Monday, July 7, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Outback Pioneer Lodge & Exploring Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

***This post is part 18 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Driving on the left side took some getting used to, but having done a road trip in New Zealand back in 2011 without any serious issues, I felt fairly confident in my navigation abilities. Plus, if you could pick any place to start driving in Australia, this would be it. Conditions were excellent, with hardly a bend or dip in the road, and virtually no traffic to speak of. The vast majority of people here were tourists, so drivers seemed extra cautious and courteous.

Intersection outside the airport

Despite being one of the most visited tourist destinations in Australia, options for accommodations near Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park are limited. In fact, the only town located in the vicinity is Yulara, and it isn't actually a town at all, but rather a dedicated resort village operated by one company.

Voyages Hotels & Resorts currently runs five properties in Yulara, ranging from a five-star luxury hotel to campgrounds and RV sites. Since they essentially have a monopoly on all lodgings in town, the cost is understandably steep, with the top-of-the-line Sails In The Desert Resort offering standard rooms for around $400-$500 AUD per night.

For the uber-wealthy, there is also a sixth option, Longitude 131°, which provides guests with a fully-immersive "glamping" experience. Located outside of Yulara, this property boasts just 15 palatial tents, each with unobstructed views of Uluru. Everything, from specialized tours to gourmet dining under the stars, is included with the price, which, not surprisingly, runs north of $1,000 AUD per night.

As a single traveler, I couldn't justify spending even one-tenth of that amount for my own room, so I decided to go with the only backpacking option around - the Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge. In addition to private "budget" rooms starting from $200-$300 AUD, there are two types of shared dorms. A 20-person shared room costs $38 AUD per night, while a 4-person shared room costs $46 AUD per night. I splurged a little and went with the latter.

Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge

After a brief 8-kilometer drive south from Ayers Rock Airport, I arrived at Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge around 10:45 am. I suspected it was too early to check in, but I wanted to see if I could store my large backpack at the hotel while exploring Uluru and Kata Tjuta during the day.

The spacious lobby was pleasant and clean, with just a few people milling about. I approached one of the front desk agents and politely asked if it was possible to check in despite my early arrival time. Thankfully, the helpful gentleman was kind enough to accommodate me. The dorm room hadn't been cleaned yet, but he said I was more than welcome to store my belongings in there for the time being.

Outback Pioneer lobby

Daily activities and Le Club Accor brochures

One of the more surprising features of Yulara is that every property in the resort village (besides Longitude 131°) participates in the Le Club Accor hotel rewards program. In recent years, there have been many opportunities to achieve instant top-tier Platinum status through various sign-up links, and luckily, I had done so prior to leaving for Australia.

While Platinum status isn't terribly valuable these days, it actually comes in quite handy at a number of dining establishments throughout the resort. As expected, food is expensive in Yulara, so discounts offered to Platinum members make the exorbitant charges somewhat easier to stomach. Just remember to bring your membership card, or at least copy down the number.

Before this trip, I had cashed in my Le Club Accor points for a $60 USD voucher. All the hotels in Yulara should be able to accept these vouchers as partial or full payment. And while no change was supposed to be given (since my one-night stay only cost $46 AUD), the front desk agent graciously allowed me to grab two bottles of water to make up the difference.

Outback Pioneer property

Shared dorm room building

4-person shared rooms

After checking in, I hauled my belongings to the designated dorm room, located in one of the furthest buildings away from the lobby. In hindsight, this turned out to be a good thing since the nightly barbecues and live music can get very loud.

The 4-person shared dorm was tiny and rather sparse, but my expectations were set fairly low already, so it didn't come as a complete shock. Two of the beds had been used, and I wasn't sure if the occupants were coming back or if they had checked out already. Regardless, I claimed one of the remaining top bunks and set my stuff down.

4-person shared dorm

The communal bathrooms were a short distance away and looked like something you'd find at an old sports stadium venue. Clean is not how I would describe it, but at least the toilets worked and there was consistent hot water in the showers. The large urinal trough, however, was severely backed up and had started to flood, which made for some very interesting odors. I'm fairly certain the women's bathroom was cleaner.

Toilet stalls, urinal, and sinks

Shower stalls and sinks

There was an average-sized swimming pool towards the back of the lodge, which could come in handy during the scorching summer months. Sadly, with only one night and way too much sightseeing to do during the day, I didn't have any time to take a dip.

Further beyond the last dorm building was a short walking trail up a slight incline, leading to a viewing platform overlooking Uluru in the distance. Besides the aerial vista from the plane ride in, this was my first sight of the giant monolith, and what it sight it was.

Swimming pool

Trail up to the viewing platform

Uluru from the viewing platform

After storing all my belongings in the room and reorganizing some essentials into my day pack, I hit the road again and headed south towards Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. I had scheduled a ton of activities into one short day, so I was very anxious to get started as soon as possible. For those who like to plan ahead, the official visitors guide can be found here.

The minimum cost to get into the park is $25 AUD for a 3-day pass. I purchased my ticket at the entrance gate and continued directly to Uluru. Since I had started a little later than anticipated, I decided to commence with the hikes immediately and save the visit to the impressive Cultural Centre for later.

Lasseter Highway towards Uluru

Now.... I realize this part of the trip report may be controversial, and I will gladly take any criticism for my decision. One of the continuing dilemmas facing visitors to Uluru is whether or not to make the climb to the top. Sometimes, that decision is made for you, since closures occur quite often due to a variety of reasons, from high winds to high temperatures to special events for the native Aṉaŋu.

When I arrived at the base, I noticed the climb was still open, and many visitors were attempting the hike. I had purposely left my decision open so as not to have any expectations one way or the other. Once I saw the imposing rock standing in front of me, however, I knew I had to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Uluru from the Mala carpark

Please don't climb

There have been many calls in recent years to shut down the climb for good, not only for cultural sensitivity reasons, but also because of safety issues. More than 35 people have died while attempting to make the climb, while hundreds more have been injured.

Despite the presence of families and small children on the steep trail, make no mistake, this is a strenuous hike. Total elevation gain is 1,142 feet in about 0.6 miles, with the bulk of the climb occurring in the first 0.3 miles. There is a chain link guide along the steepest parts of the trail, and it becomes crucial to hold on at certain points when the path reaches greater than 40° incline.

Do not attempt the climb in anything other than hiking shoes, or at least running shoes with good grip. In addition, bring plenty of water and sunscreen, especially when doing the hike in the afternoon. The majority of visitors I witnessed during the climb could not make it to the top. And most who made it past the steepest section chose not to continue to the actual summit.

Start of the climb

Chain link guide

View during the climb

The trail is somewhat deceiving since it appears as if you've reached the summit once you've completed the steepest section. That is definitely not the case, as the hike continues for some distance on top of the plateau. While the incline is not as intense, the climb persists until you have reached the absolute summit of Uluru, which is clearly marked by a small compass monument established by the Australian National Survey.

Follow the white markings

Kata Tjuta in the distance

Rock formations

The end in sight

Monument at the summit of Uluru

The views are breathtaking at the top, and it is amazing how flat the surrounding terrain is besides Kata Tjuta in the distance. It is also incredible when you realize just how massive Uluru really is. An entire city could potentially be built on top of the plateau with ease.

For those with more time, there is plenty to explore after summiting. In fact, far in the distance towards the opposite edge of Uluru, I noticed hundreds of stacked rocks, most likely placed there over the years by visitors. Since I still wanted to do the long Base Walk, I quickly began my descent after a brief rest and plenty of pictures.

I have to say, traversing the steepest section of the trail was a lot more terrifying on the way down. Perhaps it was due to the unavoidable vertigo-inducing views directly in front of me, or maybe it was because my legs already felt like jelly after the strenuous hike up. Either way, I took it step by step while descending.

Beginning the descent

Start of the steep section

Going down, down, down

I tried to do the Uluru climb as quickly as I possibly could, and the entire round-trip journey ended up taking approximately an hour and a half. For those hiking at a more leisurely pace, I think allocating two to three hours should be plenty of time. With only one full day to see as much as I could, however, I didn't have the luxury to linger on. Immediately after reaching the bottom, I set off on the famous Base Walk around Uluru.

It is generally not recommended to start the 10.6-kilometer full circuit in the early afternoon, but I didn't have the option to wait. This is a relatively long but easy walk, typically taking three-and-a-half hours to complete. The early morning and late afternoon hours are considered most ideal because temperatures are much more tolerable. 

I would suggest prioritizing the Base Walk, even if it means foregoing the climb, since you get to better experience the splendor of Uluru from multiple angles. In addition, there are some extraordinary sights, including several caves filled with petroglyphs, peculiar rock formations, waterholes, and the peaceful solitude of the desert landscape. The Base Walk is really the best way to appreciate the natural and cultural beauty of Uluru.

Start of the Base Walk

Uluru rock formations

Desert landscape

Throughout the circuit, there were signs indicating areas in which photography was not allowed due to culturally sensitive sites. I tried to follow the warnings as much as possible, and have only included a few pictures here that were taken outside of these areas.

It was incredibly hot during the entire walk. Luckily, I had taken all the necessary precautions, bringing water, snacks, sunscreen, and a hat along with me. There was very little cover from the blazing sun, except for a small woodlands section on the south side of Uluru. A few first aid rest stations dotted the trail, providing some much-needed shade.

First aid rest station



A side trail leading to the Mutitjulu Waterhole is a must, in addition to the nearby caves covered in colorful artwork. After a rare desert downpour, waterfalls can even appear on the side of the rock face. This is a special place with significant meaning for the Aṉaŋu, and I have not included any photographs of these sites due to the cultural sensitivity warnings.

It took me approximately two-and-a-half hours to complete the full circuit, but I wished I had more time to explore the area. One word of warning: besides the overbearing heat, the prevalence of flies everywhere on the trail can also make the experience intolerable. They are incessant, and not even constant swatting can prevent them from swarming your face at every turn.

Lungkata section

Almost back to the Mala carpark

Climbing trail

After finally getting back to my car, I drove to the nearby Cultural Centre for a brief respite and also to stock up on water and snacks. The museum is a great place to learn more about the cultural significance of Uluru, as well as its unique geological history. In addition, there are live aboriginal art demonstrations and scheduled environmental presentations.

At around 4:00 pm, I started the 50-kilometer drive to Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas. Kata Tjuta is an agglomeration of 36 domed formations consisting of sedimentary rock cemented by a matrix of sandstone. It is very similar to Uluru, but appears to be older and further worn down by the effects of time. In fact, it is thought that Kata Tjuta was once a significantly larger version of Uluru.

View of Kata Tjuta from the Lasseter Highway

Kata Tjuta

Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to hike the trails around Kata Tjuta since I wanted to head back to Uluru in time for the sunset. Luckily, I was at least able to make it past the first lookout along the Valley of the Winds walk. Kata Tjuta was quite stunning, and I definitely want to do the entire Valley of the Winds circuit as well as the Walpa Gorge walk when I return someday.

Kata Tjuta walks

Valley of the Winds walk

Desert bloom

Karu Lookout

Trail beyond the first lookout

By the time I was on the road heading back to Uluru, the sun was already low on the horizon. Thankfully, I made it to the popular sunset viewing area with plenty of time to spare. Besides the aforementioned walks, viewing the remarkable red glow of Uluru during sunset is perhaps the most popular activity for visitors to the national park.

While the panoramic view was sublime, the surrounding parking lot was anything but. Hundreds of cars packed with hundreds of more tourists descend upon this narrow strip of prime real estate daily, all hoping to capture the perfect picture of Uluru at sunset. Tune out the massive hoards, however, and it really becomes a magical experience.

Uluru at sunset

The red glow

Almost gone


I returned to the Outback Pioneer Lodge in the evening, exhausted and hungry. Fortunately, one of the famous features of this property is the awesome self-service barbecue bar. You have the option of picking your protein a la carte from a wide variety of standard and game meats such as emu, crocodile, kangaroo, buffalo, and beef. I decided to go with the outback combo, which included one of each, in addition to the all-you-can-eat salad bar, all for a relatively reasonable $24.90 AUD.

The shared barbecue area was a fun experience, and a great way to meet other travelers. In fact, I started chatting with a super friendly Aussie whose wife was actually from California. After cooking our meats, he invited me to join their family for dinner, and I had a wonderfully memorable evening swapping travel stories and learning about Australia. The food was fantastic as well (or maybe I was just starving)!

Outback barbecue bar

Meats and shared grills

The white one was crocodile (that's all I remember)

Salad bar

Delicious dinner

The dining area was loud and rowdy, punctuated with lots of beer and a decent live band. After my new friends took their leave for the evening, I stayed a while longer to enjoy the bustling atmosphere, and then headed back to the dorm for some much-deserved R&R.

Amazingly, when I opened the door, I realized I still had the entire room to myself! I had no idea if this was by design on the part of the front desk agent because of my Platinum status or simply due to dumb luck, but I was extremely thankful to have the privacy and comfort of my own room after four days in a shared dorm back in Cairns.

Barbecue dining area

Live music

I wanted to see the sunrise the next morning, so I set my alarm for 4:00 am in preparation for getting to the park entrance at 5:00 am, half-an-hour prior to the scheduled opening time. From my trip planning research, I knew there could be a long line of cars waiting at the gate, but strangely enough, I was the very first car to arrive.

At 5:15 am, the park ranger went ahead and let me in early. I headed towards the Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing Area, which I had read was a spectacular spot for the sunrise. It was still completely dark outside, and again, I was the first car to arrive at the parking lot. After waiting a little while longer, the first speck of light appeared in the horizon, and I made my way up the trail to the viewing platform.

Thankfully I got there early, because by the time the sun came up, there were hundreds of people who had arrived by the busload. Those who came late had to take pictures behind a massive crowd of people. Luckily, I had front row seats to the show.

Unluckily, however, because my actual camera decided to have a meltdown in Cairns, I was stuck using my iPhone to take pictures. Typically, this wouldn't be a problem, but since Uluru is quite a distance away from the Dune Viewing Area, and the iPhone's digital zoom is terrible, my pictures didn't come out the way I'd hoped. But regardless, it was a magnificent experience to see in person.

Sunrise from the Kata Tjuta Dune Viewing Area

Uluru at sunrise

Kata Tjuta is much closer to the Dune Viewing Area, and the morning light really cast some beautiful shadows on the rock formations. Funny thing is, literally the moment the sun rose above the horizon, everyone started to disperse. Within 20 minutes, only a few stragglers were left. I decided to hang around a little longer to enjoy the peace and quiet, and it was well worth it.

Kata Tjuta and the moon

Kata Tjuta at sunrise

Viewing platform

With my flight to Alice Springs scheduled to depart at 10:35 am, I had to hurry and get back to the lodge so I could pack my belongings and check out. Even in the midst of all the rush, however, I realized just how stunning this desolate red landscape looked in the early morning hours. When I stumbled upon a kangaroo crossing sign somewhere along the Lasseter Highway, I pulled over and took one of my favorite shots from the entire trip:

Kangaroo crossing

After checking out of the Outback Pioneer Lodge without any issues, I stopped by the only gas station in Yulara to fill up the tank. My mental conversion skills were a bit rusty, but I knew this was going to be expensive by any standard. I didn't realize just how expensive it really was until I did a quick calculation later in the day. Turns out, I paid $7.60 USD per gallon!

How much per gallon??

Reflecting back on my whirlwind trip to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, I wish I had extended my stay by an extra day. In the end, I completed almost everything I set out to do, but I really would have preferred to slow the pace down slightly and savor the scenery. In addition, I really wanted to hike the Valley of the Winds circuit. If anything, this will just be another reason for me to return in the future.


  1. Great post. I spent two days here in 2010. You captured the experience better than any other report I've read on the site.

    The climb was closed both days that I was there. You took some beautiful shots up there.

    I visited in winter, and the temperature was moderate. I decided to run around the rock; a little more than 10k. Of course, about 2k into the run, the sky opened up and it poured. At first I was disappointed, but then the waterfalls began. All of the rain that falls on the top has to come down - and well over 50 significant waterfalls formed. Though a wet and sloppy run, what an incredible memory...which I always think of when I see photos.

    Thanks for taking the time to post.

    1. Thanks for reading NYBanker. They definitely close down the climb quite often. When I finished the Base Walk, I noticed that the closure sign was already up.

      I read about those beautiful waterfalls... you're very lucky to have seen them! Maybe next time I'll try to visit in the winter and hope for a downpour.