I still believe that the best way to explore the Red Centre is at your own pace, to drive the desert highways, to stop and admire views of interest to you anytime and as long as you want, to play the music that you like in the car, and to camp for the night under the stars. Ideally, that is the best way to explore the Red Centre but if you don’t have the luxury of time for planning and the talent for navigation, then joining a group tour is the next, and perhaps, the only alternative.
When we were planning for this trip, I attempted to rent a car with other travelers but we dropped that option because first, we couldn’t find anyone whose schedule matches ours and second, with our poor navigation skills, we didn’t want to risk being lost in the middle of nowhere. That is like being lost twice. Maybe we were not yet ready for a road trip adventure but after the planning we did, I think next time we’ll have the guts to jump into this kind of adventure.
So we booked the popular “The Rock Tour”. I made the booking via Lost in Australia because they offered a discounted price of A$349 instead of $355 (A$6 dollars saved for each of us haha!) and the booking included a free 1-night accommodation at Toddy’s Backpackers. It was a good deal! See if you find my detailed travel itinerary and expenses helpful.
This is a general review with some, hopefully, helpful details of the tour. I will post about each site we visited on my subsequent posts.
Day 1: Kings Canyon
The tour started at 6am. Our guide picked us from Toddy’s where most of the travelers also stayed. Toddy’s have complimentary breakfast. We dropped by The Rock Tour office to register and to buy bottled water. I don’t know why we had to register twice. The day before, we already visited the office, which is a long walk from Toddy’s, after the receptionist told us to do so. We also bought 3L of water for each of us (a requirement) from Woolworths in Todd’s Mall, way cheaper than what they sell in their office.
It was an uneventful ride. We had our sandwiches for lunch while on the bus and we reached Kings Canyon around noon after around 3 hours of driving. The trek up and around Kings Canyon was the most difficult of all treks so it was important to always carry sufficient water and light snacks. I think I consumed 1.5L after 3-4 hours of hiking.
Kings Canyon is Australia’s Grand Canyon. Our guide told us that Grand Canyon is not even a canyon, but technically a gorge. Go Google it up! Kings Canyon was really spectacular! It was my favorite of all the spots we visited. The cliffs, the rock layers, the unique flora–I was definitely in the outback! I felt like a Survivor participant, even for a few hours, learning about how the original Australians lived in this challenging yet still resource-rich environment.
We capped off the first day with dinner (rice, curry and minced beef) around a campfire at Curtin Springs. The site has no toilet facilities. But before heading there, we stopped at a small farm with toilets and baths. While our guide buys drinks, I told my husband to do all his business in the toilet. I did all my nighttime routine before we drove to the campsite. What a relief because the “toilet” on the campsite is a makeshift one with metal sheets covering a hole in the ground. There was no electricity so a flashlight (or a torch, as what they call it here) would be handy.
The Rock Tour is definitely for open-minded and adventure-seeking travelers and not for tourists who prefer “to sleep in a hotel in the outback” (which for me entirely defeats the purpose of this experience). So if you don’t consider yourself as one or haven’t made up your mind to try being one, you are not perfect for this tour. But for those who would like to sleep under a billion stars (I have never seen so many stars in my life!) while being lullaby-ed by the music of the desert wind, this tour is perfect for you!
Day 2: Kata Tjuta
At 5:30am, we rolled up our swags, had our breakfast (cereals + toasts + coffee/tea), and drove to Yulara for another 2 hours. Our guide gave us our entrance tickets to Uluru-Kata Tjuta Park (for A$25, you can get 3-day access to the park but this was already included in our tour package). We walked around Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) for another 2 hours. Kata Tjuta was out of this world! How smaller rocks compressed to form hills of unusual composition really blew our mind. It even looked man-made. But when our guide told us the geological explanation behind it, we were simply amazed by how nature works to present us with wonders such as Kata Tjuta.
The walk was easier than Kings Canyon but there was a point where we had to climb a steep slope to get a good view of the “heads.” Kata Tjuta means “many heads.” There was also an option for a shorter walk but we took the long route which I highly recommend. Every turn rewarded us with breathtaking views.
Our guide took us to a viewing area where we saw the expanse of Kata Tjuta while he prepared lunch (wraps). The flies were really bothersome while we were eating that I lost my appetite. That’s why it’s good to bring your own snacks with you. We then drove for 30-45 minutes to Uluru, the star of the tour. After visiting the Aboriginal Cultural Centre where we learned more about the history and culture of the Pitjantjatjara who still live in the area and how sacred Uluru is for them, we took the 2-km Mala Walk. We were able to check out the watering hole, paintings and other small caves/corners that were important for the original Australians. After that, we went straight to the sunset viewing site and watched the colors highlight Uluru in many beautiful ways. For a brief moment, I believed Uluru came alive generously echoing to us the stories it keeps since the first original Australians whispered to it.
We had our dinner right after the golden hour at the same sunset viewing site. We camped at Ayers Rocks Campground, around 30 minutes from Uluru. It has decent toilets and showers and power plugs. Again, we slept under the stars with the glow and crackling sound of our bonfire.
Day 3: Uluru
The last day of our tour is dedicated to Uluru, a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed twice for its cultural and natural importance. We woke up early to catch the sunrise shine over Uluru. We had breakfast (cereals + toasts + coffee/tea) at the viewing site and stayed there for around 1 hour. We then went for the full base walk which took us around 2.5 hours. The path was easy but it was long, hot and the flies kept pestering us. I suggest wearing a fly net which I regrettably didn’t do.
Our guide emphasized to us the importance of not climbing Uluru because of safety reasons. At least 35 climbers have died and once the statistics reach 40, they will officially close the path. (I know, it sounds ridiculous.) But right now, although discouraged, climbing the steep rock is still permitted. Our guide also stressed the sacredness of Uluru to the Pitjantjatjara people and climbing it signifies lack of respect to their tradition. My husband cleverly said that, climbing Uluru is akin to stepping on the crown of the Queen. Surprisingly, a lot of people still climb it. I overheard someone saying that they would probably never visit Uluru again so they better climb it now (I find this reasoning selfish and insensitive) and they were disappointed by our guide’s words of discouragement. (He calls those who climb Uluru, “heathens”).
Righteousness aside, walking around the base of Uluru proved how massive it is. And like the Kings Canyon and Kata Tjuta, it also offered us surprises at every bend of the path. Every side of Uluru is picturesque, unique and unforgettable.
After the walk, we took the highways back to Alice Springs and stopped halfway at Erldunda Roadhouse for lunch (the same wraps from the day before so we decided to eat at the convenience store). After about an hour, we continued on and stopped at the Camel Farm. Unfortunately, we were a bit late and were not able to ride the camels. Another 2 hours and we were back in Alice Springs. A dinner at The Rock Bar (own expense) capped off our tour.
Things you need to bring for the tour:
- bottled water
- snacks and energy bars
- sturdy shoes
- sun protection gears
- jumper/sweater for the chilly winter nights
- fly net hat
- sleeping bag
- minimal toiletries
- small bag for the walks
- torch or flashlight
I give this tour 4 stars! It quenches the adventurous, provides an enriching experience but needs some improvement.
- I heard the Emu Tour provided sleeping bags for free but The Rock Tour required us to pay A$15 for one.
- I felt that the utensils we were using during the tour were not properly washed/rinsed. I know that paper plates and cups are not environment-friendly but the way our dishes were cleaned were not health-friendly.
- On our way to the first campground, our guide told us that he will be driving a little fast because driving slow along the dirt-road might get our wheels stuck on the road. We all agreed but for 5 minutes, I guess, we held our breath and some even screamed. He was driving very very fast and that was the most dangerous drive I’ve experienced in my life. This is definitely not for the weak-hearted. I’ve tried driving along dirt-road many times before and I don’t remember, and even agree, that it was necessary to drive in such dangerous way.
- At the end of the tour, some members got a little wild dancing inside the bus. What worried me is that our guide/driver was also joining in the fun. I’m sure he knows the road very well but it was still dangerous. Plus the music was irritatingly loud no matter how many times we requested to lower down the volume.
- Our guide has some remarks that I find insensitive such as: “Believe it or not, the aborigines get sunburned too.” What was he thinking? All of us are prone to skin cancer caused by sun exposure! Once when a few members of the group were not on time (because he parked the bus in a different location), he remarked: “The (insert cultural group here) are not yet here. What a drama!”
- Although helping our guide prepare the food was voluntary, somehow we felt obligated to do something whenever we saw some of the tour members helping him in preparing the food. Another The Rock Tour guide even commented: “Don’t you guys want to see the sunset?” when he saw the tour members cooking instead of watching the sunset. (This is the Uluru sunset and this is the reason, for most of us, why we went there in the first place.) I asked the guide who gave the comment whether they usually prepare the meals by themselves and he said that they do and even encourage the tourists to go and see the sunset or explore around. We never helped in preparing the food because we chose to spend that time exploring.
- I thought we will be able to interact with the original Australians but there was no opportunity to do so.
- The time allowed inside the Aboriginal Cultural Centre was too short to read the interesting stories of the land.
The negative comments I mentioned above are mostly related to our guide and not the tour itself so I guess if we had a different guide I would have given more stars. Overall, I will definitely recommend The Rock Tour to those who want to explore the Red Centre in a less touristy way. It was an amazing outback experience!