Burketown's Morning Glory

"You pilots may think a Morning Glory is fun but some people around here find them terrifying. A nursing sister who was often on the road between Karumba and Normanton early in the morning told me that she really hated them. They made her feel 'trapped between the sky and the ground'."

As Brenda Kruske spoke of one of the world's most spectacular natural phenomena she was bustling around the kitchen and prozaically making breakfast for Geoff Sim and myself at her B&B Cafe and Supermarket in Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria. While we buttered toast she related tales of a cloud formation that most local residents take for granted. But even they regard some Morning Glories as special. "In about 1988, one came through the night of our annual ball. We were all sitting outside the Civic Centre and it suddenly grew very cold. It was a huge glory, a monstrous presence that rolled over us and even blackened the night sky. There's always some accompanying wind but this one had lots of dramatic wind and noise. No-one outside on that night will ever forget it."

I wouldn't forget this morning's flight over Burketown, either. Breakfast was a celebration after realising a dream. I had wished to fly a Morning Glory since a fellow pilot had told me of it more than a decade before. Several flights on weak, poorly formed ones a few years ago just raised my interest and my desire had been fuelled by tales told by Geoff and others who had been on long flights above monstrous clouds. Today we had flown along the spine of a giant Morning Glory as it rolled across the Gulf.

I smiled to think of Brenda's description of flying the Morning Glory as "fun". The experience is too daunting, too overwhelming and inspiring to be dismissed so tritely. Nor is it to be undertaken lightly: while there's good lift at the front of the cloud, the downdrafts at the back is strong enough to push an aircraft onto the ground. No, the flight had been glorious and challenging rather than a quick thrill.

As we left the cafe and stepped onto the already sweltering streets of Karumba it was barely 9 am yet there had been hours of pure magic since the insistent chirping of my watch alarm trilled in the darkened hotel room at 5 am. Outside, the tropical air had been warm and moonlight flooded the deserted streets of Burketown and the plains of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The hotel lawn was heavy with dew, the final harbinger of an impending Morning Glory. Last night's ABC television weather map had shown a high pressure ridge extending down Cape York and a low pressure trough over western Queensland. All the portents were good for the manifestation of a very special cloud formation.

Half an hour later, the first red glow of dawn appeared as a crack in the eastern sky while I wiped the dew from the wings of our aircraft where we had tied it down upon our arrival from Longreach the previous day. We went through the complex series of preparations and safety checks with an eye to the north east.

Dawn comes quickly in the tropics and the whole canopy of sky had brightened before we donned our parachutes and clambered into the aircraft. Daylight revealed a black line stretching from one horizon to the other and relentlessly rolling towards us. Today we weren't to be disappointed - the Morning Glory was on its way.

Because we were in the fastest aircraft, a Lancair that Geoff had built himself, we were last into the air. Ahead of us were four two seater motor gliders and Geoff Pratt's tiny single seat Monerai. From behind it looked rather like a slow moving air squadron setting out to engage the enemy.

Our feelings may have been a shadow of pre-combat nerves, too. I certainly felt trepidation as we flew towards the cloud. Even from afar the dominant impression was of bulk and immensity. We cruising at about 1500 feet yet the top of the cloud towered thousands of feet above. It was as if a mountain ridge floating above the ground was inexorably moving to engage us. We drew closer and its wedge shape became more evident and the aircraft in front of us were dwarfed against its flank. Then we entered smoothly rising air directly in front of it and, as we climbed, the full beauty of this special combination of air and water stood revealed. Tendrils of mist extended in front of the cloud and the sun, still low in the sky, shone through the wisps of cloud rolling over the summit to create rainbows of colour dancing along the crest. The whole cloud pulsed like a living thing as powerful ripples ran back from the sharp base of the wedge to the towering summit.

At dawn, the Gulf coast is spectacular. The flat land is a paisley pattern of green vegetation and grey muddy shores interspersed by winding ribbons of rivers burnished bronze by the rising sun. Even from 3000 feet it's easy to discern the bend where the Gulf coast turns north to form western side of Cape York.

While we stayed at the front of the cloud, the flying was easy. But visually there was too much to absorb. We climbed to 6000 feet so we could see the whole tumbling line of cloud as a thin white string extending over Mornington Island towards the Northern Territory border ?? km away.

The whole cloud was in a state of movement. It moved across the ground at 50 km/h and as I watched, the coast disappeared into the deep black shadow it cast across the ground. The cloud itself was rolling, too, the leading edge smoothed as if it were thick cream while, as we descended, the more unruly top looked as if we'd flown into a monstrous showground Fairy Floss machine.

Our radio crackled into life. "We're flying west along the leading edge of the cloud and have about six knots [600 feet/minute] of lift" Brian Marshall in the C Faulk reported. Brian, a school teacher was flying with Richard Hultgren who imports scuba gear. We were a diverse group with occupations ranging from ship builder to Sydney Electricity technician. No-one was thinking of work at present however - our priority was to rapidly establish the position of the other aircraft. Flying near cloud, especially when pursuing a narrow band of lift, there's always the danger of midair collision. Within a couple of minutes we all knew where everyone else was. From our vantage point, the motorgliders, now with their engines off and props feathered, could be seen ahead as tiny dots against the immensity of the cloud.

"Where's Harry the hang glider?" Colin Brock in one of the Grob 109s asked. Good question, and characteristic of Colin, an aircraft engineer with Ansett, whose meticulous care of his aircraft on the ground is matched by a sparkling line of radio repartee in the air. A hazard of aviation is the great difference in the relative speed of aircraft. The motorgliders were travelling at about 70 knots. We were cruising at twice that speed. Now we had to locate Harry Summons who had no radio and whose hang glider's maximum speed was half the cruising speed of the motorgliders.

"We've got him on visual," I could report a few minutes later. "He's five kilometres west of the leading motorglider."   Geoff flew us over for a closer look. The tiny flag of fabric with Harry suspended below was an incongruous sight against the vast expanse of the Morning Glory. He was travelling very fast just to stay at the front of the cloud. From the security of our engined craft we marvelled at his courage. We all knew that if he dropped below or behind the cloud, he could be on the ground in a minute, pushed down by this massive engine of nature.

Despite our best endeavours, we couldn't find Al Giles, another hang glider pilot camping on Cape York to launch into the Morning Glory when it crossed overhead soon after midnight. His goal was to ride the cloud for more than 500 kilometres to establish a new hang gliding world record for distance flown. We found out later that the cloud had arrived too early and travelling too fast. The cloud (and world record) was to elude him throughout the entire season.

By now those of us on the cloud were well south of Burketown and the Morning Glory had crossed the coast more than an hour before. The cloud surface that had previously looked tangible enough to walk upon began to appear decidedly moth eaten. Minutes later it simply wasn't there at all. We could see the secondary cloud to the north but even as we turned it too disappeared. We experienced no sense of disappointment in this - after the euphoria of the flight it seemed impossible to expect this dream-like apparition to endure the full light of day.

"I don't feel like being back on the ground yet," Geoff's voice in my headphones cut into my reverie. "Let's follow the coast to Karumba and have breakfast there."

So we arrived at Brenda Kruske's cafe. A few hours later I'd concluded that everyone in Karumba has a Morning Glory story. Matt Walters who gave us a lift to town from the airstrip is a diesel fitter from Mt Isa who has been here for about three years working on the fishing fleet. In his T-shirt and shorts he looked far from over-imaginative yet he told me that "the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up when one comes over as we're putting the fishing boats in the water," he told me. "But the locals don't even stop to watch. Last year one approached that looked like a giant storm or a huge mountain range - then it broke up completely as it crossed the coast. I thought it was a great show but the others said 'it's just a glory' and continued working."

Margaret Charlier owns Karumba's Gulf Caravan Park. "If we forget to warn our campers about the glory they get a fright," she declared. "When they hear the noise of the wind in the distance most think a giant storm is about to hit. By the time they're finished securing their tents, the wind has died and there's clear sky overhead. The next morning we explain about the Morning Glory and they spend the remainder of their stay sitting outside from 3am so they'll see it properly."

"Even visitors who have heard about the Morning Glory think it's something they'll observe across the gulf - they don't realise they'll be part of it."

In fact, many of the scientific papers on Morning Glories and associated atmospheric waves warn of the danger they pose to aviation. Glories are a hazard to the Gulf fishing industry, too. Bill Ralph is a prawn fisherman who has lived in Karumba since 1966: "Most glories come from the northeast," he relates. "There's no wind at all before then suddenly you're hit with 40 knots. If you've got nets out someone has to stay on watch because the glory will wrap them around the boat and put them straight into the propeller. If it's a nor'easter the wind will go as quickly as it came but a sou'easter is normally followed by a sou'east wind at 20 to 30 knots for the rest of the day - like it's the start of a front."

It says much for the remoteness and sparsity of population along the Gulf that the Morning Glory, a very dramatic local occurrence, remained unreported for so long. Aboriginal communities referred to it variously as the "big wind" or "dew cloud" but the significance they placed upon it appears to have been lost. A letter published in The Bulletin of 12 September 1934 describes the "morning glory" at Burketown so even then the distinctive name was used locally. Then in 1972 Reg Clark published the first scientific paper about the Morning Glory in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and six years later came to the Gulf to research it. Since then, a lot more research has been done and many papers published but some questions remain unanswered. Most of the recent scientific study has been made by Dr Dr Doug Christie of the ANU's Research School of Earth Sciences. He visits the Gulf before the September-November peak season for Morning Glories to place microbarographs to record the season's occurences. However, even he admits that there are many aspects of the cloud formation that remain a mystery.

The Morning Glory is an integral part of Gulf life, affecting shipping and fishing and certainly providing a spectacular start to the day. I went on board the Gulf Freight Services ship "Gulf Cloud" unloading cargo at the Karumba docks to see if its crew had noticed today's cloud. "Yeah mate, I saw it," Chief Mate Jack Martin declared. "We were not far up the coast and I was on watch at 3 am. It was unusual because it was travelling so fast. Most come through at about 20 knots but I reckon this one was doing closer to 60 knots."

Back in Burketown, we encountered Harry Summons, the hang glider pilot we had last seen a kilometre above the salt flats. He was with his wife Fiona, 11 year-old daughter Kirsty and 4 year son Robert in their heavily laden 4WD. After several good days of flying, he was heading home to Victoria.

"Every flight on the glory has been very different," he told me as he refuelled for the long drive. "But our way of operating has remained constant. We're on the flats well before dawn because, as the cloud approaches there's only a few minutes available to launch. Fiona tows me into the air, as she always does."

Harry has been hang gliding since 1973 and this week had become the first pilot to auto-launch into the Morning Glory. As this was his first trip to fly the Gulf, he had been on a steep learning curve. "The first morning I was at 5000 feet when I fell off the back of the primary cloud. I was going down at about 1000 feet a minute - the sink warning signal screamed during the whole descent but I landed on the road alright. Yesterday the lift was silky smooth and I could ridge soar along the length of the cloud. Today I had to sit on 55 km/h just to stay in front of it. The air was smooth so the high speed wasn't a problem but it was far from relaxing."

Over a barbecue dinner under the stars that night, all the glider pilots talked of what a remarkable experience each Morning Glory flight is. For Brian Marshall and Richard Hultgren in the C Faulk, Geoff Pratt in his tiny Monerai, and Paul Reindfleish in one of the Grob-109s and myself, this was our first experience of the grandeur of Gulf's towering cloud. Colin Brock, flying with Paul, had been once before and Geoff Sim, with whom I was flying, had come up for two previous seasons, including our unsuccessful 1993 trip. However, we all had to bow to the greatly superior knowledge of Rob Thompson and Russell White, who had inaugurated the Morning Glory as a gliding venue with a flight in Russell's Grob-109 on 13 October 1989.

Tales of aircraft climbing at 2000 feet a minute and thunderstorms forming where two Morning Glory systems met continued into the night.

Rob lamented that, after years of having the cloud as his private domain, he'd now have to share. "When I first came up here I doubted that any other pilots would ever make the long haul. After today, when we had five motorgliders and a hang glider in the air, I suspect the future challenge will be to take photographs of a Morning Glory that isn't full of gliders."

Colin Brock stood up and convincingly finished the conversation. "From the look of the weather map tonight we'll have our chance again tomorrow. Some locals may be so blase they don't notice Morning Glories anymore but I reckon the thrill of flying it will hold my attention for years. As tomorrow's is probably heading this way right now and dawn isn't far enough away, I'm off to bed. Goodnight."

For rest of the week, the weather map changed little and for three of the five days we had good Morning Glory flights. Each had different characteristics of speed and strength and appearance. One lasted long enough to carry us down to Lawn Hill National Park for a day of swimming in its palm shaded waters. Another I saw from the open doorway of a helicopter as I photographed my fellow pilots soaring the cloud.

One day when all the auspices seemed right, the cloud simply failed to arrive. Another morning when we'd given up hope a poorly defined Morning Glory arrived two hours later than usual then dissipated just before it reached Burketown. The Gulf of Carpentaria may be the most reliable place in the world for the formation of this type of cloud but it can never be taken for granted.

What's a Morning Glory?

The Morning Glory is the spectacular manifestation of a large-amplitude solitary wave moving through stable layers of air. Typically, it's a roll cloud about one kilometre high and a kilometre wide - and up to 1000 km long. It shows on satellite images as a pencil-thin white line, bending as it crosses the coast. This giant, foreboding form may be only 100 metres above the ground but its base is more often at an altitude of 300 feet.

The world's leading expert in the phenomenon is Dr Doug Christie of the ANU's Research School of Earth Sciences. He states that the Morning Glory is caused by intense tropical sea breezes from the east and west colliding over Cape York Peninsula at the end of the previous day. The resulting wave rolls across the Gulf to arrive over Burketown around dawn. Long after the cloud has dissipated, the wave continues as a wind squall until it finally dies about noon, perhaps over 150 kilometres to the south of Burketown.

Only during the months preceding and during the wet season is there sufficient moisture in the atmosphere to create the dramatic cloud formation of the Morning Glory. Indeed, once the cloud crosses the coast onto the very dry land near Burketown it soon dissipates. The cloud has invariably dissipated by the time the wave has moved 150 km inland - and only about 40 per cent of waves have clouds at all. On the ground, its arrival is accompanied by strong wind squalls for a few minutes but, despite the black, threatening cloud, never any rain.

Generally, there will be Morning Glories several mornings in a row then none for several days - even weeks - following.

The Morning Glory is not unique. Indeed, even at Burketown the renowned northeasterly Morning Glory is only the most common one - other similar clouds come from the south and southeast. All are now known by scientists and locals alike as "Morning Glories". In 1991, Doug Christie on Sweers Island (30 km off the coast near Burketown) witnessed two systems crossing, apparently with no effect upon each other. On October 29, 1994 all three systems occurred simultaneously and met over Burketown airstrip - the clouds of each stretched as far as the eye could see.

Similar phenomena occur in other parts of the world (including central Australia) though most are without accompanying cloud. But the Gulf is special in being the only place in the world where the roll cloud occurs frequently and predictably.

Simply put, (and the mathematical models of the Morning Glory are anything but simple), the wave is a single parcel of air. People on the ground often comment on how cold the wind associated with a Morning Glory can be - in fact it's the cool midnight air from the highlands of Cape York. But, contrary to what one may expect, the air mass rotates against the direction of travel - the air at the front is rising and forms cloud when the moisture in it cools to the point of condensation. The cloud subsequently dissipates along the trailing edge.

While the Morning Glory is a solitary wave it still has several components. By far the most impressive cloud is the leading, primary wave but it is followed by a series of lesser clouds of decreasing definition and intensity.

There is still much to be learned about the Morning Glory. Only now, as scientists and pilots combine knowledge is the task of predicting their occurrence becoming more certain. But even absolute understanding will never detract from the thrill of observing one of the world's most spectacular meteorological phenomena.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd