AYERS ROCK IS LIKE an inverse Grand Canyon. Instead of a giant chasm, the near-six-mile-circumference, 1,115-foot-high, 300- to 400-million-year-old arkose sandstone monolith sticks out of the surrounding outback like a giant mood ring. Clashing perceptions of Australia's iconic symbol are a good measure of the outback's politically charged temperament. In the eighties, the Australian government returned 327,578-acre Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the local Anangu Aboriginals, who changed the rock's name back to Uluru. Then they leased the parkland back to the government, giving the 400,000 annual tourists continued access to the steep, mile-long hiking trail that trespasses a sacred Aboriginal site en route to the top.
But just "because it's there" doesn't mean you have to summit. In fact, dodge a karmic bullet by circumnavigating Uluru instead. On a perfect late-September day, I cycled the six-mile-plus ribbon of pavement around Uluru. Sure enough, as the sun sank, this massive shade-shifter absorbed the universe. Lap one was brilliant yellow. Lap two was bright orange. Lap three was deep purple. By that last lap, it was evident that Uluru was in an ebullient moodand so was I.
Stay nearby at Longitude 131°, a luxe tented camp (US$690 per person, all-inclusive, based on double occupancy; 011-61-2-8296-8010, www.longitude131.com.au). Ayers Rock Campground offers mountain-bike rentals for US$23 per day (011-61-8-8957-7001, www.ayersrockresort.com.au/arrcamp).