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Kata Tjuta begins to glow with the setting sun

For most travellers who visit the Red Centre, the focus is almost always Uluru and seeing the rock at sunrise and sunset in all its colourful glory. While there’s no doubt Uluru is spectacular and a special place, especially for Australia’s First Nations people, what surprises many visitors is that Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) holds even more spiritual significance. Seeing this amazing formation of rocks at sunset will have you mesmerised and completely captivated. Perhaps even more so than Uluru.

Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta
Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta

AAT Kings Kata Tjuta Sunset Tour begins at Ayers Rock Resort around 90 minutes prior to sunset. With the sun already sinking towards the horizon, the bus isn’t able to wait for tardy guests so be at the pick-up point on time as the sun will not slow down just so you can see it set. On our tour we had a few no shows which made for a small group of 6 and a very boutique tour. With our cheerful guide Barry and his assistant Grace, our small minibus made its way though Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Something important to note is that all visitors need to have a park pass to do this tour. Passes are available online prior to arrival and last up to 3 days and beyond depending on your length of stay. You can also buy a pass when you book your tour at no extra cost.

In the native Pitjantjatjara language Kata Tjuta means “many heads” and comes from an Aboriginal creation story about those who came here to rest and keep watch over the lands. The formation of rocks is also very different from the sandstone of Uluru. Kata Tjuta isn’t a rock like Uuru, it’s a conglomerate which is a matrix of rock, silt, sand and clay that has formed over millennia. Think of it as a huge fruit cake with rocks instead of dried sultanas and orange peel. The red colour is a result of iron ore deposits in the sand and soil that leached into the rocks over time to create mesmerising hues of red, orange and gold at sunrise and sunset. 

Early sunset at Kata Tjuta
Early sunset at Kata Tjuta

As we passed though the entry point to the National Park, Barry began speaking about the fascinating history of the area and its inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its many awards for Indigenous management and preservation. The National Park has been awarded not one, but three separate UNESCO listings over the years. Much of this comes down to the successful joint management of the park with a board comprised of First Nations and white Australian members who work together to protect and enhance the park. For example, the sand dunes throughout the park keep the eco system in balance and are also sacred to the Anangu people. For this reason, the road the AAT Kings bus travels on to Kata Tjuta was approved to be moved by the board from its original spot so it no longer travelled close to sacred sites and was better for the environment.

AAt Kings Mini Bus to Kata Tjuta
AAT Kings mini bus ride to Kata Tjuta

The journey to Kata Tjuta takes roughly an hour and as luck would have it, there was very little traffic during our visit as international visitors and some states of Australia could not enter the Northern Territory due to COVID. The one benefit of no international travellers was the lack of crowds at any of the sites around the National Park. As we were only a small group and running a little ahead of time, our tour also had time for a quick stop at the entrance to Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta. This is the jumping off point for several walks though the many domes that make up this sacred site.

The changing colours of Kata Tjuta

When we arrived at our sunset spot, we were encouraged to take a small stroll to find the perfect photo location and take some photos while Barry and Grace set up our refreshments for sunset. As we made our way along the path, the domes of Kata Tjuta began to glow with the setting sun. It is no wonder this location is so sacred to the First Nations people as it radiates a sense of spirituality that embraces the desert around it and the sky above. Barry explained on the drive to our sunset spot that Kata Tjuta is especially significant for Anangu men who use the site for initiation ceremonies and ‘men’s business’. It is so sacred that according to local cultural traditions, Anangu woman are not meant to look at Kata Tjuta and must avert their eyes when they pass it.

Barry and Grace set up our refreshments for sunset

After our stroll, we returned to the main viewing spot to discover our guides had set up tables and were laying out an assortment of nibbles and drinks. It looked like there was enough there to cater for about 20 people, not just half a dozen. Barry, Grace and our fellow travellers were such good company that we had to remember to keep looking at Kata Tjuta glowing in the light of the setting sun. Barry explained that if you focus your eyes continually on the rocks, you become oblivious to the colour change. He suggested looking away (and perhaps grabbing another tasty nibble) and then looking back at Kata Tjuta to bring out the colour hues more clearly. It was a great tip as looking away and then back again made a huge difference to our viewing experience.

Our tour group at Kata Tjuta

Thanks to some smoke haze near the horizon and the light of the setting sun, the colours on the domes of Kata Tjuta began to illuminate into vivid hues of red that slowly faded to blue and purple as the sun went down. Taking in all the stunning sights we also noticed the sounds from the native bird life mix with gasps of ‘ooohhh’ and ‘aahhh’ from the handful of visitors there to see the sunset. We were having such a great time that it felt like only minutes had passed before dusk arrived and we finished our drinks and set off back to Ayers Rock Resort.

Sunset afterglow at Kata Tjuta

It seemed a little quicker heading back to the resort, perhaps due to Barry and Grace’s generous wine pours, as we looked through our photos and chatted to the other guests. As I looked out the window of the bus and saw the silhouette of Kata Tjuta in the glow of the twilight, I knew my first visit to this most magical and spiritual part of Australia at sunset wouldn’t be my last.

Disclosure: The writer paid for his AAT Kings sunset tour of Kata Tjuta and thoroughly recommends it.

Want to know more about visiting Uluru? We’ve put together an Ultimate Guide to Uluru if you would like to find out more before your visit. Before you jet off on your next travel adventure, check out our tips for coping with early morning flights, saving money at the airport, keeping your luggage safe, and surviving a low cost airline.

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Trevor Templeman is a photographer and writer who travels the world capturing the essence of locations through their landscape, architecture and people. His words and photographs are published in magazines, newspapers and online around the world.