An amble around Mt Airly

Party: T2 and Em

Mt Airly is one of those places I’ve driven past, looked out at from distant peaks, and trawled vicariously via trip reports and aerial photography, but somehow never made time to visit.

One of two neighbouring mesas that make up Mugii Murum-ban State Conservation Area — created in 2011 — Mt Airly and it’s neighbour Genowlan Mountain have a rich history.

There are known art sites in the area, signs of a significance to First Nations, and the potential for eagle-eyed explorers to stumble on more signs of this long association.

Beneath the cliffs, there are plentiful signs of the miners who toiled a century ago for oil shale — a close relative to coal once used to make petrol — with old stone huts, steam engines, tramways, mine shafts, and other workings dotting the valleys.

A Lithgow local by the name of Col Ribaux, who discovered a diamond while exploring the mountain top, later ran a small-scale mining venture that recovered diamonds, gold, and gems from the mountain tops over the course of half a century.

Col explained that these alluvial treasures were the result of an ancient river that once flowed across the sandstone. This river was covered by a lava — evidence of which is found in the basalt caps that still remain — which sealed the gold and gems in place.

Millions of years later, with the whole area pushed vertically more than a kilometre above sea level, erosion has created a fractured landscape of impressive escarpments, towering pagodas, narrow canyons and crevasses, which combine to deliver spectacular views.

While the overwhelming majority of the greater Blue Mountains burnt in recent bushfires, Mugii Murum-ban was one of the few areas that escaped the flames. With rainfall quenching the parched landscape, drastically reducing the fire risk, it was also one of the first areas reopened to public access.

Feeling the need to get outdoors, but lacking the energy or enthusiasm for some of the other adventures on my to-do list, Em and I decided that a day pottering around Mt Airly was a perfect compromise.

We had no firm plans, instead we set off to climb onto the southern escarpment then slowly work our way around the mountain, exploring as we went.

While the overcast weather kept the temperature down, the high humidity soon had us breaking a sweat. Thankfully, in almost no time we were up and enjoying the first of an almost-endless array of spectacular vistas.

Forget the three sisters, this area has hundreds of impressive sandstone towers: from little bumps between the trees to genuine giants that pose a real navigational challenge.

After pushing through the scrub towards the summit, we suddenly popped out onto an old dirt road. Almost immediately we came across the first of many signs of the underground coal mining that still takes place under the reserve. The road was dotted by markers used by surveyors to monitor subsidence and other movements of the mountain as coal is extracted from its bowels.

This corner, being closest to the mine workings, seemed a hotspot for this activity. Back on the escarpment we soon found reflectors, lasers, solar panels and even a bizarre metal table, all firmly attached to prominent rocky outcrops. As someone who complains about the imposition of bolts and other human modifications on canyons, it was certainly confronting to see the extensive impacts on this stunning landscape.

Still, if all this monitoring protects the iconic and irreplaceable pagoda landscape — the same features that give the neighbouring Gardens of Stone their name — by limiting the impacts of mining subsidence, then I suppose they’ll be worth it.

Thankfully, it wasn’t long until we were clear of the human influences. Exploring among the pagodas, we found mini-canyon sections and impressive caves and chasms. It was slow moving at times, working through the landscape, yet at other times we moved with such ease that we overshot spots we were aiming for.

The recent rainfall had given the bush a burst of growth, with some trees responding with epicormic growth (new leaves shooting from the trunks) more commonly seen after fires, such was the stress they suffered during recent drought and heat waves.

A lazy lunch was had atop a rocky outcrop, giving us the chance to enjoy the occasional rays of direct sunlight as they highlighted individual pagodas and cliffs.

With the sound of distant thunder, and the intention for this to be a lazy exploration, it was decided that we’d drop into the valley and follow the old oil shale tramway back to the car.

This ended up providing a really interesting and different experience. We were soon spotting sections of stone retaining walls and the supports of old bridges. Then there was the old fixed steam engine that would have driven the tramway.

In places, the brick-lined entrances to mine shafts remained, along with towering chimneys.

Further along, a fresh rockfall had cleared a large area above the track, with one impressive boulder looking like it had actually bounced uphill to come to rest on a slight rise. Large gum trees had been shattered, torn out of the ground by the falling rocks. We wondered if the recent intense rainfall had caused the fall, given how fresh it appeared.

Towards the end there was time to explore some of the old miners’ cottages. Some stone walls from more substantial ones remained, although in some places these homes were little more than a small room constructed around a large boulder that acted as a wall and partial roof.

With an early finish there was time to enjoy a cold beer at the Capertee Hotel, which always gets the trip planning juices flowing. The visit was enough to inspire me to head back for some more substantial trips to explore the intricate wonders of these pagoda-lined mesas.

(Note: Two days after our trip, National Parks closed the tramway track due to a landslide. I assume this was the fresh rockfall we had seen, although more of the cliff face may have come down following our visit.)

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