Uluru


Ages 6 & up
Destination: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

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 aboveground 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, with curtains of stone draping its sides, with little coves hiding water holes and Aboriginal rock art, all of it changing color depending on the slant of the sun. The peak time is sunset, when oranges, peaches, pinks, reds, and then indigo and deep violet creep across its face. At dawn the colors are less dramatic, but you can often hear birds singing as the sun rises.

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, taking anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. If you're tight on time, 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 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 Dreamtime 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 (tel. 1800/806 499 in Australia, or 08/8956 2444; www.cameltours.com.au). Several local companies also 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. 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.

Information: Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre (tel. 08/8956 3138). Ayers Rock Resort (see below).

Nearest Airport: Ayers Rock (Connellan) airport.

Accommodations: Emu Walk Apartments or Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge, Yulara Dr., Ayers Rock Resort (tel. 08/8957 7888; www.voyages.com.au).