The Largest Rock In The World You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
“Is that a dead dingo?”
“Why is it hanging from the road sign?”
The unmistakable and very dead form of an animal hung face down towards the dirt on the crossroads somewhere in outback Western Australia, bloated and swaying slightly in the dusty wind.
“No, it’s too big to be a dingo”, I told my travel partner. “Maybe it’s a calf, there’s plenty of cattle ranches around here”.
“But why would they hang a dead calf from a sign?, she asked back. “It has to be a dingo”.
As we stopped for closer inspection, the dog like features became clear. I’d never seen a dingo before, but here I was, hundreds of kilometres into the remote interior of Australia looking at a grizzly trophy kill hanging by the side of the road.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked.
The Largest Rock In The World
We were driving towards Mount Augustus National Park, home to Mount Augustus, the largest rock in the world, and known to the local Aboriginal people as Burringurrah. Bigger than Uluru. Much bigger. Rising to almost a thousand metres high, but a rock that few people even know exists, let alone travel to, and that’s because it’s a long way from anywhere on questionable roads. And there’s not a whole lot to see except dead dingos and cattle stations along the way.
Mount Augustus is just a casual 350 kilometer detour from the small settlement of Gascoyne Junction. Gascoyne Junction is itself just a casual 200 kilometer detour from Carnarvon, a ‘city’ of 5000 or so people on the North West Coastal Highway of WA- the usual route for road trippers in these parts- which incidentally is only 900 or so Kilometers from the state capital of Perth, a city which by many counts is the most isolated capital in the world.
You get the idea…
But we’d driven a huge detour just a few weeks earlier, also to see a rock- wave rock that is, a rock shaped like a wave- so the next obvious step on the great Western Australia road trip was of course to see and climb to the summit of the world’s largest rock. In this sparsely populated land, it was clear that driving hundreds of kilometers to look at rocks was definitely becoming a thing for us.
Red Dust, Dingoes And Rocks
Mount Augustus is the largest Inselberg in the world. That’s basically a massive stand alone rock if you want to get geologically technical. Not to be confused with an iceberg of course, no, there’s no snowfall in these parts and it’s a long long way from the ocean…
We’d left the busy Coastal Highway at Carnarvon, where most caravans and backpackers were continuing north it seemed, sticking to the easy coastal lifestyle, beach camping and snorkelling. We cut a lonely figure heading east at the turn off. For us, the next week would just be red dust, dingoes and rocks.
The road inland was tarmac as far as as Gascoyne Junction- or Gassy as the locals affectionately call it- and from here it was a long drive further east, with a just a few remote cattle stations stretching for acres across the barren land.
Mount Augustus might be the largest rock in the world, but it’s certainly not the most famous. That accolade of course goes to Uluru. While Uluru might be thousands of kilometers from anywhere, and right in the red centre of Australia, it’s definitely much more accessible than Mount Augustus, it’s fame having over the years brought in high end resorts, daily flights to most major Australian cities and the luxury of sealed, bitumen roads. Mount Augustus has just one small, ragged gravel airstrip used in life threatening emergencies by the Royal Flying Doctors, there’s one lonely caravan park built on the nearby working cattle station- a caravan park with the only fuel station in a 300 kilometer radius and more importantly, the only licensed bar in that same radius- and no sealed roads leading there from any direction.
That’s how we found ourselves on a rock strewn, unsealed road staring in gruesome horror at a dead dingo hanging from the road sign. The land here is unsuitable for western style farming, but the huge quantity of land, even with poor grazing, has led to ranchers setting up isolated cattle stations- most the size of small European countries- and letting the cattle graze over thousand of square kilometres of red land. The dead dingo was probably hung up to deter the wild packs of dingoes which roam around taking down cattle. Or at least I hoped so. As we left the grim scene in a cloud of red dust I hoped this wasn’t the start of an even grimmer Wolfe Creek style massacre. And all just to see a rock.
Driving Into The Unknown
The wet season had only recently ended. This meant that the unsealed roads were still in the laborious process of being graded. Torrential rains and flash floods hit this part of Western Australia hard in the summer months each year, and roads can be simply washed away. Gascoyne Junction itself was washed away in its entirety only a few years previously, and then completely rebuilt from the mud upwards. Presumably on higher ground. As we’d left this last bastion of civilization we passed a house by the now dry creek bed with a rusty boat on the roof and a sign informing visitors that this boat was the level of the 1987 flood waters. Who knew what condition the roads ahead would be in?
“You’ll probably be fine in a two wheel on those roads”, the optimistic tourist info lady had informed us in Carnarvon before we’d set off towards Gassy. Some of the road would already have been graded and the rains hadn’t been too bad this year. “Make sure you stop by the Kennedy Ranges on the way! That road gets more traffic anyway”.
Saying that a road gets more traffic in rural Australia is a nice way of saying that if your unequipped two wheel drive station wagon breaks down or bursts a tire on the rocks then you won’t die out there, far from it, there’s bound to be at least one car a day passing by. One car every 300 kilometers that was. It was decided then. Our route was going to take us via the Kennedy Range National Park, a beautiful park not far from Gascoyne Junction where the rocks rise from the red dust into sharp, steep plateaus and waterfalls crash down into the gorges between them.
With a full tank of petrol, a spare jerry can full of petrol and vast supplies of beer and tinned goods we left the tarmac behind at Gassy and spent the night camping out beneath the Kennedy Ranges. The camp site hosts there, an old couple touring Australia in their caravan and volunteering to look after National Park camp grounds along the way, told us that with a spare can of fuel we’d easily make it to Mount Augustus the next day. The road was positively good, just take it slow, and “Watch out for the big rocks”.
Sound advice really.
I didn’t realise just how slow taking it slow actually meant though. 300 or so kilometers would take us the better part of 7 hours to drive. 300 kilometers on the highway would, in comparison, ordinarily only take 3 hours.
And all this for a rock.
This part of Western Australia is by no means even classed as ‘Outback’. It’s no desert. It’s just rural. But the area we were driving into is so vast and unexplored still that while we were later climbing Mount Augustus, a type of python was found by passing caravaners on the roadside below that had never before been seen in this region. They later showed us and the ranger at the caravan park their pictures. The ranger was astounded. It wasn’t a new species of course, but the species in question was believed to only inhabit regions much, much further north of Mount Augustus. It was almost the equivalent of finding a wild kangaroo in the English countryside. Who knew what else lay out here waiting to be discovered? Certainly lots of snakes. That much I could be sure of.
This then was what we were driving into. For us, the unknown.
No Fuel Available Here
Leaving the Kennedy Ranges behind us the road was good to start. A flat, gravel road, suitable for two wheel drive vehicles as long as you navigated around the large rocks and didn’t take the potholes on too fast. It was smooth going, cruising along at anywhere between 60-80 kilometres per hour. But only for the first hour.
We passed the odd cattle station- or the entrances to these vast properties anyway- all with ominous signs warning that there was no fuel or supplies available there. How many people had broken down on this stretch of road and dragged themselves through the dust to the nearest cattle station only to be turned away?
Australian gravel roads are a bizarre sight, and stranger still to drive on. Usually the tarmac simply ends- this had happened a while back for us at Gascoyne Junction- and the gravel begins. Depending on the season, the rainfall and the remoteness, the quality of the road can vary from exceptional to downright destructive, and more often than not, all this happens within the space of only a few kilometres, as I was soon to find out first hand.
These aren’t four wheel drive tracks. No. These, as any local will tell you, are in fact proper roads, and as the sign at the start of the road will say, ‘Open to all traffic’.
Stranger still, and as if to verify that these are ‘proper roads’, is the fact that while the tarmac may have ended many hundreds of kilometres ago, the road signs are all still there.
Markers count down the many more hundreds of kilometres still left to go until you might reach the next lonely outpost- where hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to find some fuel, but not always- speed signs stand at regular intervals, warning signs with pictures of kangaroos and cattle inform you that there will be stray animals for the next 1000 kilometres, and just as on any normal highway, signs direct you left or right at the rare junction that might appear after a few hours of monotonous driving.
This last addition to the gravel road is a very good thing too, as to take a wrong turn in these parts can be calamitous as you run out of petrol before you are even aware of the error. Then you start to ask where the largest rock in the world is while the sun slowly dehydrates you and the scavengers start to circle your stationary car. Then your beers goes warm beer, and then you’re really in for it.
The quality of the road soon deteriorated, and distressingly, we passed the grader at work. One man in a bulldozer, cheerfully waving us around him as he levelled the ground slowly, metre by metre, and so nonchalantly, as if this were the most normal of jobs in the world. How long it would take him to grade this whole road, I didn’t even want to contemplate. The rainy season would be here again by the time he got to the end, and then he’d have to turn around and start all over again…
We were forced to slow down after this, averaging around 20 kilomtres per hour as we avoided rocks and tackled the odd creek bed. It was nothing the car couldn’t handle, but one mistake out here would result in a long and sweaty wait for the next car to pass.
But going slow gave us the opportunity to really appreciate the vast remoteness of Western Australia. For miles there was nothing. Nothing at all, and we were barely scratching the surface of this huge state. Then around the only corner in an hour of driving, just as my eyes began to blur from the monotony, a ragged band of cattle would appear out of nowhere, standing stock still on the road, just staring down the road and not moving until you were forced to drive right into the middle of them. These were dangerous roads indeed.
‘We Didn’t Drive All This Way Just To Stare At A Rock’
7 hours, dead dingos and too many rocks later, we finally caught our first glimpse of Mount Augustus. A huge rock standing in an otherwise flat land. A beacon of safety in this remote land. The rock is sacred to the traditional Aboriginal caretakers of the land, and I was beginning to realise why. It holds some of the only year round supplies of water, it’s an unmissable landmark in a featureless country, and it’s shelter from a harsh, harsh landscape.
The sun was beginning to set as we rolled into the caravan park at the base of Mount Augustus. The rock is huge, almost 50 kilomteres in circumference, and our first glimpse of it had merely meant we were still an hour’s drive away from our night’s camping spot, and exhausted, weary and covered in red dust we finally pulled in to find the caravan park surprisingly busy, our little two wheel drive station wagon attracting curious looks from the other campers with their off road rigs and monstrous trucks. We set up camp for the night, and prepared ourselves for the long slog to the top of Mount Augustus the next day. We didn’t drive all this was just to stare at a rock after all.
Early the next morning we registered with the campsite hosts and the solitary Ranger whose duty it was to protect over a thousand square kilometres of National Park, mostly on his own. If we weren’t back by sunset they’d have to come out looking for us they warned, and with that we set off to tackle the world’s largest rock.
It was a tough climb, relentless even, with little shade and steep, sharp descents. Mount Augustus isn’t as sharply defined as its more famous counterpart Uluru- perhaps one of the reasons too that it isn’t quite as popular with tourists- it is though, absolutely massive. This meant soul destroying fake summits. Just when you thought you’d made it to the peak, over the next rocks rose an even higher peak.
But two hours of intense bush walking later we hit the summit. A rock cairn- built laboriously by that single Ranger- stood proudly at the top, marking the height of our walking achievement that day. We stood, sweat drenched and sunburned, looking out over the vast, remote beauty of the Western Australian landscape, watching the dusty gravel road we’d driven along slowly stretch to and disappear past the distant horizon, marvelling at the journey we’d just made, and all just to see a rock.
I guess it is the largest rock in the world though.
There was only one road for us to take the next day, and that was back the same way we’d just come. All the way back to the coast. So in a plume of red dust we drove out of the caravan park, swerving violently to avoid the first of many potholes, we drove slowly alongside Mount Augustus one final time, and then off into the unknown once again.