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Out of all the places in the world to celebrate a birthday, my partner David chooses Uluru – the massive sandstone formation in central Australia known to many as Ayers Rock. And out of all the ways to experience this sacred pilgrimage site of the Anangu Aboriginal people, we go on a sunrise run.

The beautifully maintained Uluru Base Walk weaves around the monolith’s base, shaded in places, exposed to the burning sun in others. Right away I’m zinged by moisture-obsessed black flies (“They’re not so bad this time of year,” local after local says stoically. Remind me not to visit another time of year.).

The author on the run around Uluru (Photograph by David Kennedy)

The author on the run around Uluru (Photograph by David Kennedy)

We begin our run at the mouth of the tiny, unmarked “owl cave” near the Mala parking lot in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. I think back to the tour we had taken the day before with two Aboriginal women, Happy and Sara, who had led us through the “off-limits” fence to this unremarkable, crouch-size entrance and pointed inside.

Kneeling, I spied a foot-tall stone owl on a ledge, looking very much like a live one. Though Happy and Sara couldn’t share with us the sacred songline (the Aboriginal creation story) behind it, the fact that they even showed it to us was moving enough. Uluru is full of such sacred sites.

Pressing onward as the Rock emerges out of the darkness in earthly hues of brick and burnt umber, we make our way clockwise around the base, passing through pockets of acacia woodlands and hugging the contours of dried-up streams. I spot several dark pockmarks on one wall that (according to an interpretive sign) the Aborigines believe were made by a mole in search of water. I can understand the impulse as the sun climbs higher into the sky.

Farther along, a deep gash cuts through the Rock’s face which, according to another sign, was created by fire and plays a central role in an ancient parable about how to treat strangers.

I see plenty more unmarked caves, crevices, and pinnacles along the way that I know must signify something to the Aborigines. But I will have to remain content with the beauty of the place, the hallowed sense it emanates, and the joy of an early morning birthday run — as long as I can outpace the flies.

Run Stats:

Mileage: 10.4 kilometers (6.5 miles)
Best time: Early morning, before it gets too hot. To avoid the flies, visit in the Australian winter (June-August).
Start: Mala parking lot inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Note that there’s a A$25 per person entrance fee for a three-day pass (as of 2013).
End: Mala parking lot

The Route: 

– From Mala parking lot, follow signs for the Uluru Base Walk
– It’s your choice to head clockwise or counterclockwise; I prefer clockwise because the trail edges slightly away from the Rock at first, yielding broader views. From the backside on, you get to snuggle up next to it for a closer look.

Important Things to Note:

– The climate is dry and extremely hot; In summer (December-February) the temperature can exceed 40° C (106° F). Be sure to bring water. It’s not advisable to run (or even walk) at the height of the day. In fact, if it’s too hot, the trail is closed.
– It’s disrespectful to climb on Uluru itself, but it’s perfectly acceptable to run — or walk, or bike — around its base.

Barbara A. Noe is senior editor of National Geographic Travel Books.