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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.