, grey iron bark and western red cedar) from the local area as well as New South Wales and Queensland. Visitors explore the Cultural Centre by entering through the Tjukurpa Tunnel and moving through the Maruku Arts, Walkatjara Art and Ininti Cafe and Souvenirs. The aim is to introduce visitors to the traditional culture of the area and to offer them an opportunity to admire and purchase contemporary arts and crafts.

Walking around the Rock
There are five official walks around the base of Uluru.

(a) Uluru Base Walk - for those feeling fit and wanting to circumnavigate the rock there is the 10.4km, 3.5 hour Uluru Base Walk. Given the flatness of the terrain it is an easy walk.

(b) Liru Walk - is an easy 2 km (one way) walk from the Cultural Centre to the Mala Car Park which takes about 45 minutes and provides an opportunity to see the flora (spinifex, honey grevillia, desert oaks) and fauna (red kangaroo, honey ants, spinifex hopping mouse, sand goanna) around the rock while having the monolith looming up beside you. There is an audio guide which can be accessed at http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/publications/uluru/at-8-puti.html.

(c) Mala Walk - is a short 2 km walk with wheelchair access. It offers visitors an opportunity to see Anangu rock art and brings the visitor so close to the rock you can experience the height of the sheer walls. It leads to Kantju Gorge.

(d) Lungkata Walk - is 4 km return and takes about 90 minutes which gets the visitor up close to the rock.

(e) Kuniya Walk - is a short, flat 1 km walk from the Kuniya Car Park to Mutitjulu waterhole which passes through an area known for its birdlife including kestrels, finches and the occasional black-breasted buzzard.

There are a large number of caves around the base of the rock with paintings which are still being done today. The traditional technique was to make a brush from the chewed end of a piece of bark and to paint with a combination of red and yellow ochre, charcoal and white pipe clay.

Sounds of Silence Dinner and Sunset Experience
Most people who decide to go on the Sounds of Silence tour (it leaves from Yulara in time to experience the sunset over the rock) describe it as unforgettable. Certainly it provides an excellent view - and photo opportunity - of the rock at sunset and it does offer interesting entertainment - a didgeridu player, an expert to point out the interesting stars in the southern sky, some entertainment - but the food is served from a bain marie with tables lining up to serve themselves. It is typical bain marie food.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Kata Tjuta (previously The Olgas)
Lying north of Uluru are the 36 smaller monoliths known as Kata Tjuta with the highest of the outcrops, Mount Olga, rising to 546 metres. Kata Tjuta covers area of 21.68 square kilometres and the distance around the outcrops is approximately 22 kilometres.

The geological origins of Kata Tjuta are the same as Uluru (see above) with the notable difference that during the formation - about 600 million years ago - Kata Tjuta was closer to the Petermann Ranges and consequently the rocks in the conglomerates are larger. Many geologists believe that the 36 small monoliths may have been a single rock formation which would have been much larger than Uluru.

Ernest Giles, who was the first European to see Kata Tjuta and whose benefactor named The Olgas, wrote that: "Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque." It is known that Kata Tjuta is rich in indigenous engravings but these are not on display for visitors. Much of the area is only accessible to the traditional owners who see the site as hugely significant and sacred.

There are two main walks:

(a) Valley of the Winds Walk is the most challenging. It is a 7.4 km circuit (3 hours) which can be difficult because of loose rocks and steepness. It is closed beyond the Karu Lookout (1.1 km from the car park) when the temperature rises above 36°C. The appeal is that this is a walk rarely taken and consequently the walker can experience the quietness of Kata Tjuta as they pass down creek beds surrounded by the domes.

(b) Walpa Gorge Walk is a short 2.6km (1 hour) walk from the car park to a viewing platform. It is a good, modest introduction to Kata Tjuta.

For more detailed information check out http://www.macdonnellranges.com/Kata-Tjuta-The-Olgas-visitors-information-guide.htm and http://www.outback-australia-travel-secrets.com/olgas-kata-tjuta.html. Both offer good advice on the two walks.

Yulara
Yulara is the tourist village associated with Uluru. It has an excellent information centre; is the location where many free activities - guided garden walks, indigenous art markets, the Wakagetti Cultural Dancers, didgeridoo playing, bush yarns, spear and boomerang throwing and campfire yarns; and has five different hotels and the Ayers Rock Campground, each of which caters to different needs from 5-star luxury to backpacker and ecotourism. For more information check out http://www.ayersrockresort.com.au.

 

The Geology of Uluru and Kata Tjuta
Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta were produced by a combination of sedimentation, folding and erosion. The first stage of sedimentation occurred around 600 million years ago and was probably produced by vast alluvial fans of coarse gravel and river sands washed north from the Petermann Ranges which, obviously, were much higher than they are today. This process lasted for about 50 million years and was followed by a second period of sedimentation when shallow seas covered the whole area.

About 300-400 million years ago the area was compressed - folded, faulted and uplifted. This resulted in the bedding that now makes up Uluru being tilted a dramatic 85° while the bedding at Kata Tjuta was only tilted 20°. It is worth noting that Uluru is actually grey in colour. It has been turned red by a coating of iron oxide. The final process of erosion, mostly by rainfall, resulted in Uluru and Kata Tjuka being exposed as we see them today.

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History

* There is archaeological evidence that the first Aborigines in the area around the rock arrived at least 10,000 years ago. There are a number of different stories told by the local Aborigines about the origins of the rock. In the 1980s a brochure was produced which explained that the Anangu people believed that: "In the beginning the world was unformed and featureless. Ancestral beings emerged from this void and journeyed widely, creating all the living species and the characteristic features of the desert landscape you see today. Uluru and Kata Tjuta provide physical evidence of feats performed during the creation period. Anangu are the direct descendants of these beings and are responsible for the protection and appropriate management of these ancestral lands. The knowledge necessary to fulfill these responsibilities has been passed down from generation to generation from the Tjukurpa."

In Robert Layton’s excellent Uluru: An Aboriginal History of Ayers Rock, he writes that there is a story of two boys who, during the creation time, built the rocky outcrops while playing with mud. Those boys are preserved as two boulders on the top of Mount Conner. There is another story which tells of how the scars on the rock were a result of serpent creatures fighting and scarring the rock. Yet another story tells of the leaders of two tribes of ancestral beings who, after a violent battle, both died and the earth responded by rising up and forming Uluru as an expression of its grief.

* The first European to reach the area around Uluru was the explorer Ernest Giles who, in 1872, sighted Kata Tjuka from Kings Canyon. Giles had a tendency to name every feature he saw and so he named both Lake Amadeus and Mount Olga. Amusingly he first named the features Lake Mueller and Mount Ferdinand in a rather blatant attempt to honour Baron Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller who had organised the expedition. Mueller was not impressed and changed the names of the features to those of the reigning King and Queen of Spain. Thus Mount Olga and Lake Amadeus.

* Giles returned to the area in 1873 and became the first European to climb Uluru. However he was not the first European to sight the rock. That honour goes to the explorer William Gosse who on 19 July, 1873 named Uluru after the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.

* The land around Uluru was so inhospitable, and the Anangu so antagonistic to Europeans, that pastoralists could see little benefit in trying to claim the land and graze livestock. They were defeated by a lack of water, potential violence and low, unreliable rainfall. Consequently the only Europeans to venture into the area were trappers, optimistic and foolish miners (usually searching for gold), and the occasional missionary.

* In 1920 the area around the rock was declared the Petermann Aboriginal Reserve. By the 1940s there was road access (the first graded road was built in 1948) which was largely due to the belief there may be gold in the area. It was around this time that the tourist potential of Uluru was recognised.

* In 1950 Ayers Rock was established as a national park.

* In 1957 Bill Harney, a legendary Northern Territorian, arrived in the area and in 1958, when Uluru and Kata Tjuta officially became the Ayers Rock National Park, he was appointed the first curator.

* In 1959 tourism took off with a motel lease being granted and an airstrip being built.

* 1976 saw the Commonwealth Government establish the lease at Yulara and in 1983-84 the entire tourism operation was moved and the old tourist destinations near the rock were closed.

* Modern tourism, in which the local community was actively involved, occurred 1985 when the title to the rock was handed back to the traditional owners. They duly granted the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service a 99-year lease over the park. Today large numbers of the local community work in the park and the traditional owners nominate eight of the twelve members of the Board of Management.

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Visitor Information

There is a Tour & Information Centre located at the Resort Town Square. It is open from 8.30am-4.30pm. It offers information on both the rock and the tours available in the region.

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Accommodation

Ayers Rock Resort offer a range of accommodation options from the upmarket Sails in the Desert, through the more reasonably priced Desert Gardens Hotel, to the self contained Emu Walk Apartments, the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge, and the Ayers Rock Campground. There is also the luxury, eco friendly destination, Longitude 131°.

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Eating

There are a variety of eating options at Ayers Rock Resort and a good cafe at the Cultural Centre.

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Useful Websites

The Australian Government has an excellent and comprehensive website http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/uluru/ which looks specifically at exploring the rock, its culture and the flora and fauna around the rock.

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