No matter how many times you've seen it on postcards, nothing quite prepares you for the burnished grandeur of the Rock as it first appears on the outback horizon – it will astound even the most jaded traveler. With its remote desert location, deep cultural significance and spectacular natural beauty, Uluru is a pilgrimage well worth the many hundreds of miles it takes to get there.
Uluru rises almost 1150ft from the surrounding pancake-flat desert scrubland, but much like an iceberg it's believed that two-thirds of the Rock lies beneath the sand. Closer inspection reveals a wondrous contoured surface concealing numerous sacred sites of particular significance to Uluru's traditional Aboriginal owners, the Anangu people.
If your first sight of Uluru is during the afternoon, it appears in an ochre-brown color, scored and pitted by dark shadows. As the sun sets, the Rock is first illuminated in burnished orange like a flaming ember before turning into a series of deeper reds and finally fading into charcoal. A performance in reverse, with marginally fewer spectators, is given at dawn.
A few of John's memories…
How incredible to imagine that the Anangu people, the traditional owners of the land, have been around for 30,000 years, passing down oral tradition from parent to child for millennia. If you are fortunate enough to meet a local, ask about tjukurpa, the catch-all term for local laws, stories, customs, relationships, and knowledge that together create the foundation of Anangu society. Herein lies the key to wrapping your head around Uluru, something I only began to do. I wished I'd scheduled an extra day.
While you're there
No journey to this area is complete without a visit to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), a striking group of domed rocks huddled together about 22 miles west of Uluru. A highlight is the 4.5-mile Valley of the Winds walk. Come for sunset – crowds are smaller than at Uluru but the show is equally spectacular.
There's no better way to see Uluru than through the eyes of the traditional owners. These tours, run by Anangu from the Mutitjulu community, give you an insight into the significance of the Rock through ancestral stories, as well as offering practical tips on bush tucker, spear-throwing and fire lighting.
Sounds of Silence
This dinner in the desert is a highlight for many visitors. Waiters serve champagne and canapés on an isolated desert dune while you watch the Uluru sunset to the sounds of a didgeridoo. Then it's an Aussie buffet dinner beneath the southern sky and a stargazing show with the help of a telescope.
Sunset camel ride
While everyone else is parked at the sunset viewing area, climb onto a camel – the imported desert survivors that roam wild in the outback – for a leisurely plod through the dunes and a different view of Uluru.
A worthwhile 186-mile detour from Uluru, the spectacular yawning chasm of Kings Canyon, in Watarrka National Park, is the centerpiece of one of the finest day hikes in the Northern Territory. The 4-mile Kings Canyon Rim Walk skirts the canyon's rim, past a swarm of giant beehive domes and through lush ferns and prehistoric cycads.