Uluru-Australia’s Red Rock Center

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.