One single piece of sandstone, formed millennia ago from sediments laid down when central Australia was part of the great inland sea. Pressed, and pressed, and pressed; then, with a shift in the earth’s crust, tipped on her side and thrust upward until her nose peeked out of the soil, a giant tunneling mole just breaking the surface, extending 6.5 km below the surface. Uluru. Ayer’s Rock.

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From a distance, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of the rock. The landscape doesn’t give the eye many clues. The horizon is flat, so there’s nothing further away to compare it to. The trees are short and scrubby; not too good for measuring and estimating against. We trick ourselves into thinking it must be much further away and smaller than it really is. Then, you turn off of the main road and, all of a sudden, BAM! The rock is right underfoot; towering over us like the monolith she is.

340 meters of one, single, solid rock, dwarfing everything in the vicinity.

The most popular time to visit Uluru, very close to the geographical center of Australia, is in winter, between July and September; when the weather is coolest. We arrived in mid-October, mid-spring. The weather was already unbearably hot. 39-42C, 100-104F. Hot.

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Here are some tips for making the most of your visit:

Stay at the Ayers Rock Resort

There are not a lot of places to stay near Uluru. If, like us, you’re traveling on a serious budget it’s going to be tempting to take advantage of the free camping at Curtain Springs Station, about an hour from the rock. Two words: Don’t do it.

This is one time when paying the money to stay at the Ayers Rock Resort is worth the money. There are a range of accommodations here, from self catering cottages and apartments to four star hotels, to the campground and cabins. All of the lodging segments have swimming pools. The little “downtown” area at the center of the resort has a reasonably priced and well stocked grocery store, shops, post office, restaurants and everything you might need to make your stay more comfortable. There’s even a free shuttle bus service around the resort. Wifi is available in several places and it’s surprisingly fast for being in the middle of the Outback! There is a wide range of free activities from Aboriginal dancing and tool making, to boomerang and spear throwing lessons to be had during the middle of the day as well.

If you’re wanting to maximize the time you have in the parks, then Ayer’s Rock Resort is the best place to stay.

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Seeing sunrise

Plan to get up at least an hour and a half before sunrise, eat breakfast bars in the car and get going quickly. There will be a queue at the entrance of the park, as sunrise is a coveted moment for visitors. The best point to view sunrise from is all the way around the far side of Uluru, so you need to give yourself forty minutes to work your way around, find parking and make the short hike to the viewing platform. If you have kids, you won’t want to rush, so take extra time. If you want to streamline your morning experience, head into the park the evening you arrive and get your tickets ($25 AU per adult, over 16). The tickets are good for three consecutive days and, if you’ve got them in hand, all you have to do in the early morning darkness is flash them at the ranger through the window.

Plan for the heat

I really cannot overstate the heat, even in the shoulder seasons. You’ll have a few hours each morning and an hour or so at twilight where it’s bearable to be out hiking or doing strenuous activities, but the middle part of the day is scorching. You’ll need sunscreen and lots of it. Hats are a must. Signs recommend drinking at least a liter of water per person per hour. Dehydration is a very real danger and older people, as well as younger children will be at higher risk. One more reason to stay at the Ayers Rock Resort: swimming pools.

Hiking Uluru

The park administration, a shared responsibility between the local Aboriginal caretakers and the Australian National Parks Service, is in the process of phasing out climbing on Uluru. At the time of publication, climbing is technically still allowed, but they are asking visitors to please respect Aboriginal wishes and choose, voluntarily, not to climb the rock. The climb will be closed if temperatures over 35C are expected, or if inclement weather is expected. The Uluru climb is quite dangerous and there have been 35 people killed and numerous injured in the attempt. Be advised that the park rangers cannot rescue you if you have an emergency on the rock and the climb is entirely at your own risk. If rescue is required it means a helicopter airlift crew from Alice Springs and response time is a minimum of six hours.

While climbing is discouraged, the Aboriginal caretakers invite visitors to hike the 10.6 km loop around Uluru to experience the grandeur of the rock and gain an appreciation for her place in the history and culture of the people who have inhabited this part of the world for over 30,000 years. It’s best to take this hike early in the morning, right after sunrise, ideally; before the temperatures rise and the flies become unbearable. There are two toilet and water stations on the route, but it’s important to carry enough water to combat dehydration, even very early in the day. The path will be closed by 11 a.m. on days when the heat index is high.

If you’re not up for the big walk all the way around the base, take the ranger guided Mala Walk, offered from the Mala Carpark at 8:30 a.m. each morning. This is very, very worth your time. You’ll hear stories, history and cultural information about the Aboriginal people who lived here for thousands of years as well as the arrival of outsiders. A highlight, for us, was the cave paintings, 10,000 years old. This walk is suitable even for very small children.

I know what you’re thinking: Uluru is a long way from anything, and it’s just a big rock…. True, but don’t listen to the folks who tell you there’s nothing out there, take the time to make a pilgrimage to the big rock; it’s an adventure you’ll never forget.