Australia’s Biggest Rock…and It Isn’t Uluru
The drive north from Perth is rich in amazing experiences and memorable landscapes.
I set off determined to see the Pinnacles at Cervantes; the Gascoyne River in Carnavon, known as the “upside-down” river as it flows below the river bed for much of the year; the impressive gorges at Kalbarri National Park; the dolphins that come to Monkey Mia in World Heritage-listed Shark Bay; and the stunning Ningaloo Reef at Exmouth.
But the place I’m most excited about? The remarkable Mount Augustus, the greatest stone on earth, which lies 1,000km north of Perth.
So why go to all that effort? What’s so special about this place? Mount Augustus, for all its isolation, is one of the true wonders of Australia and I want to experience this huge mountain first-hand.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is Mount Augustus, and not Uluru, which is the largest rock in the world. Rising 717m above the flat plains which surround it, Mount Augustus covers an area of 4,795 hectares, making it one-and-a-half times larger than Uluru (3,330 hectares). It has a central ridge, almost eight kilometres long, and it is estimated to be more than 1,600 million years old. In the glow of the late afternoon sun, it certainly is as impressive as Uluru. The only difference: it has trees on it.
Getting to Mount Augustus is an enticing adventure. I drive 10km north of Carnarvon on Highway One and then head east on the Carnarvon-Mullewa Road for 430km until I reach the entrance to the Mount Augustus National Park.
Most of the road is good quality and easy to drive when there hasn’t been rain. The land is so flat, the surface of the road so hard and well-graded, and the traffic so light that the average driver can whiz along at 100km an hour.
If you’re keen to get to your destination the trip will take six hours, or if you want to stop regularly, and get out to let the smell of the scrub fill your sinuses, you’ll need to give yourself up to eight hours.
En route there’s one service station and a few shops at Gascoyne Junction, a settlement which looks as though it has a population of about 10 people (but there are actually 179 hardy souls who call it home). Beyond that, it’s hour after hour of flat, acacia- and eucalypt-encrusted Australian landscape. True, authentic outback beauty.
At various points, hidden well back from the road, I see large stations with their corrugated-iron roofs and oasis-like gardens. Then, after just over 480km, I notice that the road rises slightly just past the station at Mount Phillips and, although there is still another 80km to drive, I can see the mauve-coloured outline of Mount Augustus on the horizon.
To fully experience this sacred rock – called Burringurrah by the Watjarri people – you can drive around it (a 49km trip through stands of wattles and impressive wildflower displays in spring). You can climb it – a tough, 12km walk that takes about six hours. Or, like me, you can simply watch it change colour at dawn and dusk from the comfort of the Mount Augustus Tourist Park resort. You can drive around the base, stopping at the car parks and taking short walks to the galleries of Aboriginal art. The three most popular galleries – Beedoboodu, Mundee and Ooramboo (all of which can be accessed from the car parks) – have superb displays of petroglyphs.
But the memorable and dramatic rocks of Western Australia are more than just Mount Augustus. To the south, stretching across the wheat belt and into the rich gold-mining area around Kalgoorlie and Norseman, are huge chunks of granite lying in extraordinary shapes on the flat plains.
The early settlers collected and stored the rainwater that ran off their sides. Today, while the channels for the water can still be seen, they are more important as strangely compelling tourist attractions. I could easily spend a week driving from one dramatic granite outcrop to the next. They are all different and each has its own fascination.
I spend a day around Hyden, at the eastern end of the wheat belt, starting my exploration with the most famous of all the outcrops, Wave Rock.
Few people realise, gazing at its 15m high and 110m long wave-like shape – highlighted by lichen and grey and red granite strips – that there is a channel for water running along the edge above the wave.
Nearby there is a huge overhang known as Hippo’s Yawn – it looks like a hippopotamus with its mouth open. And, 18km to the north, there is an impressive group of granite outcrops known as Mulka’s Cave, where I marvel at the ancient Aboriginal hand prints stencilled high on the walls; and The Humps, a formation that looks like some strange bush giant and which has been a vital water catchment for the parched lands which surround it.
It takes me an hour to climb The Humps, but when I finally reach the top, which is scattered with huge boulders (how did they get there?), the effort is more than worthwhile, as I take in the sublime views across the surrounding countryside.