Located in the Hunter Valley of NSW, between Scone and Murrurundi is the clearly signposted turnoff to a car park with picnic-barbecue facilities, a toilet block and an information shed at the foot of the 3.5-km walking trail. As the path can get steep be sure to take some water in summer.
The name of the mountain derives from the sulphurous smoke which comes from fissures in the ground. It was well-known to the Wanaruah people who called it Wingen (meaning 'fire') and probably used it for warmth, tool manufacture and cooking.
It is said that the first European to notice smoke rising from the hills to the north was a farm hand named Smart working at Cressfield Station (about 9 km south) in 1828. He thought it was a bush fire but as it did not change or move over a period of days he went to have a look and came back declaring he had found a volcano. The story made the Sydney newspapers in March 1828 and several expeditions ensued.
By 1829 it was known that it was a burning coal seam, part of the 235-million-year-old Greta Series which forms the main coalfields of the Hunter Valley. As one section of the seam is burnt out the fire moves on to the next. However, as it is some 30 m underground there is little oxygen so the rate of combustion is slow. Consequently the burning site moves about one metre southwards each year. As it has moved 6 km it is estimated that it has been burning for approximately the last 5500 years. It has shifted 150 m since 1828. As the seam was once exposed to the surface it is speculated that a bushfire may have ignited it, although sulphur is capable of spontaneous combustion after heating.
Starting at the car park, cross over the small timber bridge, past the small lagoon and start up the steps. This area is characterised by narrow-leaved ironbark, grey box and rough-barked apple.
The soil here is Permian sandstone and conglomerate, reflecting the fact that this area was once covered by water as great rivers flowed from the north-east into a delta. Consequently there are large numbers of fossils deposited in pockets particularly in the group of boulders further along the walking track where it crosses the quarry road.
The thorny wattles and dead logs aside the path provide havens for insects and goannas. The view rapidly improves as the steep track elevates you above the tree-line. Once you reach the top of the hill and cross the grassy plateau you come to a gully created by subsidence where the land has collapsed into the space left by the burnt-out coal seam. The resulting cracks and vents permit the expulsion of smoke and the inhalation of oxygen which fuels the fire.
The path of the burning seam can easily be followed from here due to the reddened soil which is readily apparent. The trees here are younger reflecting the fact that the preceding vegetation was killed by the intense heat. Run-off from the burnt soil has altered conditions in favour of the stringybark community. The Wanaruah made the bark of this tree into a twine which they used in fishing and basket-making. The Europeans also used it for rope. The outer bark was used in the roofing of gunyah huts.
A little further on the path leads to a footbridge over a ravine which focuses attention westwards and downwards into the gully where claystones have been baked solid into brick-like forms, hence its popular name, 'the brickpits'. It is thought that the indigenous inhabitants used these hard stones in their weapons. The very dark brown soil marks the boundary of the basalt produced by volcanic lava.
Tea-trees surround the path as it climbs again to the current chimney area. With the exception of lichens and mosses they are the first to grow after the ground cools. A sign draws attention to the prospect of the Wingen Maid in the distance and the Aboriginal interpretation of the rock formation. In fact the view (653 m above sea-level) is one of the major attractions of this spot.
On the last leg of the path plants begin to disappear due to the heat. The track then reaches the current vent area. What one sees is essentially a plantless section of baked rock covered with a white patina while wisps of diffuse pale smoke drift into the air. What you smell is distinctly sulphurous and what one feels is an encompassing glow of warmth emanating from a surface which is a toasting 350?C. The temperature at the seam is thought to be about 1700?C as the heat has difficulty escaping.
The white covering is not ash but sinter, alum and sulphur, deposited on the surface through the condensation of the highly acidic gases. For about 50 years the chimney area was covered with the pipes and ducts of the Winjennia Company which drew off the fumes to obtain alum which was used in an ointment and liquid claimed to possess therapeutic qualities.
It is said that wedge-tailed eagles sometimes use the thermal currents to attain elevation.
Courtesy Sydney Morning Herald
Jon Field Australian Artist. The Wingen Maid. Burning Mountain
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