It’s a bit of a mystery why people trek from all over the world to gawk at Ayers Rock. For its size? Hardly. Nearby Mount Conner is three times as big. For its shape? Probably not. Most folks agree the neighboring Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) is more picturesque. And yet, undeniably, a faint shiver goes up the spine when you gaze on the serene, hulking mass known as Ayers Rock.
People used to believe that Uluru (Ayers Rock’s proper Aboriginal name) was a meteorite, but we now know it was formed by sediments laid millions of years ago in an inland sea and thrust above ground by geological forces (there’s twice as much again underground, it’s thought). On photos, it may look like a big smooth blob, but face to face, it’s dappled with holes and overhangs, curtains of stone draping its sides, and little coves hiding water holes and Aboriginal rock art, all of it changing color dramatically depending on the slant of the sun. The peak time to visit is sunset, when oranges, peaches, pinks, reds, and then indigo and deep violet creep across its face, as if it were a giant opal. At sunrise, the colors are less dramatic, but many folks enjoy the spectacle of the Rock, unveiled by the dawn to bird song.
Aborigines refer to tourists as minga—little ants—because that’s what we look like crawling up Uluru, which to them is sacrilege. And yet, despite this, and despite ferocious winds, sheer rock faces, and extreme temperatures, visitors still feel compelled to scramble up the rock, which takes anywhere from 2 to 4 hours; the views from the top are amazing, but is it worth it? There are plenty of other options. The paved 9km (5.6-mile) Base Walk circumnavigates Uluru, with time to explore water holes, caves, folds, and overhangs; an easy kilometer (.6-mile) round-trip trail from the Mutitjulu parking lot visits a pretty water hole, with rock art near the Rock’s base. On the free daily 90-minute Mala Walk, a ranger, who is often an Aborigine, discusses the Dream-time myths behind Uluru and explains the significance of the rock art and other sites you see. Another peaceful way to see the Rock is on hour-long camelback forays through the red-sand dunes with Frontier Camel Tours. If it’s aerial views you want, several local companies do scenic flights by light aircraft or helicopter over Uluru and other local landmarks.
With a glorious sunset viewing of Uluru your goal, start your day at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), 50km (31 miles) west of the Rock. Kata Tjuta means “many heads,” an apt name for this monolith of 36 momentous red domes bulging out of the earth like turned clay on a potter’s wheel. The Olgas are more important in Dreamtime legend than Uluru, and many modern visitors find they’re even more spiritual. Good hikers may do the challenging 7.4km (4.6-mile) Valley of the Winds walk among the domes; there’s also an easy 2.6km (1.6-mile) Gorge walk.