It’s the volcano that never was. According to legend, it’s been burning forever.
Quite fittingly, it’s called the Burning Mountain. Back in the 1800s, explorers thought it was a volcano because it was constantly smouldering.
“It’s actually a combusting coal seam, that’s been smouldering under the surface of the earth for an estimated 5500 years,” National Parks and Wildlife Service says.
The naturally burning coal seam is within Burning Mountain Nature Reserve at Wingen, near Murrurundi and Scone.
The town of Wingen takes its name from the Wonnarua word for fire.
The Aboriginals thought it was the “fiery tears of a woman long since turned to stone by Biami, the sky god”.
A sign at the site tells the Aboriginal Dreamtime story in full. The story came from the Upper Hunter’s Wonnarua people.
“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 Biami, the great sky god, to kill her. Biami 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.”
A geologist named Reverend Charles Wilton examined Burning Mountain in 1829, Ros Stirling wrote on heritageaustralia.com.au.
“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,” she wrote.
Bewildered, he recorded the site like this: “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”.
Ros wrote that geological studies had shown that Burning Mountain was made of “marine and coal-bearing sediments dating back to the early Permian period (around 300 million years ago)”.
Historian Cynthia Hunter wrote that rumour reached Sydney in early 1828 that “a volcano had been discovered in the area”.
The first white person to examine the phenomenon was a settler who saw the smoke while shooting in the mountains.
The Aboriginals told him they didn’t start the fire, but it had been “burning for an unknown number of moons”.
Two explorers went on a four-month expedition from Sydney to visit the site. They observed the fire, the sulphurous vapours, the hot ground, the burnt stumps, the bituminous coal-like layers in the fractured rocks, but found no sign of eruption and no lava.
Beasts of Bourbon
Herald journo Matthew Kelly tweeted this on New Year’s Eve: “Just got offered 2 litres of alleged homemade bourbon for $30 in the Mayfield Woolworths carpark. Now that's a first. #mayfield #freshfoodpeople”.
For the record, he didn’t make the purchase.