Mt Augustus, inselberg in the desert

By Janine Gunther 12 November 2014
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Surrounded by desert, Mt Augustus is a colossus that transports walkers through ages past and present

IN THE ROCK SHELTER it’s dark and cool. Pleasantly so, as although it is only 9am, it’s warming up fast. Temperatures are predicted to hit 40°C on this stunning September day. With a large slab of rock above me, there isn’t room to stand, so I sit, my feet propped against the rock to stop me from sliding back into the sunlight.

When my eyes adjust to the darkness, I marvel at the walls and floor. They are covered with engravings, pecked or chiselled into the rock many millennia ago by the Wajarri people. The images seem mostly abstract, an intriguing tangle of lines and circles combined with a few snake-like figures. It seems that time has stood still and the last artist left this ancient gallery only yesterday.

Flintstone–Beedoboondu, as the shelter is called, is also the beginning of a 12km return walk to the summit of Mt Augustus.

Mt Augusts, the lone mountain

Mt Augustus – or Burringurrah, as it is known to the Wajarri people – lies in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia, about 330km inland from Carnarvon. The mountain is literally one of the region’s biggest attractions; stretching about 10km long and 5km wide, and rising 1105m above sea level, it is just 144m shorter than Mt Meharry, WA’s highest mountain.

However, while MtMeharry is surrounded by other peaks, Mt Augustus is an inselberg – a rocky, steep-sided hill – standing alone some 717m above the surrounding ocean of dusty green mulga scrub.

Formed mostly of orange-brown sandstone, Mt Augustus captivates visitors with its ever-changing play of colours, ranging from a pale pink at sunrise to harsh browns and vivid oranges that soften into a deep red at sunset.

Gullies and gorges gouged out of the sandstone by the erosive power of water over millions of years add to the texture, and in the early morning and late afternoon, shadows – cast by protruding cliffs and ledges – creep across the steep northern escarpment.

On 22 September 1989, this magnificent mountain and a ribbon of land surrounding it were gazetted as a national park. What it lacks in size – the park is just 9168ha – it makes up for with natural features.

Desert flowers at Mt Augustus National Park

It has two permanent water bodies, which support a great variety of wildlife, and is home to some rare plants. Up to 7000 people visit the park each year, with most arriving during the wildflower season, between June and September, when the red earth is covered with showy carpets of purple mulla-mulla and yellow-flowering goodenias.

“Even the somewhat monotonous-looking scrub-land that covers most of Mount Augustus National Park is surprisingly rich in plant species,” says Steve Toole, operations manager and ranger in the Midwest region of the Department of Environment and Conservation.

There are also about 20 Acacia, or wattle, species that are only found near this inselberg.

“The rarest plant in the park is the Mt Augustus foxglove,” Steve says. This purple-flowering shrub, rarely 1m tall, has just 1100 known specimens, confined to nine populations in the Gascoyne and Murchison regions. These few remaining plants face many threats including grazing, land clearing and mining.

For Steve, Mt Augustus is an important but small piece in a much larger environmental jigsaw. He not only looks after Mount Augustus NP but is  responsible for 10, of conservation reserves.

“The Gascoyne–Murchison region is an area of high biological diversity,” Steve says. “During a biological survey of the southern Carnarvon Basin, which covers only about 15 per cent of the region, 144 species of reptiles, 59 species of mammals, 500 species of aquatic invertebrates and more than 2000 species of vascular plants were recorded.”

Rock art of Mt Augustus

Within the park walkers are able to choose from 11 tracks, ranging from 200m to 12km return, but the most picturesque is the Gully Trail, one of two leading to the summit of Mt Augustus. The quicker – and less strenuous alternative – is the Summit Trail, but the scenic Gully Trail runs through a rocky ravine.

After about 3km the two trails join. “Don’t miss the rock art at Flintstone Rock, right at the beginning of the walk, and be prepared for some rock-hopping later on,” says national park volunteer Jens Mohr. “I promise you, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a great walk.”

He’s right: the Gully Trail offers a continuous succession of highlights, with the next surprise awaiting me only 200m past Flintstone Rock. There’s a small waterhole, shaded by stately river red gums and teeming with wildlife.

As I invade this idyllic oasis, euros bounce away, a long-nosed dragon darts for shelter under a rock, and a few spinifex pigeons and a flock of screeching galahs take to the wing. For some unkown reason, a noisy group of white-plumed honeyeaters foraging in the trees and two western bowerbirds are completely undisturbed by my presence.

I scan the trees and the water’s surface for the park’s most famous reptile, a rare subspecies of the olive python. It can grow to 5m, and although predominantly terrestrial, it is also a good swimmer. With only its nostrils exposed, the olive python will wait in ambush for prey and can remain submerged for several days.

I press on into a side gully adorned with rock figs and stands of white-trunked Pilbara ghost gums. The boulder-strewn creekbed is flanked by bright orange rock walls, in some places rising to more than 40m.

Mt Augustus twice the size of Uluru

After scrambling up a dry waterfall, I spy one of the endangered foxgloves, ablaze with large, purple blossoms. Further along, I pass prominent quartz veins, weathered into attractive mosaics, and Mt Augustus has often been compared with Uluru/Ayers Rock, with many pointing out it is a monolith twice the size and three times the age of Australia’s best known rock.

But some geologists begrudge this parallel. “Mt Augustus is an interesting mountain in its own right,” says Professor Cliff Ollier, of the University of Western Australia. In August 2008, Cliff joined Professor Robert Bourman, of the University of Wollongong, on a field trip to collect samples, note rock features and weathering types, and walk every marked track.

“There is really nothing to be gained from comparing Mt Augustus with Uluru,” Cliff says. “Uluru is a monolith in the sense that it is made of one rock type. Mt Augustus, in contrast, though dominantly sandstone, contains minor amounts of other types of rock.”

“The sandstone was originally almost horizontal, but was folded into an anticline between 1030 and 950 million years ago,” Cliff explains. “A huge amount of erosion formed the plains of the region, leaving the resistant sandstone as a mountain.”

On 31 May 1858, English explorer Francis Thomas Gregory was the first European to set eyes on the mountain, later naming it after his brother Augustus. He climbed it in two hours – without a track.

Augustus a local favourite

After two hours I’m still in the gully, entranced by its intense colours, and interrupted by frequent stops to look at plants or watch ring-tailed dragons basking in the sun. The journey to the summit takes me four hours.

After the final scramble up the terraced rockface leading to the summit plateau, puffing and sweating in the heat, I’m so stunned by the breathtaking panorama that at first I don’t notice the presence of two other walkers. “Awesome, isn’t it?” says Pen Oldfield, a semi-retired woman from Perth.

Pen and Frank Woodmore say they’ve climbed the mountain four times. “A natural monument like Mt Augustus is like a magnet and personal exertion is so richly rewarded in many ways,” she says. “It certainly puts your life back into perspective.”

Standing on top of this magnificent mountain, looking out over a sea of mulga, I am reminded – as I was at Flintstone–Beedoboondu – of the timelessness of this place. And I stop, at last, to enjoy it.

Exploring Mt Augustus

A biogeographic island: Mt Augustus is a lone, towering mountain surrounded by a vast ocean of near-flat, semi-arid scrub.

The area has distinct soils, microclimates and animals. For example, long-nosed dragons dwell in moist gullies and gorges, and spotted broad-blazed sliders, an endangered species of skink, thrive here.

Euros and birds of prey are found close to the rock, and drainage lines from the inselberg seep beneath the surrounding sands to feed groves of river gums.

Wildflower season: Most wildflowers, such as mulla-mulla and everlastings, are dependent on rain. The best time to see them bloom is generally mid-June to August.

Access to the park: The closest towns are Meekatharra to the south-east (360km by road) and Carnarvon to the west (490km by road). From both it is a long drive over mostly unsealed and bumpy roads.

The roads are usually suitable for two-wheel-drive vehicles, but can be impassable if wet.

Check road conditions with the Shire of Upper Gascoyne, 08 9943 0988.

Accommodation: There are no camping grounds or cabins within the park. Mount Augustus Outback Tourist Park and Cobra station, 40km west of Mt Augustus, are the only two accommodation options within a radius of 300km.

More information:

The creation of Mount Augustus, Aboriginal legend

Burringurrah was a Wajarri boy who was punished for breaking the law during his initiation into manhood. During the ceremony, Burringurrah was in so much pain that he ran away. Chased by his people, he dashed through the scrubland, but they caught up with him, spearing him in the right thigh.

Burringurrah tried to crawl away, but a group of women clubbed him to death with their digging sticks.

His death, face-down with his left leg bent up beside his body, is eternalised in the form of Mt Augustus. The spearhead can be seen in the pointed rocky outcrop named by European settlers Edney’s knob, on a ridge at the far eastern side of the mountain.