Burning Mountain is a unique geological feature in Australia — and worldwide, even. It’s a coal seam that’s been burning underground for approximately 6000 years, and it sits just off the New England Highway north of Scone, NSW. Although there are speculations on how the coal was first lit — perhaps a lightning strike when it was at the surface — no one really knows.
We spend the night at the parking area at the start of the track to the top of Mount Wingen. Other travellers are also camping there for the night — situating themselves around the picnic tables and fireplaces — but although it's free, there's a lot of noise from the highway and it's hard to find a level place to park the bus.
The walk from the carpark to the actual "burning mountain" is probably a bit longer than the advertised 4.6km-return-journey.
A sign recounts the local Indigenous people's story of how Burning Mountain caught alight:
"One day, the Gummaroi (or Kamilaroi) people to the north sent a raiding party to Broke to steal Wonnarua women for wives. The Wiradjuri to the west, who were friends of the Wonnarua, told them of the Gummaroi plans.
The Wonnarua gathered all of their warriors and sent them to do battle with the Gummaroi.
The wives of the Wonnarua warriors waited for their husbands to return. All came back, except one. The wife of that one started to worry. She went up high and sat on top of a rock cliff overlooking the valley to the south to wait for her husband. She waited and waited, but when he did not return she knew that he had died during the battle. She cried until she could cry no more. She could not live without her husband, so she asked Baayami, the great sky god, to kill her.
Baayami could not kill her so he turned her to stone. As she was turning to stone she wept tears of fire which rolled down the hillside and set the mountain alight."
It takes our family two hours to complete the 5km. I'm so pleased that we've started tackling long walks again — and without me having to carry anyone!
Given that we're climbing to the top of a 550-metre mountain, the track is comprised of many low steps and is consequentially much easier on the way back than on the way there!
Areas where the underground fire has passed through show evidence of being baked from the heat.
The reserve must be used for cattle grazing because we see evidence all along the track — but no live animals. Someone moved this cow's backbone onto an anthill so the bones would be picked clean more quickly.
We start to find evidence of prickly pear along the track. Brioni is intrigued with the story of this invasive weed. It was introduced from Brazil to Australia with the first fleet of European settlers in 1788 and rapidly spread through the eastern states. Prickly pear was brought under control in the 1920s and 1930s with the introduction of cactoblastis caterpillars — arguably the world's most spectacular example of successful weed biological control.
A platform at the top of Mount Wingen provides a view of the baked soils.
At the summit, the dirt has changed to a bright red because of oxidation of iron compounds in the soils. The white is not ash, but a mixture of sinter, alum and sulphur that formed on the surface from the highly acidic gases escaping from the burning seam 30m below.
The site of the burning seam advances one metre each year, and its heat ensures nothing on the surface remains alive.
Aisha and Brioni are intrigued by the heat escaping from small holes in the gorund — although they're not enamoured with the sulphurous odours!
We’ve driven past this feature many times before as we’ve travelled along the New England Highway. I’m so glad that this time we took the opportunity to stop and explore Mount Wingan. The signs along the path provided historical, mystical, scientific and contextual stories for us to discuss as we climbed the summit. I’m also so pleased to learn that a 5-kilometre walk is not too difficult for our family — all it takes to keep the girls happy and walking are some well-timed calorie offerings!
If you’re travelling between Tamworth and Scone, make the stop for the scenic walk and enjoy the unique features and educational lessons of Burning Mountain!