The Uluru trail, Australia: Cycling in the Outback

For a place more than 500 million years in the making, Uluru evolves pretty fast. The Field of Lights now blink across the desert sands at its foot, helicopters and Harleys buzz about its fringes and, most crucially, a ban on climbing the rock comes into force this October.

The end of climbs on Uluru will inevitably shift the visitor focus to other activities, primarily the 10.6-kilometre walking trail that loops around the base of the rock. Experiencing the monolith from this trail's perspective, however, isn't limited to those on foot.

From the car park at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, Outback Cycling hires out bicycles for the shared-use trail, providing the opportunity to roll between the various sites notched around the rim of the rock.

At Outback Cycling's trailer, I'm fitted for my bike and helmet and pedal out into the desert air that's roasted to 36 degrees. For two kilometres, the ride weaves through low scrub to the base of Uluru, meeting the rock at the Mala car park, where a line of chains marks the route of the Uluru climb, and an assortment of plaques grieve the deaths that have occurred on it.

The cycling loop runs anticlockwise, and is for the most part hard-packed and as flat as a Dutch footpath. It's the kind of trail you could whip around in an hour, but this one rock has so many faces and characters that it's worth lingering through the three hours available on the bike hire.

From Mala, the first section of the ride to Mutitjulu waterhole is the sandiest. At times I slide and skim through the sand, but a tailwind propels me. On a loop ride like this one, it's a mixed blessing for it inevitably means a headwind awaits me somewhere along the journey.

Between Mala and Mutitjulu, the trail runs hard against Uluru's edge, so that my handlebars are almost touching the red rock at times. Flakes of rock lie in piles at Uluru's base, and there are caves carved into the rock's surface. At a couple of points the sand on the trail has worn away to bedrock, so that I am effectively cycling across Uluru itself, splayed out flat beneath the red desert dirt.

At Mutitjulu waterhole, there's a designated bike rack. I park up and wander the 200 metres into the tiny gorge with its unexpected waters as black as the rock is red.

The land is now a mat of kangaroo grass and bloodwood trees and, as I pedal on, Uluru looks almost as though it's been sculpted as it briefly arches over the trail in a petrified wave of rock.

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What always surprises me about Uluru is its texture. From afar it looks as smooth as tin, but up this close it's a puzzle of stone – one mighty red rock fringed by piles of rocks, its layers seeming to peel away like the wrapping in a game of pass the parcel.

Though I share the trail with walkers and the occasional peloton of Segways, by the time I reach Kuniya Piti, the sacred eastern tip of Uluru, far from the car parks of Mala and Mutitjulu waterhole, I'm alone. The wind blows in from far-reaching deserts, and as I round the rock, my own weather forecast proves true. I've turned into a headwind.

Beyond Kuniya Piti, the trail leaves the rock, running a respectfully wide arc around the sacred outlier of rock known as Taputji, or little Uluru. I feel a bit like a boat leaving the shores as I pedal through sand and solitude.

Uluru comes into full focus as the trail now parallels the rock, several hundred metres out from its rim. Along this northern side it's so eroded it resembles a brain in cross section, while far ahead the rocks of Kata Tjuta suddenly appear as a blue silhouette bubbling up from the horizon.

On foot this section far from the rock can be long, hot and tedious, with only skeletal lines of shade for comfort, but on a bike, Uluru flickers past at good speed, and momentum maintains a cooling breeze of sorts as slowly the trail inches back towards Uluru. By the time I'm nearing Kantju Gorge, I'm once again pinched between the rock and the road.

I park my bike again at a second bicycle rack outside Kantju Gorge, from where it's a 400-metre walk into the waterhole. Here Uluru has been scooped out by a multitude of ephemeral waterfalls, with the surface of the rock looking as though it could peel away like sunburned skin.

As I pedal on, a half-moon rises over Uluru, as if emerging from within the rock itself, and the ride becomes a journey through the social structures of ancient Indigenous times. I pass a women's cave, a men's cave and an elderly persons' cave.

There are overhangs inscribed with art, including a shallow recess of a cave that was a kind of schoolroom for Anangu boys learning the craft of painting. My bicycle feels like the most modern thing in sight as I roll on beside this mighty rock.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/northern-territory

northernterritory.com

parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru

FLY

Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly direct to Uluru from Sydney; Jetstar also flies direct from Melbourne. See virginaustralia.com, jetstar.com.au

CYCLE

Outback Cycling is based in the car park of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. The loop ride from the centre is 15 kilometres, with three-hour bike hire costing $50. See outbackcycling.com

STAY

Sails in the Desert in Yulara, 18 kilometres from the cultural centre, has more than 200 rooms ringed around a gum-tree-lined swimming pool. Rooms start at $340 a night. See ayersrockresort.com.au

FIVE OTHER WAYS TO RUN RINGS AROUND THE ROCK

Uluru Motorcycle Tours: Jump on the back of a Harley or trike for a one-hour lap of the rock by road. ulurumotorcycles.com.au

Walk: Allow about three hours to stroll the 10.6-kilometre trail around the base of Uluru.

Uluru Segway Tours: Roll along the base of Uluru on a guided Segway tour. Trips range from short tours into Mutitjulu waterhole followed by sunset drinks, to full circuits of the rock. ulurusegwaytours.com.au

Ayers Rock Helicopters: Take to the sky on a 15-minute flight, or stretch it out with an extended 30-minute flight also taking in Kata Tjuta. flyuluru.com.au

AAT Kings bus: Cruise around the rock the easy way, in an airconditioned coach on the Uluru Sacred Sites and Sunset tour, stopping at Mutitjulu waterhole and the cultural centre, with wine and nibbles at the sunset viewing area. aatkings.com

Andrew Bain travelled as a guest of Tourism NT.

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