I'm a Sydney-based singer/songwriter and avid traveller - you can check out my blog complete with songs, travel stories and creative musings at schaumann.com.au.
Published July 7th 2013
Cook that coal
I was surprised and intrigued when I first heard of the blink-and-you-miss-it Mount Wingen in the upper Hunter Valley region, more commonly known as the Burning Mountain. It lives up to its name as being one of the very few places in Australia (let alone the world) where you can witness the surface effects of a naturally-occurring phenomena known as a coal seam fire.
Cook That Coal Many millennia ago (possibly by means of a lightning strike, wildfire or other such freak of nature - nobody knows for sure) a seam of coal lying approximately 30 metres underground caught fire and has remained smouldering ever since. Scientists estimate it's the oldest continuously burning coal seam in the world, having been ignited as long as 6,000 years ago.
The unique underground epicentre of the blaze means that the ashen emissions are forced to travel through a maze of cracks in the rock before escaping into the atmosphere above, leading to the abnormality that is the Burning Mountain. A stroll along its summit will allow you to observe the smoke rising out of the earth's surface for yourself.
The Pleasant Trek To The Summit The hike to the top of the mountain is a moderate but well-constructed 2.5km long journey that begins just up from the Burning Mountain carpark, near the New England Highway turnoff.
After snaking past a small waterhole, the initial kilometre of the track is fairly steep and takes you through some beautiful arid grassland. There are a number of lookouts and rest points with chairs along the way for those who may need to catch their breath.
The scenery changes quite dramatically as the track flattens out. The grassland transforms to an eerie forest of seemingly lifeless timber, presumably as a result of the nearby coal seam draining vital nutrients from the soil.
After crossing a small bridge, it pays to take a stop at the nearby picnic table (perhaps for a refreshing packed lunch) and take in the spectacular views of the rolling hills and valleys below. From here, it's only a few more minutes to the viewing platform.
The beautifully located picnic table just before the summit
The Viewing Platform Immediately upon stepping onto the viewing platform, the vinegary odour of the sulphuric gases rising from below the earth infiltrates your nose. Although not too overpowering, it may be worthwhile bringing something to cover your face with and prevent inhalation if you have sensitive lungs. It's from this platform that you'll also be able to make out the faint shimmer of escaping gases against the glorious mountainous backdrop, as well as the slight increase in temperature from the nearby underground furnace.
The viewing platform at the summit of Burning Mountain
The fire moves in a southerly direction at approximately one metre per year, which has left quite an extensive burnt-out and barren area along the surface. Upon exploring the remainder of the summit, I was surprised to encounter a number of deep and lengthy fissures in the grassland adjacent to the heart of the coal seam. Due to the obvious dangerous terrain, I wouldn't recommend exploring beyond the viewing platform if you have kids.
Cracks in the earth at the top of Burning Mountain
Spiny Mammals On my return hike I heard a rustling in the bushes to the side of the track. Initially I thought it might have been a snake, but further investigation led me to find an adorable little echidna. I never would have thought I'd get the chance to see Australia's famous spiny, egg-laying mammal along my walk. It was worth it for this alone.
Genuine Australian wildlife along the bushwalk back from Burning Mountain
It's Worth The Journey Altogether, my trip to Burning Mountain was well worth the journey and I'd recommend it to anybody who wishes to get out of the city for a day to witness something unique.
It really is a humbling experience to stand at the scene of one of the oldest underground coal fires on the planet, watching the effects it has on the surface in all its heated glory.
Getting There & Further Information
Burning Mountain is located in the upper Hunter Valley region, approximately 50km north of Muswellbrook and 220km north-west of Sydney. It took me just over three hours to drive there from Sydney on a Saturday morning. Heading north along the New England Highway, the turnoff to the right is well signposted and is located near the small village of Wingen.
While in the area I also highly recommend visiting the historic nearby townships of Aberdeen and Scone. The tourist information centre at Scone has a large range of brochures and ideas for things to do in the region.