Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park encompasses Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (once known as the Olgas) and is the most visited single site in Australia. If you’re wondering whether all the hype is worth it, the answer is, emphatically, yes. The Rock, its textures, colours and not least its elemental presence, is without question one of the world’s natural wonders. While overt commercialization has been controlled within the park, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, it’s impossible to avoid other tourists, but this shouldn’t affect your experience.
Kata Tjuta (meaning “Many Heads”) lies 45km west from the park entry station. A cluster of rounded domes divided by narrow chasms and valleys, it is geologically quite distinct from Uluru and makes for a stunning early-morning hike spotting rock wallabies along the way.
As the park is on Aboriginal land, you can’t go anywhere other than Uluru, Kata Tjuta, the Cultural Centre and the few roads and paths linking them. All accommodation, camping, fuel, shops and restaurants are at the Ayers Rock Resort, part of the settlement of Yulara, just outside the park.
It is thought that Aboriginal people arrived at Uluru over 20,000 years ago, having occupied the Centre more than 10,000 years earlier. They survived in this semi-arid environment in small mobile groups, moving from one waterhole to another. Water was their most valued resource, and so any site like Uluru or Kata Tjuta that had permanent waterholes and attracted game was of vital practical – and therefore religious – significance.
The first European to set eyes on Uluru was the explorer Ernest Giles, in 1872, but it was a year later that William Gosse followed his Afghan guide up the Rock and thereby made the first ascent by a European, naming it Ayers Rock after a South Australian politician. With white settlement of the Centre and the introduction of cattle came the relocation of its occupants from their traditional lands.
The first tourists visited the Rock in 1936, and in 1958 the national park was excised from what was then an Aboriginal reserve. By the early 1970s the tourist facilities in the park were failing to cope and the purpose-built township and resort of Yulara was conceived and completed within a decade. At the same time the traditional custodians of Uluru began to protest about the desecration of their sacred sites by tourists, who at that time could roam anywhere. After a long land-claim the park was subsequently returned with much flourish to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara peoples in 1985. Reclaimed, the site was initially unchanged under Aboriginal ownership, since it was a condition of handback that the park was leased straight back to the Department of Environment and Heritage, which now jointly manages the park with the Anangu.