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The Big Red One.

Ayer's Rock, Australia

You can see it from miles and miles away. It just sits there, huge, red and massive, sticking out of the ground like a great, beautiful blister on the skin of the planet’s crust. The description, of course, is of Ayer’s Rock - or, to give this spectacular piece of geography its original name, Uluru.

Ayers Rock The reason geologists get so excited about Uluru is its size. It’s a monolith – a single lump of stone, jutting out of the earth. It’s not just any old monolith, though. It’s the biggest in the world. It’s made of sandstone with a high proportion of iron in it. It’s this iron that gives the rock its rich red color. The iron reactions with the oxygen in the air to make red iron oxide. When this happens to your car it’s called rusting. When it happens to bits of the planet it’s called iron oxidization.

If you enjoy a hike, Uluru and its surrounding Kata Tjuta National Park provide plenty of trails. The one thing you’re requested not to do is climb Uluru itself. This is considered spiritually offensive by the Ananga people who are the rock’s traditional owners. Nobody will actually stop you making the climb – unless the weather is very hot, or a rescue operation is going on – but it is strongly discouraged. If you do decide to risk the wrath of the local gods and the disapproval of your hosts by climbing the rock, make sure you do it in the coolest part of the day, you inform somebody that you’re going, and you take sun protection (including a hat) and plenty of water – at least a litre for every hour you think you’ll be up there.

Everyone will be much happier if you restrict your Uluru hiking to the track that runs around the base of the rock. It’s fourteen kilometers (around ten miles) long. Although walking it is rather less hazardous than making an ascent of the rock itself, you should still follow the safety precautions outlined about as well as seeking advice from Park rangers and guides.

Right at the base of Uluru is a National Park Cultural center which is well worth a look-around. You can find out how Uluru is crucial to the spirituality of the region and has its place in Aboriginal creation stories – the myths of the ‘Dreamtime’.

Ayers Rock Uluru isn’t the only piece of spectacular geography in the Park. Not far away are the peaks of Kata Tjuta. They’re just as red as Uluru, and even slightly taller. They're not quite as dramatic as Uluru, however, as they are split by several deep valleys. One of these, the Valley of the Winds, contains a wonderful walk that is arguably better than the Uluru circular walk itself. Both Kata Tjuta and Uluru are at their best at dusk, when the red of the setting sun hits the red of the rock. For a few moments every night it’s the most beautiful place in the world.

If all this getting back to nature makes you long for the creature comforts of western civilization, you should head to the resort settlement of Yulara, a few miles north of Uluru. This has a campsite and all kinds of amenities. The better-heeled traveler might be interested in staying at the Longitude 131 complex. It’s a justly-famed luxury wilderness retreat. The ‘rooms’ are semi-permanent tents with air-conditioning, radios and high-quality furnishings. On-site catering is superb, allowing you to enjoy the natural splendor of the National Park from some truly luxurious accommodation. All the tents/rooms have panoramic views of Uluru itself.

One of the best ways to get around the park is to hire a car, which you can do at Connellan Airport – Kata Tjuta’s main mode of contact with the outside world. The distances to be covered are not huge by Australian standards, but they are sufficiently large (and the weather is sufficiently hot) to make walking impractical. There are also organized tours of the park. Whether you want to take one really depends on your cast of mind as a traveler – some would say that to be shepherded around a wilderness really defeats the point of going there in the first place.

Because that is what the National Park surrounding Uluru really is – a wilderness. It’s not a great place to visit if your idea of a vacation is drinking and dancing. It’s also not somewhere that many people stay for long. The standard permit for entry to the National Park lasts for three days, and that’s how long most people stay. Generally a visit to the park by non-Australian tourists is made as part of a larger exploration of that amazing country.

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