There is some debate about which of Uluru (NT) or Mount Augustus (WA) is the biggest rock in the world. The answer depends on how you define ‘rock’ because, geologically speaking, they are very different structures and each of them is the biggest of its kind.
On the one hand, Uluru is a monolith, a single massive rock composed of the same kind of material, isolated from the surrounding plain by erosion to form an ‘inselberg’ (or island mountain). Mount Augustus is an anticline, in which rock layers of different kinds and ages have been folded upwards into an arch-like structure and eroded onto the adjacent slopes and plains.
Whatever its technical definition, it is safe to say that Mount Augustus is impressively big and rightfully one of Australia’s most spectacular natural wonders. Covering nearly 4800 hectares, the mountain is 8km long, 5km wide and rises 715m above the surrounding stony, red Upper Gascoyne sand plains.
Smithy’s Mail Run
Distant more than 1300km from Perth, Mt Augustus is well off the beaten track and getting there is an adventure in itself. The two main access routes are from Carnarvon via Gascoyne Junction (430km) or from Meekatharra via Landor (360km).
Both routes guide modern-day travellers along the wheel ruts of aviation pioneer Charles Kingsford Smith on what is known as ‘Smithy’s Mail Run’. In 1924, fresh from a stint as a pilot for Australia’s first commercial airline, Smithy and his mate Keith Anderson bought a truck and set up business as the Gascoyne Transport Company. One of the contracts they had was the mail run from Carnarvon via the Bangemall goldfields near Mt Augustus to Meekatharra.
Currently, all roads in the region are well-maintained gravel suitable for 2WD vehicles, but conditions change and roads may be closed after rain. If in doubt, seek advice from the local shires on up to date conditions.
Be aware, too, that meagre rainfall and scorching summer temperatures can make the Upper Gascoyne a harsh and inhospitable place, where even native animals can struggle to survive. It is sparsely populated (stations can exceed a million acres) and long distances separate settlements, supplies and services. So, come prepared with ample fuel, water and first aid essentials when venturing into this remote region. The best time to visit is from June to September when desert wildflowers bloom.
An ancient land
The core of Mount Augustus is a bedrock of granite created in the Earth’s firey cauldrons nearly two billion years ago. Over this, an ancient river system deposited sand and gravel which pressure consolidated into sandstone and conglomerate. This in turn was buried beneath younger marine sediments laid down as the bed of a shallow sea.
About 900 million years ago, tectonic movements buckled and tilted these strata into the mountain’s modern template, its north-eastern side steeper than the more gently sloping southwest. Erosive elements have attacked the top-most younger layers to create the surrounding gibber scree and alluvial sand plains. This complex geological history can now be read plainly in the mountain’s colourful scarps and slopes.
A desert oasis
Across the arid plains, the Mount Augustus National Park sprawls for more than 6000 square kilometres, subsuming the mountain, part of Mount Augustus station and the former pastoral leases of Cobra, Walburg, Mount Philip and Dalgety Downs.
This parched landscape is barely relieved by less than 200mm of rainfall a year, mainly concentrated in the cyclone season between December and April. When it rains, the mountain acts as a huge catchment. Water cascades down its flanks to swirl in rock pools around the base, sometimes forming streams that feed the Lyons River along the park’s northern perimeter. Stream flow dries up quickly but the pools remain.
Fed by groundwater beneath the rock, these permanent soaks support a surprisingly rich and diverse array of plants and animals. They are microcosms populated by frogs, toadlets and aquatic insects, which have evolved in isolation from other desert wetlands for thousands of years. In times of drought the soaks are a vital refuge for many larger creatures, like red kangaroos, euros and a host of reptiles that include monitors, water dragons and the 6.5m olive python.
Cattle Pool, on the Lyons River, attracts great numbers of waterbirds such as black cormorants, ibis, heron, swans and a variety of ducks, while the white-barked river gums along its banks teem with blue-winged kookaburras, sacred kingfishers, honeyeaters and corellas. Infertile and infernally dry, the mountain and surrounding plains are sparsely vegetated by shrubland dominated by mulga, gidgee, cassia and eremophila, among which emus and bustards forage and wedge-tailed eagles hunt for small mammals and snakes.
Mount Augustus and its Gascoyne realm lie within the traditional land of the Wajarri Yamatji Aboriginal people, which covers nearly one fifth of Western Australia. They call the mountain ‘Burringurrah’.
In the Dreamtime, Burringurrah was a boy who, breaking tribal law, ran away to escape the rigours of his initiation, only to face the consequent wrath of his tribesmen who speared and clubbed him to death. In Wajarri legend the shape of the mountain is the effigy of the boy lying as he died, prone with his left leg bent up, a broken spear shaft projecting from his right leg.
For over 40,000 years, the Wajarri roamed widely over the land in times of plenty, returning to Burringurrah and its oases in times of drought. Although Goolinee (Cattle Pool) was a favoured camp and meeting place, they were careful to swim in its western end lest they disturb the Dreamtime snake ‘Gujida’, sleeping in the eastern end. Their occupation is evident in the many petroglyphs (rock engravings) and stone artefacts at the Mundee, Ooramboo and Beedoboondu visitor sites within the park.
Today, approximately 10 per cent of the Gascoyne region’s population are Yamaji people, who live mostly in Geraldton and Carnarvon, smaller towns like Gascoyne Junction, and several remote communities. One of these is the Burringurrah Community, 40km south of Mount Augustus, with 200 residents on a 45,000ha reserve that was excised from the Mount James pastoral lease. It has a shop, clinic, police station and school. Ironically, floods in 2011 isolated the community for several weeks.
Francis Thomas Gregory was the first European to reach the mountain, on 3 June 1858, during his epic 107-day journey through the Gascoyne region. He named the peak after his brother and fellow explorer, Augustus Charles Gregory.
In 1866, pioneer drover ET Hooley travelled through the area with a flock of 1945 sheep, heading for the Ashburton River where he intended taking up a pastoral run. Hooley was fortunate to travel in a good season and, while finding water for his stock was an ongoing challenge, feed was relatively plentiful. About mid-way, he camped for several days at Cattle Pool. The route he pioneered later became a stock route, along which thousands of sheep and cattle were moved each year until road transport finally took over in the 1950s.
Mount Augustus Station (including the mountain) was established in 1887 by Samuel James Phillips and John Hughes Phillips. In its early days, the settlement suffered constant attacks by the local Wajarri. On one occasion, the station store was ransacked and a worker was speared. When the property was put up for auction in 1923, it was advertised as encompassing one million acres (4047 square kilometres) and was stocked with 4500 cattle. (In years of good rain, the station could stock more than twice that number.)
In 1989, Mount Augustus and the land immediately surrounding it were voluntarily released from the station lease and, together with part of the adjoining Cobra Station (totaling 9168ha), formed the nucleus of the national park for conservation.
Mount Augustus Outback Tourist Park
There is no camping in the park. However, campsites and other accommodation are available at the nearby Mount Augustus Outback Tourist Park, a private facility operated by the Hammarquist family, owners of Mount Augustus Station. Set among the alluvial plains and arid shrubland, the Tourist Park adjoins the homestead precinct, a little oasis replete with palm trees and (unbelievably) swathes of green lawn on the doorstep of the national park, the mountain looming as an awe-inspiring backdrop.
Accommodation includes fully self-contained units (linen, cutlery, cooking utensils supplied), motel-style rooms, powered and unpowered caravan sites, and grassy spaces for tents. Camping facilities are a covered camp kitchen with barbecues, an ablution block with hot showers and a laundry. Pets are welcome.
There’s a shop with basic grocery items, snacks, water, souvenirs and a tavern licence for liquor. The station workshop provides fuel (diesel and unleaded), tyre repairs and gas bottle refills. A restaurant operates during peak tourist season and the station hosts ‘Australia's Biggest Barbecue’ each year in September.
Exploring the Park
There’s plenty to explore, from the rocky creeks and gorges around the base of the mountain to its crowning glory at the summit. The 50km Loop Drive begins at the station gate and circumnavigates the mountain on a road suitable for 2WD vehicles. It connects all the park’s major attractions, walking trails and lookouts and makes an excellent day trip (so pack a picnic lunch).
Near the station entrance a road heads into the national park for about 5km to Gum Grove (Warrarla), and an easy (1km) walk along a dry, rocky stream channel under gnarly white-barked river gums. The trail rises to a vantage point at the entrance of Kotka Gorge with impressive views over the plain to the northeast. From here, walkers can return to the carpark or continue on a more demanding trail for another 2km to the end of the gorge.
Back on the Mt Augustus-Woodlands Road, turn right to the Loop Drive intersection and follow this to the next attraction — Edneys Trail and Lookout (Ooramboo). Near the start of the trail is the site of a campsite used by Wajarri stockmen working on the cattle station in the mid to late-20th century. A relatively easy walk follows a boulder-strewn gully where large, graceful river gums flourish beside semi-permanent waterholes, and continues to a rock wall with numerous Aboriginal petroglyphs. Another 3km brings the walker to Edney's Lookout on a peak at the southern end of Mount Augustus with expansive views over vast pastoral and conservation lands. This walk is a good alternative to the more strenuous Summit Trail.
The Loop Drive continues to Flintstone (Beedoboondu), which is the departure point for The Summit Trail to the top of Mount Augustus. From the carpark, the short first section (the Gully Walk) leads to Flintstone Rock, a large slab that bridges the rocky creek bed. Beyond Flintstone Rock, the Gully Trail rises gently for 1.5km to a junction with the Summit Trail (which may be taken for a loop back to the carpark) and continues for another 1.5km on a steep gradient that is hard going.
If you’ve had enough at this point, you can return on the loop track or, if you’re up for more, continue another 3km to the summit. All up, the Summit Trail is a challenging 12km climb over 650m that should only be undertaken by prepared and experienced bushwalkers, but the reward is a stunning view over the surrounding plain and distant ranges.
A less strenuous, but still picturesque, walk awaits visitors further around the Loop at The Pound. From the early 1900’s, this natural basin was used by drovers for holding cattle before moving them ‘on the hoof’ for 10 days to Meekatharra. The Saddle Trail crosses The Pound beneath the mountain’s northwestern escarpment where the overlying sandstone and conglomerate has been eroded to reveal a colourful palette of ancient Earth. The trail rises through a rocky gully and crosses the saddle to a vantage point with views back to The Pound and out across the Lyons River valley to the north.
The Loop Drive joins the Mt Augustus-Cobra Road for the 10km run back to the Tourist Park, passing two more of the park’s attraction along the way. The first is Cattle Pool (Goolinee), a tranquil waterhole on the Lyons River. If you haven’t had your picnic by now, the pool’s shady banks make a great place for it, followed by an easy (1.2km return) stroll along the Corella Trail, aptly named for the flocks of raucous residents in the gums along the river. The final attraction is Goordgeela, accessed by a 1.5km trail up a dry, rocky creek bed to a lookout on the north side of the mountain, with fine views of the Lyons River meandering over the plain to the distant Godfrey Range.
There is no denying that Mt Augustus is well off the beaten track. Yet, despite its remoteness, it is an incredible place to visit and well worth the drive to get there.
Hardy, well-prepared adventurers will be rewarded for their efforts by an ancient landscape of epic proportions, Aboriginal petroglyphs swathed in legend, gritty pastoral history and an excellent outback experience that includes the ‘Biggest Barbecue in Australia’ beside the biggest rock in the world.