Australia's Ayers Rock: It's Not Just for Climbing Anymore

Shunning standard tourist approaches is often the best means of enjoying Uluru, the famed attraction at Australia's center

WHAT'S purple in the morning, gold at night, and covered with white ants?

Uluru - or Ayers Rock, depending on whom you talk to.

Often, all that tourists want is to visit the Great Barrier Reef and then fly to Australia's center for a day to "do" the rock. "White ants" are what the Aboriginals call the tourists crawling over their rock.

Increasingly, rangers, Aboriginals, naturalists, and even hospitality management are trying to encourage visitors to experience Uluru, the Aboriginal name for the rock, in a different way.

This is the typical "whitefella" way: Buy a package deal to Ayers Rock from a bus company. Fly in to Alice Springs or Ayers Rock airport and take a bus out to the base of the rock in the late afternoon. Listen to your driver-guide recite a memorized speech. Pull up alongside many other buses at the official viewing area. Watch the sun set over the rock. Go back to the hotel.

Next morning, roar out to the viewing site by bus. See the sun rise over the rock. Climb the rock: Haul yourself hand-over-hand up a chain strung along a viciously steep incline. Ignore the warning signs. Don't take water. Wear high heels.

Clamber down. Check it off your list of sites to see. Go home.

This is how many of the 300,000 tourists who visit the park each year experience Uluru. But consider these other options:

* Go around, not up. Walk around the base of Uluru instead of climbing it. It's free, fun, fragrant, and, in contrast to the freeway of climbers above you, almost deserted. About 5-1/2 miles (9 kilometers) around, it takes 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

You will pass sacred sites (fenced off and not to be photographed) and Mutijutu (formerly Maggie's Spring), a wonderfully cool pool with a welcome shady bench. Uluru is not a monolithic dome, as it looks from afar. It's got folds and ripples and rain-carved channels. It changes with the light.

* Walk with rangers. The Mala walk, a free interpretive walk that highlights Aboriginal culture, takes place each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 a.m. Our ranger-guide, Julian Berry, tells us that the traditional owners are the Anangu, the Aboriginal people who live in the Western Desert area. They were granted title to the park in 1985 and now co-manage it with the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service as part of the agreement. While Mr. Berry is white, he has studied Aboriginal culture and

has been briefed by the Anangu.

You can't learn all about an ancient oral culture in 90 minutes, but Berry manages to give us enough to go on. The Anangu have been here for 22,000 years, he says. For most of that time, they have been foragers and even today are only a few generations away from that lifestyle.

Berry tells us a bit about Tjukurrpa, a difficult concept: It means both the creation period and the laws and rules that make up Aboriginal law. It's a way of life, a philosophy, a religion. In Anangu belief, the Tjukurrpa ancestors created all the features of the landscape - wind, rain, kinship, languages. During this time, the ancestors traveled around in the form of animals, humans, or plants. Evidence of their visits can be seen in the sacred sites.

Berry shows us a big hole in the side of Uluru, created by the Itjaritjariku Yuu, the marsupial mole, which dug around and created this windbreak. We see caves with rock painting, where parents have instructed their children in Tjukurrpa over many generations.

We learn of Aboriginal customs, like men "going bush" for months to be taught law in seclusion. Berry hints at the adjustments that must be made when two cultures meet: Even today, the Aboriginal members of the ranger staff may suddenly disappear for a few days to attend to business.

"When ceremonies happen, people disappear, sometimes for a couple of months," Berry says. The Anangu rangers' right to do this has been enshrined in the agreement made with the federal government, which required a "sensitive employment structure."

The Anangu would rather that visitors did not climb Uluru, Berry says, because they feel responsible for anyone on their land. The not-uncommon rescues are stressful for the Aboriginal rangers and for the nearby Anangu community, which can see them taking place. Just the week before my visit, one tourist tried to climb down by another route. He fell and injured himself. It took 14 hours to rescue him.

Peter Shands, who has brought his family across country to see the rock, appreciates the rangers' presentation. "This walk changed my perspective on walking up the rock," he says. "It went from being something necessary to something not good." Not enough people know that the Aboriginals don't like it, he adds.

The high point of the week was to have been another walk led by two Anangu women elders who would explain traditional customs. But the elders are away on Anangu business. So it's Berry again, with three Anangu trainees: Kevin, Akana, and Nicole. This time, with the walk limited to 15 people, Kevin becomes talkative. Akana and Nicole do not feel well-versed enough in some of the tasks the other women would have showed us, so instead of teaching us how to make resin from the spiky spinifex grass (kiti), th ey just tell us about it.

Kiti is used as a hardener on the tips of spears and as a glue to bind together parts of weapons and implements. The trainees also describe how to make piti from bark. It looks like a concave shield and is used for carrying everything from berries to babies.

* Take an alternative tour. Uluru Experience is a small two-year-old operation that focuses on Aboriginal culture and the ecology of the area. It uses vans guided by university-trained naturalists. Because of school holidays, the only one I could take was the Valley of the Winds walk through Kata Tjuta, about 34 miles (55 kilometers) away.

We walked through a lovely, absolutely silent valley between the huge, ochre-colored, puddingstone knobs of Kata Tjuta ("many heads"), then climbed up rock stairs to a great ledge. There we could see the valley stretching out before us. It was magnificent. We rested beside a pool you could actually drink from.

Uluru Experience also has a day-long trip to Kings Canyon, which I'm told is well worth it. There's a late-afternoon trip to Mt. Connor, another little-visited but stunning geological wonder. There, you can have a barbecue on a traditional working cattle station with the jackaroos (ranch hands).

Even Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort) is getting into the act. The week I visited, they had just started "Sounds of Silence," a barbecue under the stars with grilled emu, kangaroo, and buffalo, plus a visit by an astronomer and a few moments of silence to hear desert sounds. Sometimes, they say, you can hear dingos howling.

Simon McGrath, the manager of Desert Gardens, one of the four hotels at the Ayers Rock Resort that house all the tourists, says that the resort is in the "unenviable position" of trying to change the perception that climbing Uluru is all there is to do there.

"I think world tourism is definitely changing, especially with ecotourism," he says. "People are more interested in the behind-the-scenes and in the depth of local culture. It's becoming a learning process, rather than a `been there, done that.' The resort is sort of retreating and coming more in line with what the park is doing."

Cultural habits die hard, however. All the baseball caps in the resort shop say "I climbed Ayers Rock."

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