The Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park Is One Of The Most Significant Arid – Land ecosystems in the world. The park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, but while increasing tourism helps the regional economy, it also presents an ongoing challenge of how to balance conservation of the natural landscape and cultural values with the needs of tourists.
The native Anangu call tourists minga—little ants—because that’s what they look like, crawling up the red sandstone flanks of Uluru, central Australia’s most storied monolith. Despite often-ferocious winds and withering heat, some visitors still feel compelled to spend 2 to 4 hours scrambling up the great rock. Yes, the views from the top are impressive, but the tourists are committing sacrilege: Uluru is a sacred spot in the Tjukurpa/Wapar belief system. Even more sacred is Kata Tjuta (“Many Heads”), 36 momentous red domes bulging out of the earth 50km (31 miles) to the west.
Anangu leaders have reestablished the historic names Uluru (instead of the colonial name Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (instead of the Olgas), but they haven’t banned either rock climbers or sightseeing flights over Uluru—they simply request climbers to refrain from violating the sacred site. Focused on scaling the rock, climbers rarely take time to experience the monolith’s richness—the wildlife that thrives in the potholes and overhangs of the red rock surface, the little coves hiding water holes and Aboriginal rock art. But you can see all this on a paved 9.7km (6-mile) Base Walk around Uluru, or an easy 1km (.5-mile) round-trip loop from the Mutitjulu parking lot. Even better is the free daily 90-minute Mala Walk with a ranger—often an Aborigine—who can explain the significance of the rock art and the Creation narrative related to Uluru. It’s no coincidence that this hike is named after the mala, or rufous hare-wallabies; the Anangu consider them important ancestral guardians, and recently an enclosure has been built nearby in the park for a group of ranger-bred mala. Extinct in the wild, the species are to be reintroduced to a landscape they haven’t inhabited since the mid-1900s.
Though it looks like a giant meteorite, Uluru did not fall from the sky; it is a mass of hardened sediment heaved upward from the floor of an ancient inland sea. The same seismic forces created the domes of Kata Tjuta, but their conglomerate rock yielded far more dramatically to the sculpting power of rain and temperature. At Kata Tjuta, there are two routes winding through the other-worldly domes: the 7.4km (4.5-mile) Valley of the Winds walk or an easy 2.4km (1.5-mile) Gorge walk.
Just gazing upon Uluru should be enough—there’s something undeniably spiritual in its massive shape, heaving powerfully upward from the dunes, changing color dramatically depending on the slant of the sun. The best time to visit is sunset, when gaudy oranges, peaches, pinks, reds, and then indigo and deep violet creep across its face as if it were a giant opal. But there’s something to be said, too, for experiencing the rosy spectacle of Uluru gradually unveiled by dawn, hailed by a chorus of twittering birdsong.