A cartoon Feathertail Glider sitting on a branch next to the words Feathertail Photography.
A cartoon Feathertail Glider sitting on a branch next to the words Feathertail Photography.

Palya: Greetings from Australia’s sacred heart

Uluru glows red against a dark backdrop of a cloudy sky.

Visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is something of a pilgrimage for many Australians.  

Uluru, the world’s biggest rock, sits in the south-west corner of the Northern Territory, almost in the middle of Australia’s mainland. It’s a geological wonder and one of Australia’s most recognisable landmarks but, first and foremost, it’s the home of the Anangu people who have lived in the region for at least 30,000 years.

Nathan and I have just returned from a five-day break at Yulara, the small resort town just north of Uluru.

Of course, we went there to enjoy the spectacular scenery and whatever flora and fauna we were lucky enough to encounter, but we also wanted to learn about the Anangu people and their ancient and continuing connection to the land, waters and culture in this place they call home.

This was Nathan’s first visit, and the second for me—I went to Uluru in 1995 as a small-minded 15-year-old on a school excursion. (How do I know I was small-minded? I wrote a travel journal that revealed the depressing extent of it!) I was determined to make up for it this time around.

Over our five days staying at Ayers Rock Resort, we did several walks and drives around Uluru and Kata Tjuta, including a guided tour through Patji, Aboriginal-owned lands south of Uluru. We also did a day trip to Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, went to the Sounds of Silence dinner held by Ayers Rock Resort, and fit in some nocturnal reptile spotting.

Read on to learn more about our experiences (including what it’s like to travel during COVID!), and make sure you click on the images to learn more about each one.

Feel most welcome to post any questions or comments below!

Uluru

Uluru on a cloudy morning with Kata Tjuta just visible on the horizon.

I think anyone who sees Uluru for the first time and doesn’t feel something stir deep inside them must be clinically dead. It’s simply extraordinary—an enormous red mountain of rock sitting in a vast expanse of flat desert.

Uluru is also known as Ayers Rock, the name given to it by the first European explorer to sight it in 1873, in honour of the then Governor of South Australia. Those early explorers sure knew how to curry favour with the brass.

On 26 October 1985, the Australian government officially returned ownership of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the Anangu people, and some years later the landmark was officially renamed to Uluru / Ayers Rock.

The word ‘Uluru’ is a proper noun. It’s a place name—it doesn’t have any other meaning.

The Climb

Climbing Uluru was and is generally not permitted by Anangu law and culture; however, tourists began climbing in the 1930s.

When I visited on my school trip in 1995, that’s pretty much the only reason anyone went to Uluru—to climb it. I look back now and I’m genuinely appalled, not just at the lack of cultural awareness, but the blatant and widespread disregard for its importance.

On our excursion, we did stop in at Uluru’s Cultural Centre before beginning the climb. I clearly remember seeing huge displays with images of traditional owners saying ‘please do not climb, the rock is sacred to us’. I had every intention of climbing, but at that point I started having second thoughts.

However, peer pressure and FOMO are very real and very powerful, especially at that age! So I started up along with the majority of my classmates and teachers.

You know what? It felt wrong from the start. Plus, it was bloody scary—walking straight up an exposed face with drastic drops off to the sides. I made it as far as the plaques dedicated to people who had died climbing and decided that was it. I made my way back down.

Out of 90+ people on that excursion there were six of us that didn’t climb, and we copped a lot of flak for it. I had regrets at the time, but I don’t now. I’m really glad I didn’t climb it.

In late 2017, the National Park’s Board of Management voted to officially close the climb on 26 October 2019, the 34th anniversary of the 1985 Handback to the Anangu people.

Disappointingly, thousands of people flocked to Uluru in order to tick the climb off their bucket list. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park saw an extra 10,000 visitors per month in the six months leading up to the climb’s closure, with numbers spiking dramatically in the final weeks.

Climbing Uluru is now outlawed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act, and there are fences to stop people going up. There is still a highly visible scar running up the side of the Rock worn by hundreds of thousands of feet, which will likely last for hundreds of years, but this ancient monolith can now start to heal.

Learning Tjukurpa on the Uluru Base Walk

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta website says the walk around the base of Uluru is about 10km, but my Garmin clocked it at 14km exactly (with detours to look at gorges, caves, and waterholes).

So, it’s a bit of a trek, but it’s the best way to learn Tjukurpa, the Anangu creation stories, which play out over various features in the landscape. There is interpretive signage along the way, or you can hire a horrible device that will offer (unpleasantly loud) audio commentary wherever you go. There are also numerous guided tour options.

If you don’t have time (or it’s too hot) to do the base walk all in one go, you can do it in bits.

We started at the Mala carpark (the base of the former climb at the western point of Uluru) and walked clockwise. Although we set off at 7am, it was very hot (39 degrees by the time we finished our walk). Shout out to the Rangers, who maintain drinking water stations at both the Mala carpark and the Kuniya Piti carpark at the eastern point of Uluru.

Along the way there is a range of different habitats, as well as interesting sites at the base of the Rock where you can detour from the base walk. There are two gorges—Kantju Gorge, a quiet spot with a small waterhole at the base of some very sheer cliffs, and the lush and shady Mutitjulu waterhole.

Mutitjulu waterhole is the site of a great battle between two ancestral beings—Kuniya, the woma python woman, and Liru, the venomous snake man. You can read some of their story on the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park website, but an Anangu guide told us that Tjukurpa stories can only be fully told in the presence of Tjukuritja, the physical evidence of the events that took place.

If you visit Mutitjulu waterhole, you can see the story of the battle illustrated in features and formations high up on the cliffs, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

There is also said to be a wanampi there even today—a water snake that lives in the waterhole and guards it against strangers.

Rock art

Around the base of Uluru are several sites that show evidence of the daily lives of the people who lived here before Europeans arrived. There are also a couple of publicly-accessible rock art sites, including the wonderful Art Cave at Mutitjulu waterhole.

We were lucky to bump into the SEIT Base Walk Tour at the Art Cave, and hear the guide, John, tell some of the stories of the paintings. Generally, the paintings you can see around the base of the Rock are educational—the Anangu used the walls of the caves like a classroom chalkboard to teach kids about various aspects of life.

The oldest of the paintings in the Art Cave have been dated at 22,000 years (hard to comprehend), while the most recent were done in the late 1930s or early 1940s (some elders still alive today remember them being painted when they were children).

There are also some very obvious signs of white people’s stupidity, both inadvertent and deliberate. There is a large section of the Art Cave where the paintings have been washed away, thanks to tour guides in the 1950s throwing water on the paintings to increase contrast for black and white photography.

Far worse, though, is a dark oily smudge over another area of the cave. Earlier this year, prior to the National Park’s closure during the COVID lockdown, unknown persons hid in the rocks around the Art Cave until night fell. They then went into the cave, threw cooking oil on the ancient art, and also scrawled racist graffiti on some nearby rockfaces visible from the walking track.

The graffiti was quickly washed away, but experts have come to the conclusion that there is no way to remove the cooking oil at the rock art sites without destroying the paintings underneath.

The planning that went into that malicious act and the level of both entitlement and hatred behind it boggles my mind. Nathan’s theory is that it was someone unhappy with the closure of the climb—maybe he’s right.

Sunset and sunrise

I’m sure almost every Australian has had to sit through someone’s boring travel photos of Uluru changing colour at sunset and sunrise. 20-30 photos is too much for even the most patient family member or friend to cope with, people!

Luckily for you, I’m just going to give you a couple. There are established carparks in the National Park which provide excellent views of Uluru at both sunrise and sunset, and on Wednesday evening we were treated to the most extraordinary display at the sunset carpark.

There was a storm to the south of Uluru—dark clouds, lightning—and the sun to the west was obscured by cloud, so the Rock looked dark and moody. It was almost 7pm (right on sunset) and everyone was on the verge of leaving, when suddenly the setting sun broke through a hole in the clouds and the Rock lit up.

It was breathtaking, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t weep just a little bit!

After a few minutes it faded, but the sky to the west was still aflame with colour, so we decided to head towards Kata Tjuta to see if we could catch some of it.

Kata Tjuta

Uluru’s sister rock formation, Kata Tjuta, sits about 30km away. Kata Tjuta is no less spectacular in its own right, but there’s just something about ‘The Rock’ that really grabs people.

Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’, referring to its 36 domes, and it is sacred to Anangu men. Traditionally, women entered the Kata Tjuta area to collect food and water, but always behaved respectfully, so they ask that we do the same now.

The warm red-purple domes of Kata Tjuta against a cloudy sky.

We didn’t make it out there before the sunset faded on Wednesday night, but we did see some cool reptiles on the road on the way back (see Desert fauna below).

Walpa Gorge

There are two walks you can do at Kata Tjuta—Walpa Gorge and Valley of the Winds. Due to the heat, the Valley of the Winds walk was only open in the early morning while we were there, so we didn’t get to do it as we had other stuff going on.

However, shortly after our arrival at Ayers Rock Resort, a disinterested guide in the Tourist Info Centre told us that Walpa Gorge was a good walk to do at any time of the day because it’s sheltered… so these two naive tourists eagerly headed out there on a 40 degree afternoon.

It turns out that in the afternoon, the sun beats relentlessly into Walpa Gorge for the entire length of the walk. I’d like to tell you that I was swept up in the ancient landscape and could hear the whispers of the ancestral spirits, but unfortunately, I spent most of the walk focused on survival.

Hot tip (literally) from me: Go to Walpa Gorge in the morning or right before sunset.

Watarrka National Park / Kings Canyon

On Wednesday we took our hire car for a 600km spin up to Watarrka National Park and back. It’s a big day trip, but Kings Canyon is worth it.

Watarrka National Park lies within the traditional lands of the Matutjara people, and the park is jointly managed by the local Traditional Owners and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory.

Kings Canyon features sheer walls of sandstone towering 100-150 metres above Kings Creek, which flows along the valley floor.

A panoramic shot of Kings Canyon taken from the rim and looking out into the gorge.

The Kings Canyon Rim Walk is a 6km loop that takes you from the carpark into a steep ascent onto the top of one wall of the canyon, which you then follow for about 3km before heading down some very steep stairs into the Garden of Eden, a lush shady paradise in the floor of the gorge. Then, of course, you have to do the same thing but on the opposite side of the gorge to get out.

It’s absolutely spectacular.

We arrived by 8am and had cloud cover for the first half of the walk, so the temperature was pretty pleasant. By the time we emerged from the Garden of Eden, though, the sun was out in full force. Man, it was hot. If you go there, take plenty of water.

Again, I remember visiting this place in 1995 and being very taken with it. I also remember lots of people swimming in the Garden of Eden waterhole—accepted practice for tourists back then, despite the wishes of the Traditional Owners.

Nowadays there are ‘no swimming’ signs everywhere, and most of the people we saw behaved respectfully. However, as always, there’s evidence of human damage.

A lot of the trees along the walk had hessian wrapped around the trunks and branches. We asked a Ranger about it, and he said the hessian is there to cover graffiti where people have carved their names into the trees.

“Everyone wants to leave their name here,” he said, sadly.

Not everyone, mate.

Mount Conner

The drive from Uluru to Kings Canyon goes past another geological wonder, Mount Conner, a flat-topped horseshoe-shaped mountain which lies inside the 1 million-acre cattle station, Curtin Springs. As it’s on private land, the only way to see it up close is on a SEIT tour.

Mt Conner is a flat-topped mountain with sloping sides sitting in the middle of a flat desert.

I asked the guide on our Patji tour about Mount Conner, and why no one really mentions it much. Is it of lesser cultural significance than Uluru and Kata Tjuta, despite being referenced frequently in the rock art around Uluru?

He diplomatically dodged my question, saying that the landmark has been in private hands for a long time now, and that’s just how it is. The implication, of course, is that ancient cultural connections to Mount Conner are being lost. I find that mind-boggling.

Desert fauna

What’s the one animal you expect to see at Uluru?

Dingoes!

We didn’t see a single one, although I did see some prints in a dune at one of the Uluru viewing areas. Nor did we see any emus or kangaroos. Birdlife around Uluru and Kata Tjuta seemed pretty light-on as well.

Our SEIT Patji guide told us that this is mostly because it has been really dry in the region over the past two years. However, there’s been rain in the past fortnight (including while we were there) and the landscape is starting to green up, so they’re hoping that the larger animals will return.

Our Anangu Patji guide also said that wildlife had moved on from Uluru due to the waterholes around its base being fouled by human excrement. As you might expect, there are no toilets on top of Uluru, and a lot of people who did the climb relieved themselves up there. The moment it rained, the waterfalls cascading from the Rock would carry that human waste into the waterholes.

Depressing stuff, but again, the Rock is now starting to heal.

So, what animals did see?

Camels. Feral camels are a huge problem in central Australia.

They were first introduced into Australia in the 1840s to assist in the exploration of inland Australia. Between 1840 and 1907, between 10,000 and 20,000 camels were imported from British India and Afghanistan, and there are currently over 1 million feral camels in the Australian deserts. They trample vegetation, contribute to overgrazing, foul waterholes, and damage sacred sites.

Moral issues aside, culling is problematic because (according to our Anangu guide) if you kill a camel and leave it in the desert for nature to take care of, an oily substance comes out of it as it decomposes. This substance seeps into the ground and renders the soil barren.

“They don’t even taste good,” he said. “Too salty.”

In better news, we were lucky enough to encounter two species of frog—one in an ephemeral waterhole on the Uluru base walk, and another in a Patji waterhole south of the national park. (I haven’t figured out what species they are yet.)

We saw birds here and there. Crested Pigeons, Crows, Yellow-throated Miners, and White-plumed Honeyeaters are pretty common, but we also saw a Singing Honeyeater, Little Woodswallows, Zebra Finches, a Mistletoebird, a Pied Butcherbird, and some raptors (but they were too distant to tell what they were).

There’s a really cool Mulga Ant that builds large donut-shaped nests out of mulga tree needles—we got to see some of these nests on the Patji tour.

Sand goannas are commonly seen (and hit, unfortunately) on the roads, both during the day and night. On both Wednesday and Thursday evenings we drove the road between Kata Tjuta and Uluru looking for reptiles in the one hour of darkness available to us before the park closed at 8:30pm.

On these short nocturnal drives, we encountered several Spiny-tailed Geckos (my new faves—so cute!), two Western Hooded Scaly-foot Skinks, a Narrow-banded Shovel-nosed Snake, a Burton’s Legless Lizard, a Long-beaked Blind Snake, and a Ringed Brown Snake.

Unfortunately, the spectacular Thorny Devil eluded us. Next time!!

Travelling to Uluru during COVID

This was the first time we’d left Queensland since the COVID-19 pandemic started, and it was quite different to what Australians have grown used to when travelling domestically.

We flew Jetstar from Brisbane directly to Yulara (the small town just north of Uluru). We had to complete an NT border declaration before travelling, and this was checked and signed off at Brisbane airport.

Wearing masks is not compulsory, but Jetstar strongly recommends it.

When we arrived at Yulara Airport, it was like getting through LAX. (OK, maybe not quite that bad, but it was a bit of an ordeal—we were near the back of the queue and it was a pretty long wait.)

Entry involved temperature checks, and our border declarations were looked over and signed off by officials. We also had to provide proof (via bank statements) that we had not been to a COVID hotspot in the previous two weeks.

Once you get through, however, you’d want to hope that no one fudged their declaration because social distancing goes out the window. If you catch any of the shuttle buses or do any tours or experiences, you will be in close proximity to people from all over the place.

We also had to complete a border declaration to get back into Queensland, but it’s not actually clear from the Queensland Government website that you have to do that, so a lot of people were caught out and had to frantically complete a declaration on their mobiles after getting off the plane at Brisbane.

Accommodation and dining options are limited

There are various accommodation options at Yulara, all within the Ayers Rock Resort precinct, but the resort is running at significantly reduced capacity. We stayed at Sails in the Desert, and I have a few tips if you’re heading that way (travel companies are hammering those domestic Uluru packages pretty hard right now)!

Breakfast and dinner options are very limited. There’s the extremely expensive Ilkari restaurant at Sails ($45 breakfast, anyone?), and Walpa Lobby Bar only offers snacks and drinks after 5pm—no dinner options. I find this genuinely bizarre, as you can order the Walpa dinner meals to your room but you can’t order them at the bar.

Gecko’s café in the Town Square does (expensive) burgers, pizzas, fish and chips, etc., and the Kulata Academy Café does coffee, cake and light meals but only during the day.

There’s a well-stocked IGA in the Town Square, but Sails doesn’t offer any cooking facilities in the rooms (not even a toaster), so if you want to whip up something yourself, you can forget about that.

There is no takeaway alcohol available, and the alcohol you can buy onsite is VERY expensive—$11 for a beer or glass of wine. The cheapest bottle of wine on the menu at Sails is $51 and guess what? They’d sold out. 

Our tips:

  • The Sails room service food is reasonable value and very good, as long as you don’t mind balancing your plate on your knees.
  • The IGA makes nice sandwiches daily—you can find them in the fridge section.
  • The Shell servo has a range of food, which we didn’t realise until the last day—go check it out if you’re there.
  • Make sure you stock up on snacks, water, and electrolytes the day before you plan to go on any hikes, because the IGA and Shell are not open early enough to stop by as you head out.
  • Maybe stash a bottle of wine or two in your suitcase if you want to enjoy a glass of wine in your room in the evening.

The silver lining

The upside of all this is that there are far fewer tourists at Uluru than usual. The tourist sites are sparsely populated, which means you can enjoy a lot of the special places almost completely alone.

Sounds of Silence

Ayers Rock Resort offers a high-end dinner experience called the Sounds of Silence, which is marketed as “offering the best of the Red Centre distilled into four magical hours”.

A didgeridoo player sits atop a sand dune at dusk with Kata Tjuta on the cloudy horizon.

For the bargain price of $229pp, they bus you out to a dune with views of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta to watch the sunset as you enjoy drinks, canapes, and a didgeridoo player. Then everyone goes down to a bunch of tables set up at the base of the dune with white tablecloths, silver service, and a three-course buffet dinner showcasing the best of Indigenous ingredients and flavours.

As the night sky darkens, the stars appear in a glorious display the likes of which you’ve probably never seen before. The resort’s ‘Star Talker’ arrives and tells you about the stars, including some stories from Aboriginal culture.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go. I think we were pretty unlucky, but based on our experience, I can’t recommend it.

During the afternoon, a brisk wind arrived, kicking up a minor dust storm. It was still blustery when our two coachloads of dinner guests got to the site.

Standing on top of a sand dune with 100+ other people, juggling a drink in one hand, a box of COVID-safe canapes in the other, and your camera in the other (oh that’s right, I don’t have three hands) while the wind whips your hair in your face and sand into your eyes is not my idea of a great time. But we soldiered through it.

When we got down to the tables, the fine white tablecloths were covered in a fine red layer of sand. And… it was clouding over. By the time it got dark, the cloud cover was complete.

Fortunately, we were sitting with a nice group of people and we had some pleasant conversations. The food and drinks were nice. The wait staff and chefs did an excellent job in a challenging situation. Our ‘Cloud Talker’ did a good job of telling her stories and pointing out where the stars should be with a laser. We even had a few drops of rain splash on us, but not enough to dampen things.

Was it the best of the Red Centre distilled into four magical hours? Um, no. #firstworldproblems

What’s an adventure without some misadventure?

It’d be a boring holiday without a few things going wrong, but getting bogged in the desert is not something we expected.

I mentioned that it was raining south of Uluru on Wednesday, the evening of the spectacular sunset. It didn’t rain over the Rock that day, but it did rain over Patji, the area of the Katiti Petermann Indigenous Protected Area that we visited on our Thursday tour.

It’s normally really dry out there, which probably explains why our guide was completely unprepared for encountering washed out areas on the dirt roads.

We got through a few OK, but after morning tea we came upon a particularly soggy-looking section. Our Anangu guide (alone in his 4WD) got through it OK, but our van loaded up with 10 people didn’t.

To cut a long and not-very-exciting story short, we eventually got out after sticking about a thousand branches under the wheels and with five people pushing on the front of the van. Gotta say, it was possibly the highlight of the tour.

My other piece of advice to Outback travellers is ‘don’t take any risks with your hiking gear’. If you have gear that’s starting to wear out, sort it out before you travel, because you can’t just pop down to Bunnings or your local camping shop for a replacement.

In my case, it was my shoes. After approximately 14 years of loyal service, but hiking boots bit the red dust. The soles fell off.

There is no shoe shop in Yulara. Luckily, there was one tube of Selly’s Liquid Nails in the IGA which saved me. I had to glue the soles back on twice, but it got me through! I have no idea what I would have done without that magic tube of Liquid Nails.

Something to take away

It’s normal to want a souvenir of any holiday to take home, but literally taking a piece of Uluru or Kata Tjuta home with you is not only illegal, but highly disrespectful to the Anangu culture. Some people believe that if you take sand or a piece of rock away with you, you’ll be cursed with bad luck.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Rangers frequently receive parcels containing rocks and sand being returned by guilty tourists. The way they handle these ‘Sorry Rocks’ is really interesting.

For me? I’ve brought home a t-shirt, and many wonderful photos and memories.

But, more than that, the message that I’ve taken away is something our SEIT guide, Dan, said when talking about the climb closure: “People come to Uluru now to communicate instead of conquer, and that’s a great thing.”

‘Palya’ is an Anangu greeting meaning hello/goodbye/thank you/welcome, depending on context.

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Comments (2)

  • Avatar

    Kellee Offley

    |

    Shanna, that was an absolute pleasure to read. Your writing brought back so many phenomenal memories for me. I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I also learnt many things that I did not know, despite my many visits. It is a place that stirs deep emotion. Let us all hope that a deeper understanding of the land and it’s people is what now draws visitors to this majestic place.
    Thankyou Shanna 🥰

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Shanna Bignell

      |

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kellee! There really is something very powerful about it, isn’t there? I do hope that tourists visit with a spirit of openness and a desire to learn and to understand.

      Reply

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I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the country where I live and work, the Gubbi Gubbi people.

I pay respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture.