Traveling to the heart of Australia to gawk at a rock

``What am I doing here anyway? Why am I going to the middle of this island continent, in the center of a desert to gawk at a rock?'' The questions invariably pop into your head as you make your way through the seemingly endless emptiness of desert to Ayers Rock. It's not as though it's something you drive past on your way to the beach, shopping mall, or to grandmother's house.

Take a look at a map of Australia. Ayers Rock is dead-center in middle of nowhere, just this side of nothing at all. Correction: There is the occasional eucalyptus tree, a few scattered desert oaks, and mounds of nasty little bushes of spiney, needley, spinifex that look like tumbleweeds armed with bayonets. And some 18 miles away there's an outcrop of lesser-known boulders known as ``the Olgas.''

So what is the big deal about this rock? What lures over 100,000 tourists from around the world to this deserted place?

First there's its obvious physicality. Billed as (if not actually) ``the world's largest monolith,'' Ayers Rock rises 1,142 feet, stretches 1-miles long with a girth of 5.8 miles.

This rounded block of Arkosic sandstone stands like the weighty carapace of some giant sea turtle stranded in a vast ocean of sand.

Then there's the rock's remarkable chameleon quality of changing colors - from cool, dark gray to hot magenta, to the more usual hues of terra cotta, red, and mauve.

Many things contribute to this color show - seasons of the year, time of day, heat, dust, clouds, light, moisture, temperature of the rock, and the rare rainfall.

So massive is it that the blistering heat held during the day is released slowly at night, often producing its own atmospheric conditions, forming clouds, and occasional rain.

These infrequent bursts of moisture can flood the surrounding area and trigger fields of wildflowers into bloom and insect eggs to hatch.

Busloads of tourists, armed with everything from sophisticated tripod-mounted Hasselblads to Kodak Instamatics jockey for position to record the light show at sunset.

They line up in a parking lot a few miles away as the rock goes through its red and lilac phases before darkening and disappearing into the inky, starlit night.

But you don't really get the impact of the ``oneness'' of the rock until you set foot on its base and begin your assent. Only then, when you see the vein of stone start at your feet and continue out of sight - only then, do you realize this is all a piece, one giant stone, not fragmented bits and pieces all molten and fused back together.

And you'll probably learn that, like an iceberg, most of the gigantic mass is hidden beneath the desert sand.

Anyone physically able may climb Ayers Rock. Buses leave every morning before dawn from Yulara, the magnificent new $160 million dollar hotel/campground/hostel complex just a few miles away.

``What are you folks doing here?'' driver-guide Alan Bangs asked as we sleepily boarded the bus at 6.30 a.m. ``I've got to be here, but the rest of you must be completely mad,'' he said with a grin.

We donned windbreakers and grabbed bottles of Evian bottled water supplied in our hotel rooms and headed to the base. One sign at the foot of the rock was impossible to miss by its sheer size: ``The Climbing of the Rock is Difficult and Dangerous. The Park Authority accepts no Responsibility for Injury or Loss of Life to any Person. Rescue Gear is Available at the Ranger's Office.''

``That's it! That's it! I've seen it. That's as far as I go,'' said one middle-aged woman from Brisbane, refusing to budge another inch. ``Only problem is my kids have climbed it, and they'll put me to shame,'' she added, taking a few reluctant steps as the more foolhardy passed her by.

You are allowed 2 hours to make the round trip up the rock and back - just about enough time to make it to the top, take in the view, snap a few pictures, sign a visitors book, and stumble back to the bus.

It took me exactly 55 minutes to reach the summit, with a few minutes' rest along the way. The record climb of 13 minutes, set by a marathoner from New Zealand a few years ago, was in no way threatened this day.

Back on the air-conditioned bus, it was time to learn some of the historic value of this rock and something of its spiritual importance to the original Australians, the local Aborigines. Ayers Rock, known as ``Uluru'' to the Yankuntjatara and Pitjantjatjara tribes, is no less sacred to them than the Wailing Wall is to the Jews, or St. Peters is to Roman Catholics.

To these Aborigines this area had its beginnings in ``the Dreamtime'' and is an integral part of their history, daily life, and religion.

Our driver Mr. Bangs gave a moving and sympathetic story of how these primative nomads, who, just 100 years ago, were jolted into the Western world. These people who never planted a seed, built a shelter, or wore clothing woke one day to see white men on horses, wearing clothes, carrying guns, herding cattle, and washing and bathing in the sacred pools of water at the base of Uluru.

It was the darkest footnote of history here. The white men stayed. The cattle out-grazed the precious vegetation, scattering the native game. Aborigines were forced to kill an occasional head of cattle for food, and the whites then killed some of the Aborigines.

Some of the shrines in the rock were blundered and desecrated.

As we slowly circumnavigated the rock, Bangs pointed out the many sacred caves, tunnels, and several of the cave paintings (some of which date back over 900 years), stopping for a tour of Maggie Springs, the largest water hole here. Most of the sacred sites are off limits to whites and are clearly marked by small signs and unobtrusive wire fences.

In 1985, Ayers Rock, or more correctly in this case, Uluru, was turned back to the Aborigines. Part of the terms of the 99 year lease include A$75,000 from the Australian government plus 20 percent of the gross park entrance fees.

It is hoped this compromise between the traditional owners and the whites will ensure care, protection, and availability of the rock for years to come.

A visit to Ayers Rock truly leaves one with far more than the image of a giant stone captured on a roll of film.

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