Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun: Uluru, Katja-Tjuta and Alice Springs

Uluru is the spiritual heart of Australia. The giant monolith rises out of the red sand, pulsing its strange beauty across the desert, making us question our own significance and truly ponder the passage of time. Because of its inaccessibility, it was only recently discovered by the white man (1872), so Australia’s Indigenous people were left to live beside it without any interruption for tens of thousands of years (until the destructive and unforgiving tourist trade took hold in the 1930s). The land here is sacred. You can feel it. The ancient rock is also known as the third earth chakra, the solar plexus. And like pilgrims to Mecca, we trekked to this big rock, looking for our own form of salvation.

The Alice

We flew Qantas from Brisbane to Alice Springs via Adelaide, which took almost seven hours. Thankfully, each plane had in-flight entertainment, and I had to pack very light because of the flights. Once in Alice, we hailed a cab to the Apollo rental hub, a quick ten-minute drive, but let me warn you, taxis in Alice are double the price of any other city in Australia.

We opted to rent a campervan namely because we did not need the toilet facilities provided by a larger motorhome as we would be staying at caravan parks for the entirety of the trip. Renting a 4WD was also an option, but the 4WDs came with either a tent (no thanks), those ridiculously hard-to-fold-out canvas rooftop tents (no way) or a slide-on camper, but these models could only accommodate two people (not enough seat belts). The campervan came with four seats, seat belts, child booster seats, and two double beds and was fully stocked with linen, dishes, cutlery, gas bottles, table and camp chairs. All I had to do was sign a form and grab the keys. Luxury!

We planned to stay in Alice for two nights and then head south to Uluru for four nights before returning to the Alice. We booked a powered ensuite site at the BIG4 MacDonnell Ranges Holiday Park, a personal favourite. Not only do the ensuite sites have a full bath and toilet, but they are close to the jumping pillows, playground and pool, which has been upgraded to include a huge waterslide. It is paradise, located just beyond Heavitree Gap, with beautiful views of the rocky, red Eastern MacDonnell Ranges.

The next day, we stocked up on food and supplies in town and then ventured into the Western Macs to swim at Ellery Creek Big Hole, where we watched a white fellow baptise two Aboriginal adults. The water hole was full and clean and cold so we spent the entire day swimming to the sand bar in the centre and back again.

To Uluru

The next morning, we trekked south along the Stuart Highway towards Uluru, stopping at every roadhouse in our path. I missed the desert, its endless horizons and quiet expanses.  It was greener than the last time I saw it, the result of heavy rains during the summer, spinifex covered much of the red dirt from view. My boys were babies the last time they had been out here, and I noticed the foreignness of the landscape scared them.

We pulled into the Ayers Rock Campground six hours later and found it just as I remembered it – busted, neglected and scarce. Voyages, the company that runs Ayers Rock Resort, obviously cares less about the touring visitors than they do the internationals who opt to stay in the first-class accommodation.


Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Many families I spoke to drove from the coast and, due to time limitations, could not see as much at Uluru as they would have liked. Seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta is impossible, with only two nights to spare. Most can’t comprehend the size and magnitude of the place, and they always underestimate how much Uluru will affect them. It is an immensely spiritual experience and not giving yourself enough time to appreciate the sites fully leaves you a bit depressed. Flying in gave us much more time, as I had arranged for us to spend one day at Uluru, one-day doing camel rides and the Field of Light tour, one day at Kata Tjuta and the last day around the resort as there are many free activities.

We woke before dawn the next day to get to the Uluru sunrise platform. Among the throngs of tour bus folk, I captured the sunrise over the desert, a swirl of pink and orange. Seeing the big, red rock come into view was on par with magic. The first time I saw Uluru, I left knowing that everything in my life would change. This time I came here for that exact reason.

We stopped by the cultural centre so the boys could understand the desert animals and ecology better, see Aboriginal dot paintings firsthand, and find out where the best walks were located. We visited the Mala Walk first, which is where the climb starts. The climb was closed; as a sacred site, the traditional owners asked everyone to refrain from venturing up. The Mala walk is also where the 10k circuit starts, but we opted to drive around the base, visiting rock art sites and water holes along the way. As the afternoon waned, we parked at the sunset viewing area and watched the interplay between sky and rock until only the stars were visible.

Camels & Lights

The trip’s highlight for all of us was the camel ride at Uluru Camel Tours. We had two guides who loaded us on top of the humpy beasts and took us for an hour-long walk through the desert dunes with Uluru and Kata Tjuta looming in the distance. We found a thorny devil along the path and were able to give it a quick pet. That night, we took a bus and drove out to Bruce Munroe’s art installation, Field of Light, a 50,000-bulb exhibit that turns the desert into a magical fairyland once the sun sets.

Valley of the Wind

Kata Tjuta and the Valley of the Wind walk is a winding 4.7km circuit through massive red domes, tree-lined waterholes and quiet canyons and was the icing on the cake. On our last day, we tramped around the resort visiting the Mani Mani Indigenous Culture Theatre for a show, the Wintjiri Art Gallery & Museum and took an impromptu astronomy tour with the astronomer in residence at his donger near our campsite.

We returned to Alice Springs feeling blessed and fully immersed in Central Australian Dreamtime bliss. On our last few days, we trekked around the Alice, visiting the truly amazing Desert Park and Olive Pink Botanical Gardens, and just spending time back at the BIG4, at the base of the Eastern Macs, watching the boys go up and down the pool’s massive waterslide. I came home refreshed and transformed with only two loads of washing to tackle.

Pros & Cons of Fly-in & Hire

Pros: more time holidaying/ less time driving, the vehicle is someone else’s problem (no cleaning required), great for the time-poor family (school holiday timeframe), can visit remote locations without having to own vehicle + trailer/ caravan, light packing only as all supplies were included with the rental, looking down at the desert from up in the plane.

Cons: unable to visit off-road locations such as Rainbow Valley, Palm Valley and other sites on dirt tracks, the expense of flying (3) people into Central Australia, don’t get to experience the gradual ‘descent into the desert’ when you drive from the coast, found the bed somewhat uncomfortable in the Apollo, the campervan was not suited for extended time off the grid (always had to charge it).

Tips for travelling to the Centre with kids

Stay in one place for at least two nights to keep everyone sane

Fill your tablet or laptop with kid-friendly movies

Grocery shopping must include junk food that can be used as bribes

Prepare your kids by reading books about Aboriginal culture and my personal favourite, Are We There Yet? by Alison Lester

Watch this doco: First Footprints

Let your kids remove their shoes and cover their bodies in red sand – they will love it!

Fly Qantas (two words: in-flight entertainment)

For the best accommodation in Alice Springs, book an ensuite site at the BIG4 MacDonnell Ranges Holiday Park

Plan to spend at least five days and four nights at Uluru-Kata Tjuta. If you book into the Ayers Rock Resort campground, expect to be disappointed. We survived by visiting the Pioneer Outback Hotel for the pools and dining options. The various free activities and tours at the resort are wonderful.

Ayers Rock Resort

170 Yulara Dr, Yulara NT 0872, (02) 8296 8010

Alice Springs Desert Park

Great park with wonderful tours and friendly animals and staff!

Larapinta Drive, Alice Springs NT 0871, (08) 8951 8788