Ghastly Void. Dead Heart. Red Centre. Outback. Australians have all sorts of cheery nicknames for the thousands of miles of hot, hard continent that lie beyond the coastal crust...

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Ghastly Void. Dead Heart. Red Centre. Outback.

Australians have all sorts of cheery nicknames for the thousands of miles of hot, hard continent that lie beyond the coastal crust where anybody with an ounce of common sense lives.

So why am I smack in the middle of the hardest, hottest spot of all, swatting flies and picking burrs out of my socks? Why am I standing in a parking lot with hundreds of other people staring silently at a mound of sandstone partially buried in a sun-baked desert?

Because it is the Rock. Uluru. Ayers. Names given by the generations who have trekked here to see the icon that’s launched a billion posters, postcards and calendars.

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People are drawn from around the world to this odd bulge in the desert. It’s the most visited single spot on the continent. Why, when nearby Mount Connor is more than twice as big and the Kata Tjuta rock formations are taller?


compass


Uluru is in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the southern end of Australia’s Northern Territory. The nearest major city is Alice Springs, about 280 miles to the east by highway. Nonstop flights on Qantas from Sydney (about a four-hour flight) and other major cities arrive at the Connellan Airport at Ayers Rock. Virgin Blue flies into Alice Springs.


When to go


Temperatures at Uluru can top 100 degrees from November to March, the Australian summer. The most popular time to visit is June through September, when you’ll need a jacket to ward off the desert cold at night.

Lodging


All accommodations are booked under a central reservations system operated by Voyages, the park concessionaire. Choices range from Ayers Rock Campground to the budget Outback Pioneer Hotel to the deluxe Sails in the Desert, with many choices between. Rates range from $20 per night for campsites to $400 and more for hotel rooms (Longitude 131, a luxury tented camp, was destroyed in a brush fire last fall and reopens this month.) 011-61-2-9339-1030 or see www.voyages.com.au


More information


Australian Tourist Commission: 310-229-4870 or www.australia.com



Because somehow, in some way, Uluru isn’t just another mountain. Uluru means something. Seeing it resonates deep inside us. We just don’t know why.

“It’s not that I believe in aliens or anything, but when you look at Uluru for a long, long time, it’s as if it’s trying to tell you something,” says Hamish Keith, an art consultant from Auckland, New Zealand. “But then people have taken messages from here for thousands of years. It’s an eerie feeling, but a very peaceful one as well.”

But beneath the peace, I continually bump into friction over how best to experience a place that has been a United Nations World Heritage Site since 1987.

Rebekah Francis, a feisty local tour guide who is one-quarter Aborigine, says she can tell people’s attitudes simply by what they call the place.

“For the Aboriginal people, it is Uluru, a place to be revered and respected as a central part of their history and culture,” she says. “A lot of people respect that. But there are those from the Western cultures who come here to climb and conquer what they call Ayers Rock.”


Myths and mystery



Uluru’s ancient mysteries begin with its geology. It was once believed to be a meteorite, but later geologists judged it a monolith — a single solid piece of 700-million-year-old arkrose, a kind of sandstone. Uluru is likely two-thirds buried, with the invisible part jutting below the surface at an 80-degree angle.


The Rock is a magical place for the Aboriginal people, who believe its lichen-marked sides are actually scorch marks from epic battles in their mythology. It is a place to be respected, best-visited through a six-mile Base Walk around the perimeter.

But climbing the 1,141-foot-high Rock has been a goal of generations of white Australians and other tourists. In 1985, the Australian government returned control of Uluru to two local Aboriginal groups collectively known as anangu (the people). The groups then signed a 99-year lease allowing the government to continue to operate the area as a national park — Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park — as it had since 1958.

MICHAEL GOULDING / KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Visitors gather at “car parks” every evening at Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, to see the effects sunset has on the color of the monolith.



Under the agreement, the ascent is still allowed with certain restrictions. Climbing the Rock is banned during high heat, strong winds or infrequent thunderstorms. But it can also be shut for cultural events and ceremonies. It’s usually closed for a day when a tribal member dies.

During one stretch last year, the Rock was closed for more than 100 days for a variety of reasons. The limits are a constant chafing point.

“People get testy when they have come all this way and the Rock is closed for non-weather-related reasons,” says Francis, the tour guide.

The Aborigines derisively call those who climb minga or “black ants,” a description for how hikers look from a distance as they struggle single file up the steep trail.

When the trail is open, the hike takes the physically fit about one hour up and one hour down. Those who are more cardio-challenged should count on a four-hour or longer round trip.


The rock’s story


At the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, the story of the Rock is traced to prehistory, a time popularly known as “The Dreamtime.” The Aborigines prefer their own word, “tjukurpa.”


Anthropologists believe the anangu have been here for 20,000 years, counting on a watering hole near the Rock’s base for sustenance in the harsh desert. The current tensions trace to 1872, when Uluru was “discovered” by British explorer Ernest Giles.

Six years later, it was named Ayers Rock after the governor of South Australia. Ayers never visited Ayers Rock. Many natives were pushed off their land until the 1985 settlement.

The cultural center makes the case for not climbing the Rock, but half the group at my small hotel slip away at some point over two days to make the ascent. They’re hardly alone — more than half of all visitors say they will try an ascent during their stay.



“You missed out on an amazing view,” says Lindsay Frangos of Clear Island Waters in Queensland, Australia, returning from his climb with a broad grin.

Like many who made the journey, Frangos and others at my hotel argue that Uluru — or Ayers Rock as they call it — is the property of all Australians, not just the Aboriginal people.

I choose to stay planted on ground level, partially out of respect for the wishes of the Aborigines, partially out of the knowledge that an average of one person a year dies on the hike, either from heart attack or falling on the steep, sometimes slippery trail. Instead, I opt for two versions of the natural light show that occurs every sunset. My first night, I join a small group from my hotel who drive right up to Uluru, then follow a well-marked path to a shady watering hole next to a sheer west-facing wall.

We pop open bottles of champagne and chat as the sun sinks toward the trees. The rays turn the sandstone a deep orange — like the burnt sienna crayon in my elementary-school backpack. The reflected light turns our faces orange as the birds cackle the coming of night.

Maybe it’s the soft, strong light. Maybe it’s the sheer, monochromatic orange stone wall stretching straight up to the brilliant, neon blue sky. Maybe it’s just the bubbly going to my head. But a deep feeling of calm spreads through me. On the short stroll back to the road, everyone is in an advanced state of bliss.

“I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it would be,” says Alexia Dodd van Bloeme, a visitor from Madrid, Spain. “It felt like we were becoming part of the scenery. Like the Rock was coming alive.”

After dinner, I join a knot of people for a star talk with a small telescope.

The upside-down perspective of the Southern Hemisphere takes some getting used to. The brilliant light of Mars rises in the east. To the northwest, the bulk of massive Jupiter is just a speck.

Hanging high in the south is that greatest treat for the austral traveler, the Southern Cross, largely unseen in North America.

I spend the next day reading and napping, waiting for my second and last sunset at Uluru.

Some at my hotel are heading back out to the canyon for more champagne and sunglow.

I opt for a more egalitarian event, asking the van driver to drop me off at a large parking lot just west of Uluru.

In the hours before sunset, what the Australians call “car parks” fill with people drinking beer. Many climb on their car roofs and take endless photos of every slight change of color. An hour before sunset and there’s not an empty spot among the hundred or so stalls.

Most visitors stand silently or murmur to each other, not wanting to break the silence. A few have headphones to MP3 or CD players providing a personal soundtrack to the end of the day.

As the sun gets closer to the horizon, the seemingly smooth, bright monolith is shown to be pocked, folded and creviced.

The color changes are slow but substantial. First it’s a brown lump, then bright orange, changing to a wine red, before the disappearing sun turns the sandstone purplish. As night falls, an inky black envelops the parking lot and the first faint stars appear. Uluru still makes its mystical presence felt, a dark void blocking out the heavens on the horizon.

Invisible, but there.