The Rock

It is one of the great icons of nature, the navel of a continent. It is also the centre of a global industry with its own hotels and airport. As geological features go, it has immense raw talent. And like all places of significance, Ayers Rock has a side no one wants to see

Just outside the village of Bentham in Yorkshire there is a large rock - a rough mass some 12 feet high and deeply seamed, like a lump of Plasticine hastily balled-up and left abandoned on the moors. It is a tourist sight, this rock. We know it must be because a photograph of it features on the cover of the Bentham Tourist Information Centre leaflet, taking precedence over pictures of Bentham Golf Course or the view of Main Street or a sunlit bend of the local river. It is, you can't help feeling, a brave attempt to muster a distinguishing landmark. But on the international scale of monolith celebrity, this object barely registers. Just enough people visit it to keep a faint path marked out through the moor and, once there, they do what people do with big, isolated lumps of rock. They walk round it, scratch their initials on its flanks, or climb it to look down on the tussocky ordinariness it interrupts - in this case, by a set of small steps chipped into the stone. Its gravitational pull is pretty meagre, to be honest - strong enough to overcome the inertia of an empty afternoon, perhaps, or to pin down the untethered end of a Sunday walk - but the stone's sphere of influence is strictly limited.

Imagine it 100 times higher, though, and one and a half miles in length. Then take away the scenic competition - the ledged shoulder of Ingleborough in the distance and the rise and fall of the fells around it. Set it, massive and inexplicably detached, in a sea of sand and scrub, and you may well find that it needs an airport all of its own to process its pilgrims. We know this, too, because geology has performed the experiment already in the Northern Territory of Australia, the location of the world's best- selling monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru if you wish to be correct), an international superstar beside Bentham's modest pebble.

The difference between these two stones isn't simply one of quantity. Bentham's big stone is probably a glacial erratic, part of the geological litter left by the last ice age; Australia's is what geologists call an inselberg, its famous profile only the protruding tip of a vast upended plate of arkosic sandstone embedded in the desert. Bentham's rock offers no light effects to compare with Uluru's rosy glow, that rusty weathering which plays variations with sunrise and sunset for the benefit of a marshalled audience of tourists, whose massed coaches bring a little bit of Watford Gap to the Australian outback. But they have things in common too. Both are marked by the signs of human adoption, whether it is a crude flight of steps or the faint trail up one flank of Uluru, polished by countless trainers. Both also have stories snagged around their bulk - Uluru's net of Aboriginal tales and a kind of Celtic Dreaming in the case of the Bentham stone, involving a nasty stone-throwing incident between Irish and Cumbrian giants.

Above all, they both have a kinship in sticking out of the landscape, and that very distant cousinship prompts the question of whether Uluru's appeal isn't simply an enormously magnified version of the idle curiosity and speculation that play around any anomaly - perhaps Aboriginal reverence and mass tourism are not irreconcilable opposites, just different expressions of the same shared human instinct.

Uluru had to wait patiently for its global celebrity. Sure, it played big locally for several thousand years, if we're to believe the respectful recountings of tribal lore offered by the guides who administer the touristic sacraments. But even then there are grounds for doubts about the range of its fame. CP Mountford, one of the early authorities of the rock, made an ethnological visit shortly before the Second World War, hoping to fix the skein of Aboriginal stories told about the site. He had some difficulty in finding a reliable guide: a man from Ernabella, a mission station a little over 100 miles from Uluru, was proposed for the job but turned out never to have visited the place. And even when Mountford found a local, the tales he gathered turned out to be less than reliable, bent out of true by the need to conceal and the desire to please.

The raw talent of the thing itself was there from the very beginning, of course: "The most wonderful natural feature I have ever seen," wrote William Christie Gosse, the first white man to get close to it, and those who followed him echoed his marvelling - their awe amplified by a kind of gulping relief at finally having something on which they could fix their vision, after that apparently endless monotony of dunes and spinifex. But it took canny management to recognise its mass-market potential, that this was an object that could cross over from exploration to tourism. Len Tuitt, who covered what may have been the most extended postal route in history - from Darwin to Alice Springs - saw the possibilities of taking tourists to the rock just after the war, but the state tourism agency didn't share his vision. Who, after all, would travel two days in considerable discomfort to look at a big rock? Only those, surely, for whom the discomfort was the point and the rock simply a way of setting some limit to it, of having a rewarding point at which to say "enough".

But Tuitt was right in his intuition and slow advances by road, painstakingly pushed through the sand dunes with a grader, coincided with the beginning of an airborne invasion from Alice Springs. Eddie Connellan, a local flyer, first landed next to the rock in 1938, began regular services 20 years later and was a guest of honour when the airport named after him (and constructed with private funds) was opened in 1962. This was the true end of the rock's isolation, the end of its brief life as a fabled curiosity and the beginning of its career as a national navel stone - in its way as carefully engineered a cultural construct as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

In his book about Uluru, The Rock, Barry Hill quotes the reactions of one of the last men to visit

it before its most recent metamorphosis. Arthur Groom went the hard way - cross-country by camel and, when he finally reached the rock, he recorded his sentiments, as all travellers did: "I felt like an ant at the door of a cathedral," he wrote. That struck a note of religiose humility which was to be repeated countless times, whether in the formal speeches of politicians ("It is part of the spiritual heart of Australia," said the Governor-General when he handed the rock back to its native owners in 1985) or in the piety of tourists who choose not to climb on what they accept as Aboriginal sacred ground, and who can carry off a souvenir T- shirt ("I didn't climb Ayers Rock") to mark their sacrifice to the gods of uneasy white conscience.

There's no particular grounds to doubt Groom's sincerity, but it's hard not to wonder whether there might also have been a thin fibre of disappointment, stuck there in the teeth of his achievement. Did it fully meet those huge expectations? Or did he wonder what to do with his pent-up anticipation once he was there?

These days, of course, the visitor has already been countless times already, by means of that vast profusion of virtually identical photographs - so many now that they would probably form a pile as large as the rock itself. And where the pioneers strained to catch their first glimpse of this fabled spot, tourists may find themselves straining not to see it too soon, from an angle or a distance that won't match the mental template. Because the rock does have a wrong angle, or rather an invisible one. Like a famous screen actress with photo approval, it is almost always photographed from the same side, where the light falls most flatteringly and its features are most nearly symmetrical.

And this is one key to its cultural triumph over its closest rival, the nearby formation called Kata Tjuta or the Olgas - an astonishing congregation of vast monolithic humps, which rise out of the desert like a child's drawing of mountains, plumply curved and featureless.

"Mount Olga is the more wonderful and grotesque," wrote Ernest Giles, the second white man to reach the spot, "Mount Ayers the more ancient and sublime." He was right - Uluru's simplicity of line and its setting on a clean horizon give it an architectural quality, a sense of enigmatic, consciously shaped presence which the Olgas will never have. Uluru looks like an altar stone for some forgotten celebration, an answer to the human need for a handhold in the midst of vacancy. As an anchoring point it is unsurpassable, whether it is a cartographer's triangulated net of measurements you want to fix, or a mythology of creation, or a seven-night Red Centre coach trip.

Sublimity can be a problematic product for the modern tourist, though. I overheard a bored flock of American travellers gathered round the pool at the Sails in the Desert Hotel, a discordant echo of the pink galahs which range themselves along the canopies to drink from this chlorinated oasis: "We've done the sunset, the sunrise and the camel ride," said a New York matron. "All I want to know now is how to get out of this place."

It was a whine of claustrophobia in a place that is an agoraphobic's nightmare - but it wasn't entirely preposterous. The Ayers Rock Resort (brand recognition takes precedence over cultural deference when it comes to commerce) exists only because of the rock - and yet the rock is impervious to the average tourist's demand for novelty. What it does best is doing nothing at all - for all the faintly strained ballyhoo about colour changes and sunrise viewings.

Launching a new marketing push in Australia last month, the resort management acknowledged the problem - "`Hot, dry and dusty, with nothing to do but climb the rock and go home' is the general perception of Ayers Rock Resort", conceded the first line of their pitch. They have some cause to be anxious because visits to the Northern Territory have been declining in recent years. Uluru itself may buck the trend - at the last count over half a million people visit every year - but if it doesn't it won't be for want of effort on the part of the resort management, who have now identified a "mind, body and spirit" strategy to appeal to new customers. Climb the rock, learn about its associated myths and then commune with its immemorial mysteries, champagne glass in one hand to kick-start your enervated powers of primitive awe. It is a strategy in which the demands of modern tourism and ancient reverence begin to approach each other, assisted by the supermarket- trolley belief systems of New Age questers.

Uluru provides one answer to the conundrum of how you "do" the void - that vast, indifferent mass proving equally responsive to almost any urge visited against it, from Aboriginal dreaming to the modern songlines of international tourism. If you can't get to Australia though, try Bentham, because however modest its version of monolithic pleasures, they are essentially the same.

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