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.
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.
Ayers Rock and the other great physical feature of the park, a spectacular, dome-shape mountain range called the Olgas, are believed by the aborigines to date from an era of creation they call the Tjukurapa, or Dreamtime. During the Dreamtime half-human, half-animal beings appeared on the earth, a race aborigines believe to be their ancestors. As the Dreamtime ended, Ayers Rock and the Olgas rose from the flat earth and the ancestors were transformed into part of the new landscape.
And so while nonaborigines look at Ayers Rock and the Olgas and see impressive rock formations that the wind and rain have marked with craters, outcroppings, and ravines, the aborigines look at them and see the lives of their ancestors, great canvases illustrating their past. For example, the potholes found along the southern face of Ayers Rock are believed to be where the Liru, or poisonous snake people, threw their spears. Some of the caves in Ayers Rock are believed to be the camps of the Malas, or ''hare wallaby people''; the bolders crumbling away from Ayers Rock and the Olgas are believed to be the ancestors themselves.
A community of aborigines still live in traditional camps in reserve settlements near the park. Some are employed as guides at the park, interpreting the features of their sacred Uluru and also providing insights into the nomadic, food-gathering life style that has allowed them to survive in this impossibly harsh terrain for an estimated 40,000 years. On the Bush Tucker Tour, for instance, aboriginal guides demonstrate how one can find food - and cook it - in the midst of the desert.
Although not an aborigine, the young ranger who took us for a tour of the park was, nevertheless, well-versed in aboriginal mythology as well as the region's plants, wildlife, and geology. After we climbed into a small van, heading first toward the Olgas, located some 20 miles west of Ayers Rock, he filled us in on aspects of the strange new world stretching for incomprehensible distances on either side of the red sand road.
The region in which the park lies is sometimes called the ''dead heart'' of Australia, but we quickly saw how inaccurate a name that is. Among the gnarled, twisted trees growing out of the red dunes are the eucalyptus, or gums, that are common all over Australia. This is a particularly tough variety called bloodwood that can survive on just seven inches of rainfall a year. Among the bloodwoods are the shorter desert oaks, or casuarinas, with long and shaggy needles that almost obscured their trunks. Everywhere there was something in bloom, particularly bushes of the yellow hibiscuslike honey grevilleas, which contain a sweet nectar that the aborigines suck right from the flower.
As we neared the mountains, we saw that their sandstone surface is red and green; in some parts there are black lines zigzagging down the steep sides of the domes. According to aboriginal legend, these lines are tracks of the Liru people, left behind after a war with another ancestral tribe. The most riveting of the domes is a massive one in the foreground known as the Dying Kangaroo; nearby is a smaller one said to be a lizard comforting it.
In the midst of these formations is the Mt. Olga Gorge, a deep ravine that contains plant life found in no other part of the world. Among the species are low bushes of wandarrie grass, a shrub that appears to dry and wither away completely, only to spring to life again with the touch of rain.
As we left the car to explore the gorge on foot, we were greeted by the sounds of a desert aviary. A huge golden parrot flew overhead, one of the many types of parrots, including flocks of small green ones that nestle in the gum trees, that live in the outback. Falcons circled above us, and we heard the cry of a magpie and the nasal sound of black- and white-striped zebra finches singing in the yellow-flowered wattle trees. There are, it came as no surprise to learn, 135 varieties of birds in the park.
On the approach to the gorge is a terrain of shale rock on which there are many aboriginal carvings that are still quite legible despite their estimated age of 20,000 years. Among the more vivid rock carvings are ones that are a series of concentric circles and others that are three-toed bird tracks. Beyond the carvings, it is a 21/2-hour hike to the end of the gorge, the 3,500-foot walls of the Olgas keeping it cool and moist even on a hot day.
Hiking, or ''bushwalking,'' as it is known in the outback, is a good way to come across some of the park's considerable wildlife. Among the many uniquely Australian animals are the wild yellow dogs called dingoes, the ostrichlike emus , and, of course, kangaroos and their smaller cousins, wallabies. Most of the hiking trails in the park were, in fact, created by kangaroos foraging their way through the bush. But because kangaroos and other marsupials are nocturnal, you are unlikely to see them except at dawn or dusk. Our exploration took place when the sun was high overhead, and we saw only their tracks.
The single most popular activity in the park is climbing Ayers Rock, a feat that about 50,000 visitors accomplish each year. But on the afternoon we approached it, there was no one scrambling up its forbidding surface - climbing the rock is usually done in the cooler months between April and October, or very early in the morning. Among the most fascinating aspects of the rock is the spectrum of colors that it can take on during a single day - golden at dawn, silver when a cloud passes overhead, blood red at noon, fiery crimson at sunset, and blue-violet at dusk.
At the base of Ayers Rock are a dozen or so caves that are lined with aboriginal rock paintings, some just a few years old and others that date back for centuries. Some of the caves are part of the park tours, but others, particularly those still used for initiation rites, are so sacred to the aborigines living in the area that they may not be visited.
The two caves we saw at the northwest base of the rock have been used by aboriginal elders to record daily events. These paintings can be anywhere from 400 to a mere 40 years old, and often the younger will cover up the older ones. They serve the same purpose as chalk markings on a blackboard. Some are quite abstract and others are in the recognizable shapes of kangaroos, snakes, and other animals. All were created with colors made by taking pulverized rock and mixing it with water, a process that yields shades of red, white, brown, pink, and yellow ocher.
What they symbolize is something less understood than how and why they were created, our guide told us. A white leaflike painting is said to represent the aboriginal social structure, and some of the animal figures are believed to be the record of a great hunt. ''But we don't know for sure what a lot of them mean ,'' he said. ''The aborigines often prefer to keep the true meaning to themselves.''
As we left the caves, I felt somewhat glad that we couldn't learn all the secrets of the Uluru and its enigmatic artwork. The sense of wonder that pervades this heart of the Australian continent is as much a part of it as the landscape itself. Practical information
The best time to visit Uluru National Park is from April to October, when the days are warm and the nights cool. At other times of the year the temperature often climbs well above 100 degrees F. and the guided tours of the park are suspended. Until the Yulara resort is completed next year, the choice of accommodations is limited to campgrounds and four modest but comfortable motels.
Alice Springs, a one-hour flight or four-hour drive away, is the major gateway to Uluru National Park. We reached our destination by first flying to Sydney from San Francisco on Quantas, the major carrier to Australia. There is a daily flight that takes 15 hours, including a one-hour stop in Honolulu. From Sydney there are flights to Alice Springs on Ansett Airlines of Australia and Trans-Australia Airlines; it is a three-hour trip. Airlines of Northern Australia flies to Uluru National Park twice a day from Alice Springs and also offers an overnight tour package.
Further details about visiting the Red Centre are available from the Australian Tourist Commission, 1270 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020 , or 3550 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Calif. 90010.