10 Ayers Rock Facts

Ayers Rock Facts - panorama

Known traditionally as Uluru, Ayers Rock adopted its alternative name in 1873 when the surveyor William Gosse named it after the then Chief Secretary of South Austrlaia, Sir Henry Ayers.

Before visiting, I was under the naive impression that people went to Ayers Rock, gawped at it for a long moment and then either splashed out on a helicopter ride over the top or left again. I had no idea we’d be able to get so close, or that we’d learn so much in one day about the Aborigines. So, in the interest of sharing this fascinating experience, here are 10 Ayers Rock facts.

1. It’s possible to climb Ayers Rock

Ayers Rock Facts - climbing

If the conditions are considered safe, it’s possible to climb Ayers Rock. However, it is closed under the following circumstances:

  • A temperature of 36 degrees or more;
  • December to February after 8 am;
  • A greater than 20% chance of rain within three hours;
  • A greater than 5% chance of thunderstorms within three hours;
  • A wind speed at the summit of 25 knots or more;
  • More than 20% of the rock surface still wet following rain;
  • Cloud descends below the summit;
  • Rock rescue operations underway; or
  • Traditional owners request closure for cultural reasons such as a period of mourning.

A rope was installed in 1964 by a vertically challenged man. When asked to ensure it was at waist height, he went for his own waist height rather than that of the average person. This has resulted in the somewhat amusing spectacle of hunched tourists scrambling in a line as they try to avoid slipping and sliding. The indigenous people call these ant-like processions ‘mingers’. Given fact number 2, I think it’s quite fitting.

2. If you respect the traditional owners you won’t climb the rock

Ayers Rock Facts - don't climb

While the clearly marked trail and assisting rope give the impression that climbing Uluru is perfectly fine, it is against the wishes of the Aboriginal owners. Some people mistakenly believe it’s just a safety issue. A sign at the base says ‘Too many people have died or been hurt, causing great sadness’ and the warnings shouldn’t be taken lightly since there have been at least 35 recorded deaths relating to recreational climbing. But the reasons go deeper than that. Uluru is spiritually significant to the Aboriginal people, and the path crosses a sacred ‘dreamline track’. In the nearby cultural centre is a visitors book specifically for people who didn’t succumb to the peer pressure.

After you read what one traditional owner is quoted as having said, I’m sure you’ll think twice:

That’s a really important, sacred thing you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway, that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to teach people what behaviour is appropriate. It has been the same for us since the beginning. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the proper way: no climbing’.

3. You’re not supposed to take photos of certain sections

Ayers Rock Facts - culture

For reasons related to traditional Tjukurpa beliefs, there are specific sections of Uluru that you should not photograph. Tjukurpa is a religion and a way of life for the Anangu people, who live on the land surrounding Uluru. It is a law about caring for one another and about caring for the land that supports them. This law is passed down from one generation to the next through stories, songs, dances and ceremonies.

Areas where photographs are forbidden are clearly signposted. The reason behind it is that gender-linked rituals of the Anangu people have traditionally taken place in specific spots. Members of each sex are forbidden to enter certain grounds where the opposite sex performs rituals and they do not wish to inadvertently break these rules by encountering photographs of these sites.

4. You can walk around the base in about 3 hours

Ayers Rock Facts - features

The circumference walk is so much more interesting than you might imagine. Up close, Ayers Rock is more than an imposing lump of red sandstone. Its surface is cracked and weathered; there are huge caves and tunnels at its base; and you can see Aboriginal rock art and smoothed areas where seeds were once pounded with round stones.

At some points, the path takes you right under huge overhangs and you can learn about Uluru’s importance to the Aborigines through information plaques. Later you will move further away for panoramic views as the sun beats down on its surface.

5. Most of Ayers Rock is underground

Ayers Rock Facts - formation

Ayers Rock is an ‘inselberg’, or island mountain. In fact, it is believed that it is actually banana shaped and continues for up to 2.5 kilometres below the surface of the earth. It was formed by the build up of sand deposited as part of an alluvial fan. This describes the action of a nearby mountain range called the Peterman Ranges being slowly eroded away and causing a mudslide.

The Peterman Ranges originally equaled the size of the Himalayas and were partially submerged by the ocean. There were two depressions under the sea. The heavier rocks travelled less far and settled in the first depression, while lighter dust was blown by the wind and settled in the second about 50 km away. Heat from the earth’s core forced its way up, while the pressure of the ocean forced down on these deposits. These pressures eventually forced the compressed stone deposits skywards, the more compressed ones cracking to form what we know today as the Olgas and the lighter deposits forming Ayers Rock. With continental drift, the ocean has long since disappeared, leaving the impressive formations we see now.

6. After heavy rains, you can see waterfalls pouring down its surface

Ayers Rock Facts - waterfalls

The temperatures around Ayers Rock are frequently in the mid- to high-40s, but every now and again it rains, and when it does, it forms quite a spectacle. Water pours over its weathered surface on all sides. On dryer days, you can see dark black marks left behind by the rivulets.

7. Ayers Rock is not the only spectacle of its kind in the area

Ayers Rock Facts - the Olgas

Contrary to popular belief, Ayers Rock does not rise out of the baron outback as the sole geological feature in hundreds of square kilometres of flat earth. The Olgas (pictured above) are almost as impressive and formed as part of the same process over billions of years.

On the 450 km drive from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, you will also pass a similarly shaped rock known affectionately as Fooluru. This is Mt Conner. It doesn’t have the same wow factor that Ayers Rock has, but it’s still worth a roadside stop to snap a few photos.

8. Ayers Rock changes colour depending on the position of the sun

Ayers Rock Facts - orange glow

There’s a designated look out point that’s swarming with people every morning before sunrise. The effort of getting out of bed close to 3 am is absolutely worth it to see the imposing silhouette gradually turn from black to grey, to pale orange and, eventually, a stunningly vibrant red. This colour comes from weathering of the iron minerals within the rock.

There are faint light markers to show you the trail to the look out point and, no doubt, however early you are, you will be able to see crowds forming on the elevated platform.

If you’re sensible, though, you’ll keep to the left and find yourself a spot on the path at the bottom. I was one of two people who chose that option and could have fooled myself into believing we were the sole spectators. Afterwards, some others wandered down to join us and admitted we’d chosen wisely. They’d had to contend with human limbs blocking their view and spoiling their photos, while the whole while we’d had front-row seats and not one picture contained another living soul.

9. Ayers Rock is listed as a place of outstanding natural and cultural value

Ayers Rock Facts - flora

Ayers Rock is one of the few places in the world to be dual listed by UNESCO as a place of both outstanding natural value and outstanding cultural value.

It first made the World Heritage list in 1987, when the international community recognised its geological formation, rare plants and animals and astounding natural beauty. In 1994, it became the second park in the world to also be recognised for its cultural heritage.

10. There are three sunset viewing spots at Ayers Rock

Ayers Rock Facts - sunset

With such a fantastic view to take in, why settle for just sunrise? Plenty of tours set up camp as the sun begins to set, and many of them provide champagne and nibbles.

The car sunset viewing area is for cars only, and the best spot from which to watch the colours change as the sun goes down. The bus sunset and dune walk viewing area allows you to get a slightly elevated view of the rock. Finally, Talinguru Nyakunytjaku provides three shelters and two viewing platforms, as well as a few kilometres of walking track to allow you to find the perfect spot away from the crowds. From this position, it is also possible to see the impressive bumpy Olgas formation in the distance.

Ayers Rock Facts - bus spot

My Outback Adventure was sponsored by Contiki. While they requested that I write about my trip, the choice of topics has been left entirely up to me. Any opinions expressed are a genuine reflection on how I felt about the experience. 


    • says

      I was exactly the same! It’s amazing how it can be so famous and everyone know so little about it…enter Beyond Blighty. Haha. It was a surprise about the waterfalls though. I never would have imagined that.

  1. says

    This was so cool and to know if there is enough rain that an actual waterfall can flow off of Ayers Rock! I’m with the traditionalist of leaving things alone though I know that won’t happen. And I would respect all those aspects even more the Aborigines spiritual beliefs. This was a lot of fun to read, Arianwen! :)
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    • says

      Yes, it’s a shame the Aussie Government is taking its sweet time banning people from climbing on the rock. I mean, how many people would be put off going if they knew they definitely couldn’t climb it?! It must be close to zero. It’s closed most days anyway and, with more awareness about Aboriginal beliefs, I think a lot fewer people would even want to go up it.

    • says

      A lot of people didn’t seem to care that climbing it is against the Aborigines’ wishes, which was sad to see. I don’t think the signs or our tour manager were forceful enough at getting the point across. A lot of people think the only reason you shouldn’t climb it is because it might be dangerous, and the fact that you’re legally allowed to do it makes them think it can’t be that much of a big deal. I hope the situation changes soon. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

      ‘On 11 December 1983, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised to hand back the land title to the Aṉangu traditional custodians and caretakers and agreed to the community’s 10-point plan which included forbidding the climbing of Uluru. The government, however, set access to climb Uluru and a 99-year lease, instead of the previously agreed upon 50-year lease, as conditions before the title was officially given back to the Aṉangu.
      ‘In 2009, the Australian government indicated that climbing Uluru may no longer be allowed under the proposed “Draft Management Plan 2009–2019”. The public has been invited to comment on the plan prior to submission to the Minister for the Environment’

    • Jennifer Rooney says

      We visited Uluru in July 2015 & the Anangu wish for tourists not to climb was stressed numerous times during each tour we took.. One of the practical reasons is that tourists are simply jerks. People climb, they take up their picnics & their children. It takes several hours to complete the climb. Obviously there are no sanitary fascilities at the top. People leave their trash, dirty diapers & bodily waste at the top of this sacred temple. When it rains, the. Trash & wastes flow down the sides & have thus polluted, beyond repair, one of the most important watering holes at the base of the rock which serves the people & animals of the area.
      Which is why we can’t have nice things.

    • says

      I totally agree. That’s one of the things I wasn’t too impressed with actually. I thought our guide should have been more clear on the reasons why we shouldn’t climb it. She didn’t seem to think it was an issue at all, which resulted in half our group scrambling up. At the end of the day, though, I really don’t understand why the government doesn’t just ban it!

    • says

      I guess it takes a while to pass a law. I hope they ban it soon though. In the meantime, they could be a little more obvious spreading the word that the Aborigines consider it sacred.

  2. says

    Actually I have heard about some special website where people sending back the pieces of the rock they took home. They send letters of apologies to Aboriginal owners explaining how much of bad luck they experienced after ‘stealing’ a rock from there.
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  3. Matt says

    Really interesting article Arianwen. I was unsure about whether to include Ayres Rock in my Australia plans but you’ve more than convinced me to do it!

    • says

      That’s great to hear! I hope you like it as much as I did. It really is much more interesting than a giant monolith in the desert. One of my group who’d travelled the world said watching the sun rise there was her best travel moment ever! Have fun.

  4. chayes says

    As a now 70 year old who once did climb Uluru before it was Uluru (the guides always said they climbed it twice – first and last) I have to say it was one of the most astounding experiences of my life. and I still remember. Up before the crack of dawn Dec 1980 at the lodge, bus to the rock, the plaques at the base warning against a few deaths and health risks mainly, the initial almost 45 degree chain climb, then flattening out and onward to the top. A glorious sunrise and the shadow almost instantaneously cast behind on the desert floor. I have never seen anything like it since and I can only be glad I did see it then. An experience I will never forget and, yes, an experience that some people seem to wish foreclosed. Yes, I admit that at my time there were some people who raced to the top who seemingly treated it as a morning exercise an exercise program, nothing more. But now, thirty five years later I bet they do not have the same awesome/awful memories that I do! That’s their loss.

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