A family holiday guide to one of the country’s most famous attractions for your Australia trip.
Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) is one of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions. An enormous monolith taller than the Eiffel Tower, Uluru is famed for its geological wonder and its cultural significance, and it holds dual World Heritage listings for these features. The whole region encompassing Uluru, Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and more is also a very spiritual place, full of history and the ancient wisdom of Australia’s Indigenous people.
My family and I visited Uluru for the first time recently and absolutely loved the whole experience. It is easy to be a responsible and ethical traveller in Central Australia too, which enhanced our trip and ensured we had some positive impact in return for all we received.
These are our top ways to travel responsibly and ethically at Uluru.
Respect Indigenous Australian people and culture
This is the most important way to be an ethical traveller anywhere: respect the people whose lands you are visiting. Aboriginal culture is one of the oldest surviving cultures on earth, and Anangu, traditional people of the Central Desert, welcome visitors to come and learn and see their sacred sites Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
But Anangu request that we do not climb Uluru, as it is sacred, and because they wish to keep visitors safe (many have died attempting the climb). All of the climbing over the years has had a detrimental impact on Uluru also, and the climb is closing for good in October 2019 to preserve it for the future. History will be made when the track closes and there will be big celebrations at Uluru during that time.
Similarly, Anangu request that visitors do not photograph specific sacred sites around Uluru, as they are extremely sensitive areas in their culture that must be viewed in person. There is clear signage marking these areas, and there are designated paths to remain on so as not to cause any damage in some places too. Uluru is the equivalent of an ancient temple or cathedral, and these sites are like ancient scripture. You wouldn’t disrespect an irreplaceable building or religious book, so please treat these sacred places the same way.
I think it’s important to refer to the sites, bush foods and people by their correct names, not the Anglicized ones. That is why I always talk about Uluru and Kata Tjuta rather than Ayers Rock and The Olgas: that is their names, and we can assist indigenous culture to remain strong by taking time to practice and share their terminology.
It’s also vital not to take photographs of Aboriginal people unless you have explicit permission to do so. Many aboriginal people are very shy and do not wish to ever be photographed, and yet every day tourists snap their pictures like they are a walking cultural exhibit. Ask, and be okay with not being allowed to take a picture. And ask before taking a video or sharing the pictures too. Our excellent park ranger Adam gave permission for us to photograph him while he was completing his tour, but not to video him. Everyone’s wishes deserve to be respected.
Another great way to respect indigenous people and learn from the source is to choose Anangu-owned tour operators and businesses to support. Ayers Rock Resort is the small town near Uluru with many accommodation and dining options, shops and a town square. It is run by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, who is committed to sustainable practices, preserving cultures and creating employment, training and business opportunities for aboriginal people. It was a wonderful place to stay, and provides many free activities for guests to further enhance our understanding of the desert landscape and Indigenous culture, such as workshops, talks and performances.
My daughter and I also attended a dot painting workshop by Maraku Arts, who are wholly owned and operated by Anangu. It was a beautiful experience in which we learnt from an aboriginal artist and then had a chance to express ourselves using traditional symbols and techniques. It is a wonderful thing to be able to support artists living in the Central and Western deserts, and a privilege to be able to learn from one.
Artwork and storytelling are a huge part of Indigenous Australian culture, and taking the time to hear some stories is a great way to deepen your understanding of it. Artwork is available from Maraku and within the gallery at the resort, and you can be assured that purchasing from these sources directly benefits the artists. When purchasing from other places, please do a little homework and ensure that the artist is taken care of in the arrangement, or buy directly from the artists themselves.
Finally, if you want to give back to our Indigenous people further, you can make a donation to the Mutitjulu Foundation, which supports local communities who are still disadvantaged in many ways compared to other Australians. Ayers Rock Resort matches all donations dollar-for-dollar, and the Foundation has built an aged care facility and partnered with many projects to bring better health and social outcomes to Anangu.
Travel in the off-peak season and plan to travel slowly
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park receives in excess of 250,000 visitors per year. Most travel over Australia’s winter when the daytime temperatures are mild in the desert and perfect for exploring, but they must contend with huge crowds, especially over school holiday periods.
We travelled in the low season instead (which starts mid-October) and it was perfect. There were still many guests but it wasn’t crowded, so we had a much more thoughtful experience. Our workshops were small, giving us great opportunity to chat to the presenters and other participants. We got to explore parts of Uluru and Kata Tjuta completely on our own. And our accommodation was not bursting at the seams, which I’ve heard happens there! We also got a discounted rate which was lovely.
The weather was hotter of course though: we arrived mid-November and December is when Australia’s summer really hits. We were lucky to have some mild days, and simply had to be smart about when we went exploring on the hot days. Many walking tracks close by lunchtime as the weather heats up, so getting out early is best. In the heat of the day, staying indoors or in one of the many pools is a great choice!
We definitely advocate to stay at Uluru for more than a few days, as there is just so much to do there. Even without climbing the big rock, visitors are spoilt for choice for ways to experience it, with hiking, cycling, Segway tours, skydiving, motorcycle rides, camel tours and helicopter rides! There are also several hikes at Kata Tjuta, as well as a huge range of workshops and tours, some performances, an art gallery and museum, the Field of Lights and more.
Travelling slowly and immersing yourself in the experience helps your trip be more sustainable and connective. You can choose many things to do without exhausting yourself, have time to meet people properly, and time to relax and soak in all of the ancient wonders. And your actual travelling won’t create such a carbon footprint if you have the time to do everything you want to do there, because you won’t have to return so soon to do those things you missed out on!
Take reusable gear and be conscious of your waste
Whether you’re driving or flying to Uluru, taking along a few simple reusable items will go a long way to helping minimize the waste you create there. A stainless-steel water bottle and reusable mug are essential. Every cafe we stopped at were very happy to use our own mugs, and our water bottles were always with us. We had our own water filter too, but if you don’t have the room for that, buying a large cask of water and using it to fill your bottle reduces plastic waste considerably.
Taking some washable sandwich wraps and snack bags, and some leak-proof containers and cutlery is also a great idea if you can. Bought lunches can often be wrapped with your own wrapper, and snacks can be distributed into small portions from a large serving. We loved using our containers for takeout food, and found many cafes were able to use them rather than their own plastic containers. It is a great feeling to not have to cook, and yet still not create any trash from a meal! And they come in handy for leftovers after dining out too.
Finally, it is inevitable that some rubbish will be generated from your trip, even with this reusable gear. Dealing with it properly by seeking recycling where possible and keeping trash with you until you find a bin, is imperative. Littering is never ok, but especially within a World Heritage area it is very detrimental.
Respect the environment and native animals
Further from the last point, always being respectful of the surrounding environment is necessary for responsible travel at Uluru. This includes not taking a ‘souvenir’ from Uluru or Kata Tjuta, and not harming them in other ways by sticking to the tracks and obeying signage. It includes never littering or relieving yourself anywhere but the toilets (it’s amazing how often this happens, even at the top of Uluru). And never feeding or touching wild animals is also very important, as it changes their behavior and the food can make them unwell.
All of these things are not difficult to achieve, and they ensure that a trip to Australia’s Red Centre is supportive, connective, respectful, and still a lot of fun! Responsible and ethical travel allows you to learn more and deeply enjoy your destination with thoughtful experiences, new friendships, and minimal negative impact. We really believe it’s the best way to travel.
Emma Walmsley is a freelance Writer, Sustainable Travel & Lifestyle Blogger at Small Footprints, Big Adventures