As the sun begins to sink beyond the rim of the desert, the crowds with their cameras gather by car and bus along Sun-set Strip’, the tongue-in-cheek name for a dusty stretch of car park. As the onlookers watch Uluru (Ayers Rock) -4 (entrance fee for a 3-day pass) undergo its striking changes of colour, they are not solemn but rather festive, friendly and relaxed. By coming here, they are fulfilling an Australian dream, getting to know this mystical 500-million-year-old rock that rises up from the red heart of the country.
The world’s greatest rock, seemingly dropped by divine design in the middle of nowhere, actually protrudes from a buried mountain range. At 348m (1,142(1) tall and some 8km (5 miles) around, it is even more impressive than the dimensions suggest. Standing alone in a landscape as flat as a floor, and tinted as bright as in your imagination, the monolith certainly lives up to its reputation. You’ll need no complicated explanations to understand why the Aborigines consider it sacred.
For the Aborigines it’s not just a rock, it’s a vital aspect of Dreamtime, encompassing the creation of the earth, linked with the life of the present and future. Aboriginal people have owned the rock under Australian law only since 1985. The small local Anangu community leases it back to the government for use as a national park in return for a healthy income and participation in its management, but there is a caveat; tourists may climb over the rock on a defined path.
It’s well worth getting up at barn to stake on the mighty silhouette from 20km (12 miles) away, waiting for the sun-rise. As first light strikes the lonely monolith it appears to catch fire, glowing red. then orange, finally seeming to emit rays of wondrous power.
Only then the desert world comes to life: a hawk squawks. a rabbit rustles the brush, and hordes of pesky flies begin to buzz. (Waving your hand in front of your face soon becomes second nature in the Outback. Insect repellent helps. too, but the flies seem to outnumber the people 20 to one. Maybe this is why Aboriginal legends mention bothersome flies.) If you’re fit you can join the crowds climbing the rock, although local Anangu Aboriginal people regard this as disrespectful.
A few hours arc enough for the return trip via the marked trail, which has a protective chain you can grab when the going gets too steep or windy. The ascent requires no mountain-climbing experience or equipment, but do wear sensible rubber-soled shoes and carry drinking water. From ground-level the climbers reaching the summit look like a line of very tired ants.
Some climbers die during the experience: they are commemorated by plaques placed discreetly on the base of the rock. The plaques reveal causes of death to be generally heart attacks among older climbers and fatal plunges by younger ones.
Another worthwhile (and safer) way to get to know the rock is to circumnavigate the base on foot. either on your own (you won’t get lost) or on a ranger-guided tour. Up close, the monolith discloses its variegated surface, with its caves, dry rivulets, furrows, wounds and gashes. and what might be taken for fanciful engravings 60m (200ft) tall.
Alternatively you can take a 30-minute scenic flight from Yulara or a day-trip by air from Alice Springs to get a bird’s eye view of the rock and its surroundings. Only 36 km (22 miles) by road west of Ayers Rock. and visible from its summit, is another stupendous rock formation, Bata Tjuta (The Olgas).