Australia's Natural Wonders
Uluru National Park, Australia
We had come to a place where the earth's largest natural monolith lies like a giant leviathan upon a vast sea of red sand, where wildlife and vegetation are unlike any other in the world, and where the nearest city is almost a thousand miles away.Skip to next paragraph
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We were in the heart of a continent, at a spot as far out and as far back as you can get in the Australian outback. We had come to Ayers Rock.
Looking down from the 20-seater airplane flying over the desert, relentlessly flat except for an occasional salt-encrusted lake or a dry riverbed snaking through the dust, the sudden appearance of the massive form of red sandstone caused me and my fellow passengers to gasp. Nothing, not all the photographs we had seen of it nor all the travel literature we had read, was preparation for the first sight of what aboriginal man calls the Uluru and what European man more prosaically calls Ayers Rock.
Perhaps it is this impact, the jolt of seeing one of the earth's most dramatic protuberances in the midst of one of its flattest, most monotonous terrains, that lured over 100,000 visitors to Uluru National Park last year. Along with the Great Barrier Reef, Ayers Rock, standing 1,143 feet high and 51/2 miles around, is now one of Australia's two most-visited natural wonders.
Those tourism statistics are remarkable when you consider that Uluru National Park, even if you live in Australia, is a long way from just about anywhere. Located nearly in the middle of the continent, the part of Australia's Northwest Territory called the Red Centre, the nearest town is Alice Springs, 200 miles to the northeast. The large cities along the coast, where most Australians live, are many more hundreds of miles away, both in distance and in spirit.
For my traveling companions and I, the arrival at Ayers Rock had come at the end of our tour of Australia, one that took us primarily to those coastal cities. Like most North Americans, we were both very curious and very ignorant about what the Australians term the ''outback,'' the ''bush,'' or, most mysteriously, ''the great back of beyond.'' Those terms, we learned, refer to nearly the whole interior of Australia; you don't have to stray very far from the glass office buildings and manicured parks of Sydney and Perth to find yourself in the outback.
Most of the urban Australians we met had not been as far inland as the Red Centre and seemed to have mixed feelings about all those harsh miles of grasslands, eucalyptus trees, and desert that separate them from Ayers Rock. The outback figures prominently in the national imagination, but it is revered and scorned at the same time.
''The outback, now that's the real Australia,'' a young executive in Perth told me, awe and enthusiasm in his voice.
''What do you find in the real Australia?'' I asked.
''Flies and boredom,'' he replied, only half-joking.
I thought of his comment as we disembarked from the plane at the airstrip at Uluru National Park, greeted by a blast of the dry, bake-oven heat that characterizes a typical day in mid-December, the start of the Australian summer. Flies there certainly were, small, black bush flies that don't bite but are a constant, swarming annoyance all the same. Boredom, however, was the last thing any of us felt.
Near the airstrip we saw a scattering of small motels and campgrounds, but our ranger-guide informed us that neither they nor the airstrip will exist after next year. That is when the Northwest Territory government will have completed Yulara, a $140 million resort complex just outside the park that will include an airstrip, two hotels, housing for local aborigines, and a center for aboriginal arts and crafts.
Uluru National Park has only been in existence since 1957; before that it was part of an aboriginal reserve. And to understand why this park is so special, why it is worth traveling thousands of miles to visit, you have to consider the area's sacred meaning to the aborigines as well as the beauty of its landscape.