The Story of Burning Mountain
Wingen Mountain, overlooking Burning Mountain. The reclining form of the bereaved Wingen maid can be seen in the profile of the rocks.
by Ros Stirling
There is a story from the Dreamtime handed down through the generations by the Wannarua people of the Upper Hunter Valley that tells how one of the strangest natural phenomena in Australia came about. This is how it is re-told on a sign at the base of Burning Mountain, near the little town of Wingen.
“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.”
The township of Wingen takes its name from the Wonnarua word for ‘fire’, and it sits at the foot of this unusual mountain where the ground is hot and smoke and acrid fumes emerge from gaps in the rocks. It is not a volcano, as the first Europeans to see it thought, but a mountain that is, in fact, on fire – a burning mountain.
It was 1828 when a local farm-hand out on a shooting expedition came across the smoking openings in the rocks. When he asked his Aboriginal companions if their people had lit the fire they said no, it had been burning for a long time. The following year a geologist, Rev Charles Wilton, examined the site. Seeing the rocks were of sandstone, and there was no evidence of lava or a volcanic mouth, Wilton concluded that something – presumably coal – was burning deep beneath the ground. Bewildered, he wrote of the place:
“The Burning Mountain of Australia may, I think be pronounced as unique – one other example of nature’s sports – of her total disregard, in this country, for those laws which the Philosophers of the old world have long since assigned her.”
A female kangaroo with joey in her pouch enjoys the warmth of the rocks from the subterranean fires on a frosty morning.
The phenomenon of the burning mountain generated great interest and other explorers and scientists visited the site. Lt Thomas Mitchell,the surveyor W.B. Clarke and Professor Edgeworth David all visited the Burning Mountain, speculating on its age and origins, and it soon became a favorite picnic spot for tourists.
More recent geological studies have shown that Burning Mountain is made of marine and coal-bearing sediments dating back to the early Permian period (around 300 million years ago). It appears that two coal seams, around 16 km to the north of Burning Mountain, somehow ignited and have been burning at a rate of about a metre per year. The distance it has travelled suggests that the underground fire began at least 15,000 years ago, although taking into account periods when the burning may have been much slower, the fire may be a great deal older.
Today, a two-metre-thick coal seam is burning around 20 – 30 metres below the surface. There are numerous outlets across the surface of the mountain, made obvious by the death of the surrounding vegetation, yellow sulphur deposits, red iron oxides and white sinter powder around the openings - as well as the heat haze and rising smoke and fumes. Air let in through the openings feeds the fires below, creating a furnace with temperatures around 1700 degrees Celcius. As the coal seam burns and the surrounding rocks are affected by the heat, the land collapses, creating an uneven, rocky landscape.
How the fires were started is a matter for conjecture. It may have been a lightning strike, a forest fire, Aboriginal burning practices or, perhaps, spontaneous combustion caused by the oxidization of iron pyrites in the coal seam.
There is evidence of long Aboriginal activity in the area, and it is likely that they used the sulphur and iron oxides as pigment, and may have used the sulphur for medicinal purposes. For about 70 years from the 1890s, sulphur was collected by Europeans for the manufacture of medicinal ointments and soaps.
Today, the Burning Mountain is a nature reserve administered by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), and visitors can enjoy a 45-minute walk through the bush to its summit where there is a good view of one of the outlets, although you are warned to stay away from the toxic fumes. Along the way, there is a view across the valley to the Wingen Maid as she reclines in her rocky form , mourning forevermore the loss of her husband.
Dead trees and rocks whitened by sinter identify the location of one of the fire’s outlets.
Burning Mountain Nature Reserve is located on the New England Highway about 300 km to the north of Sydney, and about 2 km north of the township of Wingen. The well-signposted walk to the summit takes around an hour at a leisurely pace. Walking shoes and a water bottle are advised.