Updated: Oct 31, 2020
We at ExtraVirgin have had our own life-changing experiences in the expansive Australian outback so we were thrilled but not surprised to see Uluru ranked number three on Lonely Planet’s new Ultimate Travel List of the world’s unmissable travel experiences.
It’s a substantial list, capturing 500 unique and compelling places, ranging from marvels of human invention to places of raw natural beauty.
First place went to Jordan’s “lost city” of Petra, a 3000-year-old Unesco World Heritage site that has long mystified travellers with its history and stunning sandstone construction. Petra has been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and Jordan, at least prior to Covid-19, was considered one of the safest countries in the Middle East.
In second place is the Galápagos, the archipelago of Pacific islands 1000km from the coast of Ecuador that are famed as the place where Charles Darwin shaped his ideas of evolution by natural selection.
And third, is central Australia’s Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, home to the spectacular sandstone formations once known as Ayers Rock and the Olgas. Uluru, an immense monolith, and Kata Tjuta, the rock domes nearby, are sacred to the Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the area who are one of the oldest human societies in the world. The UNESCO World Heritage site features an abundance of springs, waterholes, rock caves and ancient paintings.
The Lonely Planet rank is an accolade that happens to fall in the month that marks the 35th anniversary of the Australian government’s handback of Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa to the Aṉangu. Since 1985, Aṉangu have jointly managed Uluṟu–Kata Tjuṯa National Park with Parks Australia. This month also marks the first anniversary of the closing of the Uluru climb (see more below).
Reflecting on my own time in the park, I recognise that travel can be a force for good, allowing us to experience personal growth, connect with other cultures and communities, experience how others live, and to educate ourselves. What we experience on the road, can reshape our day to day lives.
I confess to being one of those Aussies who deferred travel in my homeland while I ventured around the world, driven partly by youthful (and yes, ignorant) cultural cringe and by the reasoning that I could always travel domestically in my dotage. Sure enough, as I got older, my interest in Uluru and in exploring the mysteries of my own country grew.
I was expecting to enjoy the sights, colours and history but I wasn’t prepared for the depth of understanding and connection I felt for this ancient land and its original inhabitants and their culture.
Last year, when they put an end to the rock climb at Uluru, some voices opposed the closure of the climb, suggesting it was the high
light of an Uluru visit and that fewer tourists would come if they couldn’t climb. But I’d argue the rock climb was the least rewarding of the experiences you could have there; that there are many richer experiences to be had. In fact, I’d say there are plenty of rocks and man-made high places to visit around the world so go climb those if that’s your bag.
Meanwhile, travel brochures for Uluru-Kata Tjuta will tempt you with a number
of five-star tours and activities that involve fine dining at dawn, sunset or under the starred night sky or incredible scenic flights. To be sure, they are memorable experiences but for those interested in a truly life-changing visit to Uluru-Kata Tjuta, here are my tips:
1. Slow down and appreciate the rock formations from a distance. There’s no amount of pictures that can prepare you for the jaw-dropping sight and vastness of Uluru and Kata Tjuta as you fly in or first encounter them through the windscreen of your car. Stop at one of the viewing sites that allow you to forge your own memories in the different lights of day.
2. Book a guided walk around the base of Uluru. It’s worth every penny. The 10km walk is an opportunity to learn from the Anangu, whose spiritual ancestors are embodied in the sacred site. Only accredited guides are allowed and their knowledge ranges from the geological formation of the site, the wildlife and flora of the area, creation stories of the Anangu, and the more recent history of how they lived with and cherished the site before the relatively recent arrival of Europeans.
3. The cultural centre adjacent to Uluru is currently closed due to Covid-19 but when it reopens, allow yourself at least a couple of hours to do it justice. It includes a fascinating display on tjukurpa, the creation period, as well as a detailed history of the handing back of Uluru to the Anangu by the Australian Government in 1985. By the time you’re finished, you will understand why climbing the rock is such an offence - like me, you may liken it to having a picnic on the altar at Westminster Abbey in London or Notre Dame in Paris. You get the idea.
4. Take a guided tour of Kata Tjuta for an excellent understanding of its unique place in Anangu culture, and a mind-boggling explanation of its geological formation over millennia. In many ways, I loved its vast, windswept spaces and haunting silent vistas even more than I did Uluru itself.
5. Be culturally sensitive. Uluru and Kata Tjuta have formed part of the traditional belief system of the Aṉangu for thousands of years and their role in life and ceremonies continues today, so there are a number of rules that visitors must follow. For example, the rock formations of the north-east face of Uluru hold chapters of creation stories that should only be learned in person and in situ. It is, therefore, inappropriate for any images of these sites to be viewed elsewhere, and visitors are asked to not take any photos in these areas. The special areas are well-signed so it’s easy to comply. It also means that the only place you can hear these creation stories is on site and in person, making them a very special part of your Uluru visit.
While Uluru and Kata Tjuta are incredible at any time of year, the weather in Central Australia varies quite a bit between seasons. Follow this link to learn more about the best time to visit.
In these days of staying close to home, when I ponder all the wonderful places I’ve seen around the world, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park stands out for being more than just a natural beauty spot or a landmark created by humans. When I reflect on my time there, I can conjure how it felt to be in the midst of raw natural beauty and ancient cultural heritage. It carved out a place in my heart and it certainly deserves its spot in the world's top-three unmissable destinations.
Rain on Uluru is a rare and magical sight. This photo, above, was captured this week when the skies opened and rain cascaded down its flanks. Photo: Parks Australia