An aerial view of Kata Tjuta.

An aerial view of Kata Tjuta. Photo: Tourism NT

Louise Southerden embraces Uluru - huge, popular, complex and often misunderstood.

The first time you see Uluru, it's unmistakable. There it is, the famous shape rising out of a landscape dotted with desert oaks like an Aboriginal painting. When you land, the rock stays with you, shadowing the shuttle bus from the airport to Yulara, the resort town that is the gateway to the national park.

We couldn't see Uluru from our hotel but it made an appearance at the outdoor dinner we joined that first night, teasing us from the horizon as it changed colour with the setting sun. It was more beautiful than the pictures I'd seen of it but I almost expected that it would be.

What I didn't expect was a realisation that crept up on me during my stay in the Red Centre, something that didn't dawn until I was on my way home: although Uluru is one of the world's most recognisable destinations, attracting up to 350,000 visitors a year, it confounds your expectations.

The myths and misconceptions surrounding it play their part in attracting people, of course, especially those looking for the beating desert heart of Australia. But they can keep others away, by fooling us into thinking there's nothing to the Red Centre but a large rock and a lot of red dust. I resisted going to Uluru for a long time, thinking it would be touristy, overrun with people, overrated. I was wrong.

Myth: The rock is just a rock

Possibly the biggest misconception about Uluru, and the simplest one to correct once you get here, is that it is just a rock in the desert. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Anangu people, who have had a connection to this landscape for tens of thousands of years, have a complex system of cultural beliefs and laws, called tjukurpa, governing their relationship with Uluru, which sets it apart for a start.

Then there's the landform itself, which is, physically and geologically, deeply impressive. It's quite simply enormous, especially when you're standing next to it, craning your neck to see where the red walls meet the blue sky.

Close up, Uluru's rounded haunches, so distinctive from afar, become complicated by caves, dimples, honeycombing, overhangs and high-walled canyons you can actually walk into; I never expected being able to walk into Uluru but at Mutitjulu Waterhole, that's exactly what we did. It's so big it supports thriving permanent populations of feral cats and rabbits.

And I was astounded to discover that Uluru is something of an earthbound iceberg: as well as rising 348 metres above the surrounding landscape, its mass extends six kilometres beneath it.

Myth: Uluru is the Red Centre

Another stubborn misconception is that Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the "many-headed cluster" of rocky domes 40 kilometres to the west, are the only things to see in the Red Centre. Though we flew to Uluru's Ayers Rock Airport direct from Sydney, we spent a week driving back to Alice Springs along the newly sealed, 662-kilometre Red Centre Way, stopping to hike around Kings Canyon and into Standley Chasm (part of the legendary Larapinta Trail) to ride quad-bikes on a working cattle station and to watch wild camels crossing the road in front of our vehicle.

We drove into a meteorite crater named Gosse Bluff - created by the impact of an asteroid 142 million years ago - and bumped along dry river beds to remote and seldom-visited rock art sites at Roma Gorge. Best of all, we had a chance to talk to old-timers like Mavis and Hermann Malbunka at the Aboriginal community of Ipolera. They invited us to stay a night on their land, where we cooked up an outback barbecue, toasted marshmallows over a campfire and slept in swags under the stars.

Another related misconception is that on the most direct route from Alice Springs to Uluru, which is five hours by car, there's nothing to see on the way. It may depend on your definition of nothing or perhaps "seeing" requires tuning in to subtle variations that make the journey interesting. I find plenty to see: rocky outcrops and roadhouses, undulations and ungulates (the roadside camels) and, above all else, the simple spaciousness of a landscape that refreshes the spirit like an outback ocean.

Myth: It's tourist central

You won't find Uluru snow globes or T-shirts that declare "I climbed the Rock and survived" at the cultural centre at the base of the rock. In fact, you might not even find the cultural centre. It's so low-key and its rammed-earth walls and thatched roof blend with the surroundings. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, as with other significant parks such as Kakadu, is jointly managed by the traditional owners and the Federal Government's Parks Australia, so its tourist facilities are designed to ensure that Uluru and Kata Tjuta take centre stage.

Sunrise is, of course, one of the main events at Uluru and it's not surprising that the sunrise viewing area is a popular spot at that time of day, to put it mildly. Up to 2000 visitors arrive for the dawn light show each morning but it does not feel crowded when I am here. Despite the number of people standing around, cameras at the ready, it feels peaceful, even respectful.

This is partly because the viewing area is far enough away from the rock that everyone gets a front-row seat, so to speak (BYO folding chairs). A new viewing area, currently under construction and featuring raised walkways and interpretative signs, promises to spread the crowds even more. Its design and new location will also allow more of Uluru to be seen throughout the day, not just at sunrise. And in a landscape this big, it's never hard to find a bit of solitude. You can pull up anywhere along the loop road to watch the sunrise, or stop at the sunset viewing area on the western side of the rock, which is virtually deserted when we drive past, despite the stunning silhouette views.

Myth: Climbing is allowed

Officially, yes, climbing Uluru is still allowed. But more people are heeding the numerous "please do not climb" signs in the area.

Recent figures show only 38 per cent of park visitors climb Uluru each year, roughly half as many as in 1990. The most common reason given by visitors for not climbing is the desire to respect the area's indigenous culture and the wishes of the Anangu. They ask that people do not climb Uluru because of its spiritual significance to them and their sense of responsibility when anyone is injured (or worse) attempting it.

There's also a growing recognition that climbing Uluru misses the point: that it's more rewarding, and humbling, to connect with the rock, its people and their culture from ground level. Last year the park started implementing "seasonal closures", closing the climb every day in December, January and February - the hottest months of the year. The rangers close the climb at other times of the year, too: when the temperature is expected to exceed 36 degrees, when the summit is too windy or cloudy, when there's a chance of an electrical storm, after rain (the rock gets slippery when wet), during rescue operations and for cultural reasons, which seems to be their unofficial, off-the-record way of deterring would-be climbers.

It might be only a matter of time before climbing Uluru is banned altogether, as it is at Kata Tjuta, which is higher than Uluru. Kata Tjuta, too, is sacred to the Anangu.

Myth: The Red Centre is red

In fact, the rocks in this part of the world are grey-blue. The feldspar-rich sandstone of Uluru and Kata Tjuta turns red only when iron in the surface layers oxidises on contact with the air. At sunset the rocks look even redder because of light refraction - light travels through more atmosphere when the sun is low in the sky than when it's high. This thicker atmospheric layer bends blue light in the spectrum out of the way, leaving more red light, which intensifies the colour of Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon and other scenic spots.

After rain, the rocks can appear silver, while the surrounding country can be positively green - there's no wet or dry season in central Australia. Rain can fall any time and Uluru is quite the precipitation magnet, which explains the many waterholes at its base. And in spring, the desert landscape can transform into a multi-coloured carpet of wildflowers.

Myth: It's too hot to handle

Extreme heat is no myth in summer, when temperatures can soar to 48 degrees, but there are ways to beat the heat. To encourage visitors to see Uluru early in the day when it's cooler, the park gates open at 5am in summer (6am or 6.30am in winter). The cultural centre opens at 7am and free ranger-guided walks start at 8am in summer (10am in winter).

It can also get surprisingly cold. It's 4 degrees the night we sleep out in swags, in August. Longitude 131, the luxury resort with Uluru views, provides its guests with woollen ponchos, which are essential in winter.

"When guests first see these ponchos in their rooms during the day, they can't imagine they're going to need them," says Voyages public relations manager Louise Longman. "But they soon change their minds when they dine out under the stars at Table 131. It's quite magical to see everyone all bundled up at candle-lit tables in the middle of the desert."

For the record, it has even snowed on Uluru, most recently in July 1997.

Myth: It's expensive

This is probably the most persistent misconception about Uluru and it's understandable. The remoteness of the Red Centre means that supplies have to be flown or trucked in, which increases the price of everything from a loaf of bread to a tank of fuel; and the township of Yulara is run by Voyages, a company best known for its high-end resorts.

What's not widely known is that a condition of the privatisation of the Yulara complex in 1997 was that it catered for travellers on a range of budgets.

So, in addition to Longitude 131 (two nights from $3204) and Sails in the Desert (rooms from $460), there is a camping ground, backpacker accommodation and self-catering apartments. There's also a supermarket, a free shuttle bus around Yulara and free guided walks at Uluru. Once you've paid the park entry fee, there's no extra charge to visit Uluru and its cultural centre, to take in the sunrise or sunset, to walk unescorted, or even to ride a bike around the rock.

Whatever misconceptions exist, they're dwarfed by the immensity of Uluru itself, the expansive beauty of the landscape, the ancientness of Anangu culture and the way the park is managed to make this important site accessible to everyone. And when you finally arrive and you feel the desert heat on your skin and stand under a vast outback sky looking at the places you've heard about all your life, you'll probably kick yourself, as I did, that you didn't get here sooner.

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas flies direct to Uluru from Sydney for $204 (one way, including tax); Melbourne passengers change aircraft in Alice Springs and pay the same fare. Other airlines have fares to Alice Springs and you would buy a fare to Uluru on QantasLink. Park entry costs $25 a person for three consecutive days; children under 16 are admitted free. An annual pass costs $32.50 a person. Uluru is 462 kilometres from Alice Springs. Drive south along the Stuart Highway, then turn right at the Lasseter Highway, which heads due west to Uluru.

Staying there

Voyages has five hotels in Yulara, for varying budgets: Sails in the Desert Hotel, Desert Gardens Hotel, Emu Walk Apartments, Lost Camel Hotel and Outback Pioneer and YHA Lodge. Until April 30, Voyages has a special for $1070 a family, for three nights at the Outback Pioneer Hotel with breakfast and dinner daily and a $50 activity voucher; see ayersrockresort.com.au. A two-night package for two people in a luxury safari tent at Longitude 131, including meals, drinks and tours, costs from $3960. See longitude131.com.au.

Kings Canyon Wilderness Lodge, about 300 kilometres from Uluru on the Red Centre Way, has luxury safari tents in the bush from $250 a person a night; see aptouring.com.au.

Curtin Springs Wayside Inn and Cattle Station, 105 kilometres east of Uluru on the Lasseter Highway, has budget rooms from $65 a person a night, ensuite rooms from $140 a room and free camping. See curtinsprings.com.

Touring there

Territory Discoveries has a Red Centre Pass, allowing travellers to create their own self-drive itinerary from 16 experiences featuring the best of the Red Centre. A six-day driving holiday costs from $999 a person, including five nights' accommodation, car hire, a scenic helicopter flight and a guided Uluru base walk. See territorydiscoveries.com or phone 133 843. For more information, see travelnt.com and environment.gov.au/parks/uluru/index.html.