Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Long separated from other land masses, Australia preserves an unmatched diversity of life throughout a vast outback. Think eucalypt woodlands and plains carpeted with wildflowers. Picture glacier-carved ranges enclosing sparkling mountain lakes. Imagine lush tropical forests edged by white-sand beaches and the largest system of coral reefs on Earth. For modern-day treasure seekers, the Australian outback offers an immeasurable wealth of the world's strangest and most prolific assemblies of plants and animals.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

Uluru (Ayers Rock) is a national icon with an enduring mystique that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Those who make the pilgrimage to see the Rock, and its lesser-known but equally spectacular counterpart Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), enter a starkly beautiful world of ancient landforms, brilliant blue skies, blood-red sands, diverse wildlife and 30,000 years of Aboriginal culture.

The World Heritage-listed park encompasses 511 square miles of the continent's bone-dry heart and is managed jointly by its traditional owners, the Anangu Aboriginal people, and Environment Australia. This is a region of extremes where rainfall is erratic, droughts can last for several years, and temperatures fluctuate between several degrees below freezing on winter nights and more than 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) on many summer days. Evolution has borne these climatic vagaries well: diversity abounds, together with examples of remarkable adaptation. The park is home to some 566 species of plants, 178 birds, 72 reptiles, 24 native mammals, and six introduced species, including the camel, the ship of the desert that opened up so much of inland Australia.

Rising 1,141 feet above the shimmering plain and with a circumference of 5.8 miles is the ancient weather-scarred bulk of Uluru. This enormous monolith is the visible tip of a huge slab of rock that extends far beneath the ground, possibly as far as 3.7 miles.

An appreciation of Anangu culture encourages visitors to reassess that long-prized Uluru experience, the Climb. For both spiritual and safety reasons, the Anangu would prefer that visitors didn't scale the rock. The marked trail to the top follows a sacred route taken by ancestral Mala men during the Tjukurpa. It is also steep and strenuous, and a number of people have died attempting it.

A more profitable and respectful way to investigate Uluru is to explore the many trails around its base. Guides unlock many of the mysteries of the bush, demonstrating the collection and preparation of foods and medicines, the making of tools and implements, and aspects of the Tjukurpa. The complete circuit, known as the Base Walk, is an easy amble, taking at least three hours.

The main trail continues past thickets where birds such as crested pigeons, black-faced cuckoo-shrikes, and little wood swallows flit through the treetops. Sharp-eyed observers may see a nocturnal frogmouth roosting on a limb, its mottled plumage blending perfectly with the rough, eucalypt bark. At Kantju Gorge, one of the few reliable water holes around Uluru, look for the large tadpoles of the water-holding frog, which survives long dry spells by entombing itself in a watertight cocoon made from its own shed skin. Along the northern, drier side of Uluru, the vegetation is sparser and the caves more abundant. Those just above ground level are frequented by hill kangaroos.

Continued in: Australia's Top Tourism Treasures - Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park & MacDonnell Ranges

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