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 visiting Australia seem to want to do is visit the Great Barrier Reef and then fly to Australia's center for a day to "do" the rock. "White ants" are what the Aborigines call them.
This is the typical tourist approach: 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, hauling 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.
Increasingly, though, Aborigines, naturalists, park rangers (Ayers Rock, together with the nearby rock formations known as the Olgas, is part of Uluru Aboriginal National Park) and even tour guides are trying to encourage visitors to experience Uluru--the Aboriginal name for the rock--in a different way. Go around, not up, they say. 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.
The 5 1/2-mile hike around the rock should take two hours at the most. Along the way, you'll pass a number of sacred sites (fenced off and not to be photographed but there for the looking), as well as Mutijutu, formerly Maggie's Spring, a wonderfully cool pool with a welcome shaded bench. From this vantage point, you will also see that 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.
Another alternative is to walk with rangers. The Mala Walk, a free interpretive walk that highlights Aboriginal culture, begins each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m. at the base of the rock. Our ranger-guide, Julian Berry, tells us that the traditional owners of the rock 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. Although Berry is not an Aborigine, 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, of course, 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 also explains to 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 in the form of animals, humans or plants. Evidence of their visits can be seen in the sacred sites.
The ranger also shows us caves with rock paintings, 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.
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 an untraveled route. He fell and injured himself. It took 14 hours to rescue him.
One member of our walk group, Peter Shands, who has brought his family across country to see the rock, appreciates the rangers' presentation. "This has changed my perspective on walking up the rock," he says. "It went from being something necessary to something not good." Not enough people know the Aborigines don't like it, he adds.
There are alternatives to the ranger-led tours. 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 (the Aboriginal name for the Olgas), about 34 miles away from Ayers Rock. This led us through a lovely, absolutely silent valley between the huge, ocher-colored, puddingstone knobs of Kata Tjuta ("many heads"), and then 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 so pure you could drink from it.
Even Yulara, the Ayers Rock Resort complex, is getting into the alternative act. The week I visited, they had begun "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 dingoes howling.