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Australia // A CLIMB OF EPIC PROPORTIONS

Visit this mega-famous monolith in the Aussie outback and you really find yourself between the Rock and a hard place:

To climb or not to climb? That is the question.

"It's a personal decision," people who have been to Ayers Rock tell you mysteriously. The veterans often prefer the aboriginal name Uluru (oo-loo-roo) to Ayers Rock and use words such as mystical and spiritual when talking about it.

Some in-flight reading _ you have more than 14 hours to kill _ reveals it's against aboriginal spiritual beliefs to climb Uluru. Many sites around the Rock and nearby Kata Tjuta (also called Mount Olga) are sacred for Aborigines. "We are sad to see people swarming over the tracks of our ancestors simply to get to the top," reads one brochure.

But from the moment you arrive and hear fellow tourists' survival stories and post-climb tips ("Walk down backward _ it saves your knees"), it's clear that's why many people have traveled all this way: to be able to say, "I climbed Ayers Rock."

What's a 1,143-foot-tall rock if you can't conquer it? Visitors have been scaling the thing at least since 1873, when explorer William Christie Gosse named the hulking pebble after Sir Henry Ayers. Between 1931 and 1946, just 22 people were known to have made the trip up. These days, the annual visitor figures approach 300,000 _ though not all make the climb.

Many Uluru tours are geared around the ascent. You can hardly wait to send home postcards with a "me" and an arrow penciled in and pointing to the summit. On the tour-bus trip out to Uluru, "To climb or not to climb?" becomes "Can you climb?"

"It's difficult, I won't lie to you," said AAT Kings guide Lisa on the 6{-hour ride from Alice Springs. "Two weeks ago, a man died after he came back down. He was only 50, and he had a heart attack."

She said she made the steep ascent _ it actually covers about a mile of paths _ but she'll never do it again. She's too terrified.

Half your bus buddies begin backing out. The view from the tour-bus window while driving the 5.8 miles around it will be just fine, they decide. Just as exciting: photographing the Rock at sunset.

The rest are left to struggle with "Should you climb?" when Tim, the AAT Kings driver/guide tells you about the Anangu (arn-ahng-oo). The area's original inhabitants (their name translates to "we people"), the Anangu are the traditional owners of Uluru. After a nine-year legal and political battle, the government handed back the land to the Anangu in 1985. They now lease the park to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.

"The Aborigines ask us to tell you, "Please, don't climb Ayers Rock,' " said Tim over the loudspeaker. "They find it offensive that we come out here to climb it. Some people use that as an excuse not to climb. It's not as though they'll be at the base of the Rock protesting, but you should know it."

You pull Tim aside later at Ayers Rock Resort and ask him just how guilty you might feel about going through with the climb the next morning.

"Look, if Uluru were really that sacred they'd close the park," he said, "but it means too much for them financially."

"That's it," announced Tim, the morning of the climb. "It's straight up _ no stairs, no elevator at the end."

Look up at the swarm of tourists and you can understand why the Anangu call people who climb the Rock minga _ ants.

The first part of the ascent is the steepest and the most difficult. There's a chain (erected in 1969) to hold onto, but that's several yards up from the Rock's base. If you can't make it to the chain, said Tim, you shouldn't be attempting the trip.

It's a lung-aching, calf-cramping climb to Chicken's Point, where many people give up. Five minutes into the ascent a girl in a University of Tennessee sweatshirt clings to a crag and says, "I'm terrified." Her friends talk her down.

Even a fit guy in his 20s is overheard saying, "Well, I don't want to make myself sick," before high-tailing it down the Rock.

Then there are the Chain Pullers. No matter what happens, they won't let go of that chain. It's hand over hand, white knuckles all the way.

Once the chain ends, the climb is easier, unless you give in to vertigo. As you follow the white line across narrow ridges, the wind gusts and you feel as though you'll be dashed onto the desert below _ along with the cameras and hats already collecting there.

Keep your eyes on the white line and don't look down. Keep your eyes on the white line and don't look down.

The scene at the top is high-five heaven. Celebratory pictures are snapped, the view taken in, then it's time to return. You're back to: Keep your eyes on the white line and don't look down.

It's only at the end of the visit, when the tour bus pulls into the park's visitors center, that the thrill of victory vanishes.

"We want all our visitors to learn about our place and to listen to us Anangu," reads a display. "Now a lot of visitors are only looking at the sunset and climbing Uluru. That rock is a really important sacred thing. You shouldn't climb it! Climbing is not a proper part of this place. The proper thing is to really listen."

A new cultural center opened last fall to "teach the minga better." Built to resemble snakes from stories in the Aborigines' mythological past, the center will demonstrate dancing and woodcarving.

"The tourist comes here with the camera taking pictures all over," said Tjamiwa. "What has he got? Another photo to take home, keep part of Uluru. . . The tourists hear a little about this place and a little about that place and they put it all together in one bucket and shake it up. Everything gets broken and mixed up, and when they pour it out in their own country to try to remember they don't know what pieces go together. They should take it home in their hearts.

"Then they'd remember."

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Uluru (Ayers Rock) is in Australia's Red Centre, 280 miles southwest of Alice Springs. Qantas and Ansett Australia offer flights to Yulara, the resort town near Uluru, from such cities as Sydney and Melbourne. It's a 45-minute flight (or a 6{-hour bus ride) from Alice Springs.

When to go: April through October, when the weather is cooler (39 to 70 degrees).

Park pointers: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park takes up 512 square miles. Uluru is 1,143 feet high and 5.8 miles in circumference.

Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), about 20 miles west of Uluru, is a series of 36 rock formations up to 1,791 feet high. More sacred than Uluru, it is more inspiring for many tourists (and you don't have to climb anything).

Entrance to the park is about $10 (Australian). Be sure to check the national park's visitors and cultural centers before deciding on a touring strategy.

Tours: Yulara's visitors center offers information on tours conducted in and around the park. Choose from sunrise or sunset tours, seeing the park on a Harley Davidson motorcycle, sunset barbecues, scenic flights and more. One option: AAT King's Australian Tours, (800) 353-4525.

Rock walks: To experience Uluru as the Anangu wish, purchase The Mala Walk and the Mutitjulu Walk: An Insight into Uluru. The cost is just a few dollars at the park visitors center, and you will hike around the Rock. The walks are designed to show how the landscape tells the Anangu about their ancestors and religion. You see rock art, caves and water holes and read about rituals and ancestral beings. Markings on the Rock come alive with stories.

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