Touring the Outback: Ayers Rock, The Olgas and King’s Canyon

Uluru Ayers Rock

If you’re anything like me, going to the Australian Outback and seeing Ayers Rock/The Olgas is a bucket list item. I’ve always wanted to see Australia, but when planning this trip, Ayers Rock was one of the top 3 things I wanted to see, and easily the most feasible. (Getting to the Great Wall requires a lot of visa hassle, and seeing the Pyramids of Giza requires the violence in the region to settle down.) I felt like my excitement was setting me up for disappointment, but I was still absolutely blown away.

There are a lot of ways to visit Ayers Rock (also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru) – from wine and cheese buses to party buses to private motorcycle drivers, and more – but for me, it couldn’t have been much better than camping under the stars during a 3-day tour. After exploring options to rent a car, we decided that the hassle of driving and figuring out the right places to stay and eat was too difficult and expensive. Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park is at least 5 hours away from any city, so the few hotels, rental agencies and campgrounds in the area have a monopoly and double to triple what you’d pay elsewhere.

We landed on going with The Rock Tours. There are about a dozen of these types of tours, but The Rock bills itself as the backpacker/budget-friendly option.

For $375 AUD, you get:

  • Guided tours of Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and King’s Canyon
  • Two nights camping in the Outback
  • 2 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 2 dinners and snacks
  • Pickup from Ayers Rock Airport or Alice Springs lodging
  • Transportation back to Alice Springs

Another great reason to go with a guided tour is the knowledge of the guides. To lead tours in the region, you have to take university courses on the history of the native people and understand the local wildlife. Given the strict criteria to become a tour guide here, we think it would be pretty unlikely that you’d have a bad guide. Our guide had a wealth of information, and it definitely helped us feel like we got the most out of our experience from a learning point of view.

Day 1

Itinerary:

  • Land at the airport, met by The Rock Tour bus
  • Lunch and trip to Ayers Rock viewing area
  • Visit to the Anangu Cultural Center
  • Hike around Ayers Rock
  • Return to viewing area for sunset/dinner
  • Head to campgrounds for the night

If you’re expecting gourmet food on a budget tour, you’ll probably be disappointed, but the food quality definitely exceeded my expectations for both our ham sandwich lunch and noodle stir fry dinner. Especially considering that our knowledgeable guide was the one driving, dishing out information and doing all the cooking.

Whether you’re crafting your own tour or utilizing a guided tour, heading to the Ayers Rock viewing area around lunch time is a great photo opportunity because the crowds really come in for sunrise and sunset. You won’t get the magnificent color changes, but you’ll get a great view without all of the chaos (or other people in your photos).

The Anangu people are the Aboriginal language group that have inhabited the Ayers Rock/Olgas area for at least 70,000 years. In 1985, the Australian government implemented the “hand back” that gave the Anangu people back their sacred land. The cultural center was built 10 years to the day after this hand back, and is kept as an educational place for visitors to learn about the Anangu culture, which is rooted in a strong spiritual belief in Tjukurpa, their religion of sorts. There is Anangu art on display, made by some of the locals, and if you’re lucky you may get to see a few of the artists in action like we did.

Ayers Rock is a very moderate hike, about 11 to 12 km in distance all the way around and extremely flat. After viewing Anangu cave paintings from several millennia ago, we did about half of the journey around the base of the Rock, marveling at the amazing formations and color changes. Aboriginal people believe that there are certain things (including themselves) that lose their significance if they are photographed, so certain areas of the rock that hold special value to the Anangu are off limits to photography. Our guide recommended that we bring 3 liters of water, but given that it was only 73-74 degrees Fahrenheit (22-23 Celsius), we found that to be way too much. Use your best judgement given the conditions when you hike, because the last thing you want to be is dehydrated in the middle of the desert.

Sunset at Ayers Rock is an amazing experience, where busloads of fellow tourists come in to watch the bright orange rock turn a deep crimson as the sun sets over your shoulders. While we were taking in the beauty, our guide/driver/master chef fixed up some dinner and we ate under the stars. If you live anywhere near a city of any size, you may have never stargazed quite like this. Without all the artificial light, you can see myriad stars that just aren’t visible in even moderately suburban settings. It’s quite the view to take in during a meal.

The campgrounds in Australia that we stayed at were pretty nice, with charging outlets for those of us who had been snapping pictures all day, clean bathhouses with hot water, and our first one even had coin laundry. What really made the night, though, was our first experience sleeping in a swag. Unless you’re from Australia or New Zealand, you may have never heard of a swag, which is essentially a zip-close canvas sack with a 2-inch foam bottom that you stick your sleeping bag in and close up. The swag keeps out the wind and keeps you nice and toasty. It was in the low 50s F (High 10s C) both nights we camped and only our heads ever really got cold. There is a flap that you can pull over to change that as well. If you have the space or opportunity to bring a pillow, it can be a very pleasant experience falling asleep watching the stars.

Day 2

Itinerary

  • Early wake up
  • Sunrise and breakfast at Ayers Rock
  • 30-minute ride out to the Olgas
  • Hike through the Valley of the Winds
  • Lunch
  • 2-hour drive towards King’s Canyon campground
  • Campfire dinner and bedtime

The 5 a.m. wakeup that you get on day two may sound pretty terrible, but if you’ve been hiking around all day, don’t have a cell signal or any internet to mindlessly occupy you for the evening, it’s pretty easy to fall asleep early and get a good night’s sleep. Plus, the reward is getting to go see the sun rise over Ayers Rock. It was quite the way to start my birthday.

Breakfast wasn’t much to speak of either day, with a couple of cereal options, toast with butter & jam and instant coffee/tea. Once again, mediocre food is always better with an amazing view.

It’s a short drive over to the Olgas from Ayers Rock, and while the first stop gets the most attention, the Olgas are certainly breathtaking in their own right. This place is so sacred that there are certain parts of the area that tourists/non-Anangu just aren’t allowed to go. However, there is an amazing path that you can go through called the Valley of the Winds that is about 5 km round trip. Unlike Ayers Rock, this hike has a few spots that can get your heart rate up. Good walking/hiking shoes are a must with all of the uneven rocks and steep hills. Since the most sacred parts of the Olgas are hidden from tourist view, this hike is open season for photos and is sure to get you a few Instagram-worthy shots.

The hike is also broken up a lot as your guide will stop and explain different facts about the plants and animals you might see, as well as how the various rock formations came to be over hundreds of thousands of years.

After a sandwich lunch, we then headed out to the Kings Canyon area, which is a great drive through the largely untouched Outback. Getting a real “living off the land” camping experience, we stopped by the side of the road to pick up branches and sticks for our fire that evening. We also stopped by Mt. Connor, which is one of the few remnants of the Petermann Ranges which were once taller than the Himalayas. Across the road from the Mt. Connor viewpoint is a natural salt deposit “lake,” adding even more breathtaking shots to the camera roll.

Once at our campground for the evening, we set up a campfire and cooked a meat and vegetable stew in cast iron pots over the coals. After some time around the fire, it was another early night to bed, with another early wake up coming on day 3.

Day 3

Itinerary

  • Early wakeup
  • 20-minute drive to King’s Canyon
  • Hike through Kings Canyon
  • 1-hour drive to picnic stop for lunch
  • 2-hour drive to camel riding stop
  • 1-hour back to Alice Springs

In an effort to beat the heat on Day 3, we got up again at 5 a.m. and packed up to get out to King’s Canyon. While the early wakeup isn’t always easy, King’s Canyon is definitely the toughest of the 3 hikes you’ll do on this kind of trip. You’ll start off going up “Heart Attack Hill” and spend a good amount of time going up and down rather steep inclines or steps. There is a little oasis called the Garden of Eden in the middle and jaw-dropping views all the way throughout. I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t heard of King’s Canyon before our trip, but it may have been our favorite stop on the journey. Between the hike being a little more of an adrenaline rush and a variety of amazing views, it’s definitely not to be skipped.

If the first two days make you think you don’t need 3 liters of water, I’d recommend still bringing the full 3 liters on this last day, because you can definitely make use of it.

The afternoon of Day 3 is a longer and well deserved drive/nap back towards Alice Springs. On the way, we stopped for lunch, and also stopped at a farm that offered quick camel rides for $7AUD. (Depending on where you choose to arrive, you may spend a night in Alice Springs before starting your tour, in which case you might stop by the camel rides on the way out to Uluru.)

More than likely, you won’t be able to book a flight out of Alice Springs for the same day you arrive because of the limited options at the small airport (even if you could, we wouldn’t recommend it, as we returned a full hour later than planned), so you’ll need to spend the night. If you book with The Rock Tours, they have a good relationship with the Alice Springs YHA, which they’ll book for you. but there are several hotels in various price ranges throughout the city. The YHA has a large, well-equipped kitchen, so if you’d rather cook than go out to eat, you can head to the local grocery store and save some money that way.

If you have any questions about more specifics about the Outback and touring the area, let us know in the comments!

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