Planning and Enjoying Your Trip to Uluru - Australia's Outback Icon

If you're thinking of a trip to Australia, Uluru needs no introduction. You've likely seen postcard pictures of 'Ayers Rock' from every angle before you even set foot in the country. Its shape is instantly recognisable, and it's deeply linked to every foreigner's first impression of 'the outback'. The vibrant orange colours of the sandstone formation and surrounding desert rarely fail to evoke feelings of wanderlust - especially if you've spent most of your life among the forests and fields of sunny England!

Getting to Australia is easy enough these days; just pick any of the major coastal cities, book a flight (probably with at least one connection), and you'll be deposited on the other end just over a day after leaving home. Making your way to Uluru can be more involved though, due to its isolated location in the scorched centre of this continent-sized country. So, what are your options for getting there, and where should you stay when you arrive? How much of your precious time Down Under should you set aside to visit this iconic symbol? Is it really worth making such an immense diversion just to spend days looking at a rock in the desert?

This last question is down to individual preference, and the answer will depend on your reasons for coming to Australia in the first place. If you're a city sightseer who enjoys mingling with locals and experiencing the nightlife, I'd say you'll be perfectly happy sticking to the coastline. Similarly, if you want a relaxation-focused holiday of sun and sand, you really don't need to advance 2000km into the heart of the country to satisfy your needs. You don't even need to come to Uluru to get a proper taste of the outback; civilisation in Australia clings heavily to the coast, and the capital cities are really just tiny pockets of people backing fairly abruptly onto the vacant interior.

If, however, outdoor pursuits and the magnificence of nature are more your thing, Uluru will not disappoint. The endless miles of hiking trails let you experience the rock's intricate details first-hand, and you can also enjoy it at a distance from a multitude of vantage points. You can examine the rusty red surface close-up during the day, then watch later on as the evening sun highlights its features, projecting its long shadow across the desert - just like on the postcards. There's enough to keep landscape-loving desert dwellers occupied for days, and I personally revisited the same viewpoints again and again without getting bored of the sights. Travelling into the 'red centre' may feel like a bit of a pilgrimage - but if you're the kind of person who can't come to Australia without ticking Uluru off the list, the prospect of such an expedition will only add to your excitement!

Now - perhaps all my talk of photogenic perfection and magnificent desolation has sealed the deal for you. So what's the best way to get there? If time is a premium, it may be that your only option is to fly from a major city using one of the direct shuttles to Ayers Rock (Connellan) airport. At the time of writing, multiple major carriers offer return flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and a few other large east coast hubs. You won't have to settle for a cramped seat in the droning cabin of an ancient propliner either - pretty much all regular flights now use 737s or A320s. If you're intent on visiting by air, the east coast is definitely the best place to begin. With flight options departing from every city you're likely to pass through on the seaboard, you shouldn't be forced to structure the rest of your holiday around your visit to Uluru.

It should be noted that domestic flight prices aren't exactly bargain basement - in fact, the cost of my one-way trip from London to Perth in 2018 was almost half that of a typical return flight from Sydney to Uluru. At a glance, it's easy to see why airlines can charge such steep fees. The route exists purely to service a captive tourist market, and all the infrastructure at the other end is present for the sole purpose of getting people as close to the rock as possible. When you walk out of the terminal at Ayers Rock airport, you're only 5km from the main resort town at Yulara and just over 15km from Ayers Rock itself! There really is no quicker way to get yourself out there if time is tight.

What if you'd prefer to embrace the opportunity for a unique roadtrip, and make your own way into the heart of Australia? Where should you start, and what's it like to cover the thousands of miles of inevitable desert road? This is the method I used to get to Uluru. Starting slowly from Perth in my $500 car, I travelled for months on a tour of the country with no definite destination. When I eventually showed up in Darwin on the northern coast, it was impossible to ignore the alluring 1500km stretch of straight road beckoning me down to Alice Springs. If I could make it to Alice, it would be no trouble to re-stock, divert off the main road, and then spend as long as I wanted taking in Ayers Rock for the first time.

The route you take to get to Uluru will depend on a few factors. First - where are you leaving from? If you're over east, it's pretty much a case of 'all roads lead to Rome'. The rock is accessible from the Stuart Highway, which begins in Darwin and snakes its way south along the backbone of the country until it terminates just before Adelaide. This means that if you can get to Adelaide, you can get to Uluru. This route also has the advantage of being 100% sealed; you won't have to do a single mile of off-roading for the whole journey. I covered the full length of the Stuart Highway on my roadtrip from Western Australia - and if a cheap 2001 Daihatsu can do it, you can be sure that any rental car is capable.

What if, like me, you're departing from Perth? It still won't take much head-scratching to figure out a route. Assuming you want to stick to the proper roads, the sensible option is, again, to head for Adelaide. The shortest path is probably due east via Kalgoorlie, followed by a left turn at Norseman before tackling the wide-open lowlands of the Nullarbor Plain. If you don't fancy doing the whole journey in one hit, you've also got the option to add on a few hundred kilometres and pause among the vineyards, coves and forests of the south coast, depending on the time of year.

For the curious, there is actually a far more direct passage from Perth to Uluru - but only if you're up for a hard-core 4x4 adventure through one of the country's most unoccupied expanses! Once you've stocked up on enough supplies, spares and knowledge to cover all eventualities, start by hitting the road towards Kalgoorlie. This time though, you want to turn north and follow signs directing you to Laverton. A few empty ghost towns and solitary roadside pubs later, you'll finally find yourself crossing the frontier where tarmac turns to dust, and the smooth, civilised highway is no more. From here, be prepared for almost 1500km of off-road excitement as you slowly cross the entire remainder of Western Australia. After a steady trip through the desert, you'll be deposited straight into the national park containing the renowned rock you drove all this way to see. Time your arrival right, and you could end your trek with a glass of celebratory chardonnay while you watch your first magical Ayers Rock sunset.

By now you've probably worked out your route and determined how much time you need to get to Uluru. What are your accommodation options when you arrive? The whole park is actually serviced by a single resort town called Yulara, which hosts a decent selection of hotels to gratify every kind of visitor. Whether you're looking for indulgent luxury or simply a bed and a place to put your stuff, all the choices are clustered together around the same purpose-built loop of road. There's even a full size supermarket and a proper petrol station; luxury - especially if you just spent a week driving in from the west on the unsealed road!

I chose to stay in the most basic dormitory room at the Outback Pioneer Hotel. It was expensive for what it was, but that's no surprise at all for such a niche location. There were many more beds wedged into a single room than you'd find in a city hostel for the same price - but the kitchen was decent, the showers were warm, and it was a far more welcome choice than my $20 tent! That said, if you do fancy sleeping under the stars with the silhouette of Uluru watching over you from the horizon, Yulara does offer at least one proper campsite too.

When you finally arrive, there's loads to keep you occupied. If you came with your own car, it's very simple to get from your resort at Yulara to the main attraction itself. The paved road takes you straight from town into the boundaries of the national park. After paying the entrance fee, you're then free to roam around with very few restrictions. You can also come in and out as many times as you want for the duration of your park pass. Make sure you grab a map - these will direct you to the best hikes while also showing you where to stop at sunrise or sunset for optimal viewing.

The roads encircling Uluru let you travel round the rock at your own pace, and they offer plenty of laybys where you can pause for photos, or just stop to absorb the view. If long walks aren't your thing, you can actually see many of the best sights without having to leave your car. There's nothing to stop you just making leisurely laps of the rock all day; trust me when I say that just one trip around won't be enough! The light is constantly changing, and a face which might look bland and flat in the morning will reveal its intricate features later on, when the sun hits it right. The colours are most spectacular when the sun is low, and you can drive right up to the most popular sunrise/sunset spots. Car parks have been set up at the main viewing points, so it's easy to grab a front-row seat in the early evening and watch the desert slowly transform into a spectacle of glowing orange. Take a few beers with you, or bring your dinner in a cooler and let nature provide the show!

Some visitors are enticed into the outback as much by the walking opportunities as the lovely landscapes. Once you're in the park, there are enough trails to keep a casual hiker going for days. Some start from the road, and let you access quieter vantage points offering new views of the rock from afar. Others go right round the base of Uluru, getting you close enough to observe the flaky, rusted surface and see where the vertical walls abruptly emerge from the soft, sandy ground.

There are also plenty of interesting enclaves and fascinating little diversions which can only be discovered on foot. A number of caves and cavities are dotted around the base, some of which contain faint marks left by the ancient people who've lived around the rock for thousands of years. There are places where you can escape the harsh midday sun too, by following a path into one of the shadowed clefts that give Uluru its signature shape. If you're caught in a rare rain shower, you'll be able to see first-hand how the water flows down through the rounded channels in the rock's face, eventually pooling in little ponds at its foot.

After a couple of days of intense exploring, you might decide you've had your fill. You've wandered back and forth around every corner of the rock's base, and you've taken enough sunset photos to fill an entire album. Time to start the long journey home? Not quite. Located less than an hour's drive west of Uluru is a similar geological wonder called Kata-Tjuta, which also merits at least a half-day of your time. You've probably spotted its lumpy outline on the distant horizon already; even though it's another 30km away, it's pretty hard to miss.

Getting out to it is as easy as travelling anywhere in the park; just hop in the car and follow another nicely paved road that takes you straight there. At first glance it might not look like Kata-Tjuta can give you anything beyond what you've already seen at Uluru, but it does have its own unique character. The gaps and chasms in the rock are much larger here, and the whole thing is split up into a series of individual rounded stone towers. The signposted hikes will take you right between these massive pillars, and there are some awesome photo opportunities to be had where the rocks meet the sky. Kata-Tjuta also has its own sunset viewing gallery, so, if you'd like a fresh take on Uluru's signature beauty shot, be sure to spend some time out here at the end of the day too. If you do stick around for sunset, there's the added bonus of driving back east with the recognisable outline of Ayers Rock against the twilight sky.

However long you spend in this fascinating and thought-provoking part of Australia, you're sure to take some enduring memories back home with you. For most foreign visitors, Uluru will be a once-in-a-lifetime destination whose unique beauty plays a key part in their impression of the country as a whole. I think one visit to the rock is enough, but if the opportunity came up again, I'd happily go back and experience it all for a second time. If nothing else, I hope this article has convinced you that it really is worth putting a few days aside to plan your own adventure to this world heritage site. You'll be very glad you did.