Central Australia, is a vast arid region in the center of the continent. Often referred to as the Red Center, is an ancient world of the dusty red desert, endless blue sky, wicked rock formations and weird and wonderful creatures that live among this stark landscape. With summer temperatures reaching the high 40s, and months without rain, this is not the land for the faint-hearted, humans and animals alike.
This remote region is home the township of Alice Springs, the MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park and, and its most iconic points of interest: the unforgettable monoliths of World Heritage-listed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
There are no better places to explore the landscape and the wildlife of Australia’s Red Centre than the Uluru – the iconic sandstone monolith located in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and the Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park.
The two sites are 270 kilometres apart and both are about 450 kilometres from Alice Springs. It is easy to combine them in a single trip.
We visited the area on a month-long road trip across Australia and spent about a week exploring Kata Tjuta and Watarrka National Parks. Combined with a trip through the West McDonald Ranges and to the Old Andado station on the edge of the Simpson Desert, it was the perfect introduction to Central Australia’s dramatic landscape and the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit it.
Uluṟu – Kata Tjuṯa National Park
After a long drive from Coober Peddy in South Australi, we arrived at Yulara, the service village and the base for exploring the Kata Tjuta National park. We were very keen to spot some of the Uluru wildlife and were thrilled to find multiple rodent tracks on the dunes surrounding the campsite.
Stretching across more than 325,000 acres in the Australian desert outback, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to two iconic rock formations – the Uluru and Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas.
Uluru or Ayers Rock is listed as a World Heritage Site. The sandstone giant is 348 m high with a total circumference of 9.4 km. However, as tall as Uluru appears, what we are seeing is just the top of an iceberg – most of Uluru’s bulk lies underground.
The Rock is known for its ability to change color depending on the time of the day and the angle of the sun. In the late afternoon, it practically glows dark red towering over the surrounding landscape.
- Uluru is also known as Ayers Rock, as it was named by William Gosse in 1873 after Sir Henry Ayers. Uluru is the rock’s Aboriginal name.
- The rock was originally sitting on the bottom of an ancient sea.
- It lies in the middle of Australia
- Uluru is estimated to be 600 million years old
- It is taller than the Eiffel Tower and the Chrysler Building.
- The nearest town to Uluru is Alice Springs, 430km away
- The walk around the base of Uluru is 9.4km long
- In summer, it gets very hot at Uluru, up to 47 degrees Celcius
- Uluru is part of Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park
- Also known as the Olgas, Kata Tjuta is a series of 36 monoliths, the highest being 548 meters tall
- The Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta (a must do) is 8 km long
Walking trails at Uluru
If you are thinking of climbing Uluru, please consider that this experience is something reserved for the Anangu aboriginal people, and even they only climb it on special occasions. Climbing the rock for fun is not dissimilar to someone coming to your home, pulling out your finest dinner set and helping themselves to your meal.
And there are plenty of culturally inoffensive alternatives for exploring the Uluru. The best being the 10-km long Uluru Base Walk that follows the perimeter of the rock. Apart from seeing the rock up-close, you’ll get a good chance to see some animals in Uluru.
The Uluru Base Walk
The Base Walk runs along a flat dirt path and can be completed in 3.5 hrs. Given the summertime temperatures often reach above 40 degrees Centigrade, this walk is best taken early in the morning and completed by 11 am.
If you plan to take the entire Base Walk, it is best to start at the Mala carpark, facing the rock and explore in the clockwise direction.
Alternatively, you can take shorter parts of this walk to get a taste of the landscape surrounding the famous rock. Different parts of the walk cover different environments from lush green sections and waterholes, to the vast open areas exposed to the scorching sun. Some of these exposed sections can be closed in the afternoons during summertime due to the high risk of heatstroke.
The Mala Walk, named after the Rufous hare wallaby or Mala, is a lovely short and shaded walk from the Mala car park to Kantju Gorge. It is one of the cooler walks and it gives you an opportunity to see the dramatic formation of the gorge and spot some local wildlife, especially around the waterhole at the end of the walk.
You can also visit the caves where the ancestor of the modern Anangu people camped and see some examples of rock art before you arrive at the Gorge.
The North-east Face Walk
Running from the Kitchen Cave on the Mala walk to Kuniya Piti, this is the longest open stretch of the base walk. It covers almost half the perimeter of the rock.
This section of the walk features many unusual rock formations, that are sacred to Anangu people, who believe that these sites should only be seen in person (it is inappropriate to view images of these sites elsewhere). If you would like to photograph the sacred sites, please do so at sunset, when the low angle of the sun leaves the sites in shadow.
Make sure to bring drinking water on this walk.
Another lovely and shady section of the walk, the Langkata walk connects the Kuniya walk with the Mala carpark. The walk runs very close to the face of the rock, providing many opportunities to touch the ancient megalith and to feel its structure.
It is also one of the best areas at Uluru to do some birdwatching. Keep an eye out for Brown falcons, Peregrine falcons, Australian kestrel, Grey-headed honeyeater, black-faced woodswallow and the adorable Mistletoebird.
Running from the Kuniya carpark to the Mutitjulu waterhole, Kuniya is a short walk through some lush and shady habitat. The area around the waterhole is a good spot to see some local birds and the grassland surrounding the walk is one of the few places where you could spot the Red kangaroo.
Liru walk is the second-longest walk at Uluru, running for four kilometres from the Cultural Centre to the Mala carpark. It takes about 1 hour, 30 minutes and offers a great look at the native flora and fauna along the way.
The trail meanders through a mulga forest, which is another good spot to see some of Uluru birds, as well as the flowers after the rain.
There is a secret spot along the Liru walk – a large shelter that offers uninterrupted views of Uluru.
Despite lying in one of Australia’s most arid regions, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home an incredible variety of unique Australian wildlife species, including 21 species of native mammals, 178 species of birds and 73 species of reptiles. Spotting these desert specialist may take a little patience and ‘know-how’, but it will certainly be worth it.
Birds at Uluru
Flocks of Zebra finches can be seen at almost any waterhole. Black-faced woodswallows and Little woodswallows are constantly on the move chasing insects.
White-plumed honeyeaters and Grey-headed honeyeaters are searching for sweet nectar up in the trees, while the adorable Mistletoebird faithfully pollinates mistletoes. Spinifex pigeons are also quite common around the rocky formations.
The reptiles, while undoubtedly abundant, are harder to spot due to their exceptional camouflage skills. The only ones I did manage to see were a Long-nosed dragon at Kata Tjuta and a Tree dtella at the campsite.
Hopping mouse at Uluru
As the darkness approaches, it is time to start searching for those elusive mammals. The Uluru viewing platform is a good place to start. As soon as the sun sets and the Rock is engulfed by darkness, Spinifex hopping mice, Sandy inland mice and the feral House mice all come out to feed on the bounty of crumbs left from the day’s tourist activities.
Hoppies are one of the cutest Uluru animals and they can be approached quite closely. To find them, all you have to do is wait for most visitors to leave the car park, turn on your torch and walk along the hedge line separating the pavement from the bush.
The Uluru camping grounds is also a good place to see all three rodent species. A corrugated iron shack not far from the camp is home to a few Broad-nosed bats. As with most Australian landscapes, night time is the best time to spot the Ayers Rock animals.
About 30 kilometres from Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a group of large ancient rock formations. There are 36 domes spread over an area of about 20 kilometres.
Walking trails at Kata Tjuta
The best way to explore Kata Tjuta is by taking an early morning walk among the domes.
Valley of the Winds Walk
The most spectacular walk at Kata Tjuta is the Valley of the Winds walk. The 7.4 circuit walk is quite steep in places, but it is worth the effort – it takes you away from the crowds to the Mars-like landscape of arid planes, towering orange domes, dry creek beds and unique Uluru fauna.
The full walk takes 3-4 hours to complete. You can fill up your water bottle about halfway along the track.
For a shorter option, you can take parts of the walk to one of the two lookouts and return the same way.
The walk to Karu lookout is 2.2 kilometres return and takes about 1 hour to complete. The views of the landscape from the lookout are jaw-droppingly beautiful.
The Karingana lookout is almost twice as far. It is a 5.4-kilometre return walk that takes about 2.5 hours to complete.
Walpa Gorge walk
The shortest walk at Kata Tjuta is the Walpa Gorge walk. But while it is quite short, it is a stunning walk. It enters the Gorge through a V-shaped opening in the monolith sandstone walls and follows the creek bed deep into the cooler and shadier world of the gorge.
This walk is a good opportunity to see some desert wildlife, from birds circling above to reptiles sunbaking on the rocks to wallabies hopping among the domes.
Camping at Uluru
We stayed at the campground of Ayers Rock Resort, which is a large accommodation complex encompassing a campground and a resort. The campground has all the necessary facilities as well as a refreshingly cool swimming pool.
Part of Watarrka National Park, the spectacular Kings Canyon started forming about 400 million years ago. At the time Central Australia was a windswept plain covered with sand dunes, rivers and vast lakes. Some of these features have been solidified into sandstone and can still be discerned among the dramatic rock formations that make up the canyon today.
The canyon formed from a crack in the layer hard sandstone of the south wall. Over time, wind and water erosion widened the crack, so it reached down to the softer layer of sandstone, which now forms the lower slopes of the canyon.
As the soft sandstone eroded further, it undercut the upper sandstone, leaving vast gaps below. Left without support, huge blocks of hard sandstone carved off and tumbled down, forming the canyon we see today.
Kings Canyon Walks
The best way to explore the Kings Canyon and to appreciate its vastness and its arid rugged landscape is by taking a walk through it.
Kings Canyon Rim Walk
The most dramatic walk in Kings Canyon is the 6 km Rim Walk that circles the upper circumference of the canyon. The walk is quite steep in places and requires some degree of fitness. And on days when the temperature is forecast to exceed 36 degrees Centigrade, the walk should not be started after 9 am. The track takes 3-4 hours, depending on how often you stop and whether you take the detour to the Garden of Eden (you definitely should!).
The walk starts with a steep climb from the car park to the rim of the canyon via a series of about 500 stone steps. When you reach the top of the canyon, your efforts will be rewarded with the jaw-dropping views of the Lost City. The peculiar-shaped domes that make up this part of the landscape are the petrified sand dunes eroded by the elements.
From here you will be following the rim of the canyon, detouring to the various lookout points. At some point, you will notice some pronounced ripples in the rock under your feet. They are the last remaining evidence of a vast lake that once covered the area.
Around the halfway mark you will reach the stairs leading down to the Garden of Eden. It is an optional sidetrack, but it’s really worth the effort. The stairs lead down to the bottom of the canyon where the permanent waterhole, created by Kings Creek is surrounded by lush green vegetation.
This is an excellent spot to take a rest stop and to observe the creatures that make the Kings Canyon their home.
In the short time that we stayed at the waterhole, we saw a Grey shrike-thrush and a While-plumed honeyeater. And birds were not the only things around.
There was some critter hidden in a rock crevice that kept calling out in a loud and persistent voice. But as thoroughly as we examined every nook and cranny in the rock wall, we could not find the culprit.
Once back on the rim, you will soon be walking past the sheer cut of the south wall – part of the original crack that triggered the formation of the canyon 400 million years ago.
The car park at the end of the walk is a good place to spot some wildlife hiding in the shade of trees. We spotted Hooded robins, Spinifex pigeons, Diamond doves, Crested pigeons, Grey honeyeaters and Rock ctenotus.
Kings Creek Walk
If you don’t feel like a strenuous walk, you can explore the canyon via the shorter and easier Kings Creek Walk. This walk runs along Kings Creek and leads you along the floor of the canyon. The total length of the return walk is 2.6 km and it takes less than an hour to complete.
It is a much cooler walk as well, as it stays in the shade of the vegetation growing on the banks of the creek. And you still get the magnificent views of the canyon towering above the creek.
We took this walk in the late afternoon and found a Red treefrog and a Yellow-faced whipsnake.
Thorny Devil at Kings Canyon
Our most exciting wildlife sighting of the day was the Thorny Devil on the way out of the Kings Canyon. What an incredible animal it is! With its looks of an extraterrestrial and its ability to absorb water through its skin by simply standing in a puddle, this incredible reptile was very high on my bucket list.
Aside from an intimidating array of conical spikes that cover the top half of its body, the Thorny devil is endowed with a false head on the back of its neck. The lizard presents its fake head to the potential predators by dipping its real head when sensing danger. The bite on the squashy false head is unlikely to be life-threatening.
Avoiding predators is not the only challenge for the creatures of the desert, they also have to find water to survive. The Thorny devil’s ingenious solution lies in the shape of its scales, which are ridged in such a way that they direct water to its mouth. All the devil has to do is stand in the puddle or rub past dew-covered vegetation and the water will be delivered straight to its mouth.
Dingo at Kings Canyon
The campsite at Kings Canyon is a popular scavenging spot for local Dingos. My first ever encounter with a Dingo was when I unzipped the tent door and saw a full-grown dog standing no more than a couple of meters away from me.
The only other critters we saw in the Canyon were a Spotted Nightjar and a few feral Camels and Brumbies.
Camping at Kings Canyon
You are not allowed to camp within Watarrka National Park, but there is a campsite at the nearby Kings Canyon Resort has a campsite complete with all the necessary amenities and a pool. It was a little crowded with a school group when we visited, but it didn’t stop a dingo visiting our tent in the morning.