Australia: Ayers Rock
by Charles Barnard

Almost 300 miles southwest of Alice, a large mountain of solid stone lies three-quarters buried in the flat, red desert. It is 3.6 kilometers long, 2.4 kilometers wide, 8.8 kilometers around at its base, and 348 meters high (1,100 feet, about the same as the Empire State building). Invariably called the "world's largest monolith," it looks like a monstrous lump of bread dough which has risen overnight. Although it is often spoofed, one wonders what the Australian travel business would do without images of Ayers Rock (photographed from all angles and in all lights) on brochures and posters. Worse, what if the monster stoneberg were to sink back into its pre-Cambrian origins? Would tourists then have any reason to come to Alice Springs? This giant geological anomaly was discovered by a European explorer only a little more than a century ago, but it has been sacred to Aboriginals for thousands of years. It has become one of the most curious tourist attractions in the world. Consider: Ayers Rock is not the focus of a sound & light show; it boasts no waterfalls, doesn't have a restaurant, offers no concerts, spouts no steam and sells no T-shirts — it simply sits there — yet this great thing attracts up to 200,000 visitors a year, many of whom arrive by air via 45-minute flights from Alice.

The first time I saw the Rock, nearly 20 years ago, there were two or three plywood-and-tarpaper "motels" within a mile or so of its base. They were adequate for an overnight stay — and that was all one needed. You looked up at the monolith in awe, took a walk around part of its perimeter and moved on. Even as late as 1946, some visitors were traveling from Alice to the Rock in camel caravans.

Now all is changed, dramatically. Twenty kilometers from this great earth-wart, a resort has been built (yes, a swimming pool-tennis courts-fancy dining-kind of resort) with a capacity to accommodate 5,000 guests in two hotels, a lodge and a campground. Yulara Resort is a permanent-staff community of 550 persons; it is self-sufficient in water, electric power, sewage, fire and police services, medical care, and rescue capability. It has green lawns and 120,000 trees, shrubs and flowering bushes. It makes a stopover of two or three days in the desert both comfortable and feasible; regrettably, the typical visitor still stays only one night.

The usual routine is to arrive around mid-day, check in, have lunch, then board a tour bus for an excursion to the Olgas. These are a jumble of 39 dramatic red-rock mountains which resemble a herd of elephants seen from the rear. Like Ayers (which is within sight, 28 kilometers distant), the Olgas are sacred to the native people of the region. Although higher and larger in mass than the Rock itself, they are but an overture to the main event of the afternoon — stopping at a parking area called Sunset Strip to watch the last light of day paint Ayers with an evanescent display of rapidly changing colors.

The day I was there, 15 busses arrived ten minutes in advance of the 6:05 p.m. sunset. By 6:15, all were moving out again in a great cloud of red dust. Twenty minutes, zip-zap. That's what's wrong with group touring.

Visitors to the Rock have to make one personal decision before the next morning at Yulara: Will I climb Ayers or not? The question hangs in the air from the moment one arrives. Postcard racks at the hotels are heavy with comic-cartoon cards which announce, "I climbed Ayers Rock." Those who have no stomach for such activity can say they have visited "Chicken Rock." Actually, the question of whether to try for the top is no joke. About 200 people a day get up before dawn to make an attempt; half may reach the summit along a prescribed route by 11 a.m. Once there (I discovered), the view is, well, a view. . . of nothing much but a flat, featureless desert and the nearby Olgas. The sense of personal triumph, however, is considerable. Ayers, I can testify, is not easy to climb. Until 1946 (when a heavy chain was attached to the mountain to assist climbers) only 24 people had made it. Since then, nineteen have lost their lives trying.


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