Morning Glory Clouds of the Gulf of Carpentaria

Morning Glory, Burketown 1969

Bob King, 25/10/02

G'day: Just browsing through some weather stuff, I came across your pics of the Gulf of Carpentaria (and others) roll clouds. Fascinating stuff. I often have difficulty in describing the phenomenon to others who have never experienced it. Now I can refer them to your website. 

It came as a dark, threatening, tumbling cloud, a great rush of wind and a huge swirl of dust and ground debris.

     I was transferred from Tully (wet, lush and green) to Normanton (hot, dry and brown) as a PMG (TELSTRA) technician in June 1969 and remained there until May 1973, just a few months before the big (whopper!) flood of 1974. Often, I had to camp out with my workmates, the Normanton PMG linesmen, when we were out of town for a couple of days. 

     One night, late in '69, we were camped on the outskirts of Burketown  when Jack and Keith warned me about the "morning glory". We didn't use tents, just rolled our swags out on the ground, and "choked down" (Gulf lingo for lying down to sleep) under our mosquito nets beside our work vehicles. 

     As usual, I thought that they were having a lend of me, a naive east-coaster, as they were inveterate leg-pullers and had played many jokes on me previously. They didn't explain what a "morning glory" was, but to beware of it. I thought that they were making a slightly ribald joke, as the term "morning glory" also had other connotations. I noticed that they tied down their mosquito nets more securely than usual. I didn't.

     Next morning, I found out what they were talking about when the first one hit, although I ignored their first warnings.

     "Hey, Bob, wake up! Here comes the morning glory, you'd better watch out!" Jack said.
     "Bugger off and let me sleep," I said, keeping my eyes closed.
     "Better get up, it's coming."
     "Yeah," I replied, "so's Christmas." 
     I glanced blearily at my watch. The time was 6:00 a.m., too early to get up yet.
     Keith laughed. "Don't say you weren't warned," he said. 
     "Righto, I won't." 

     I yawned and rolled over, determined not to be "had" - yet again - by my prankster mates.

     I became aware of a rapid strengthening of the light morning breeze - and opened my eyes...

     Jack and Keith were now sitting inside their Land-Rover, their swags rolled and packed. 

     It came as a dark, threatening, tumbling cloud, a great rush of wind and a huge swirl of dust and ground debris.

     It tangled my mosquito net, my swag and bed-clothes, covered me in choking red dust, distributed my unattended possessions, including my hat and clean clothes, willy-nilly across the dusty flat, and left me utterly bewildered. Then came a second, and a third, each less severe than the first. The first appeared as though it held enough water to "rain a foot", as they say, but there were only a few very light spots of rain. Mostly, just dust, sticks and leaves accompanied the wind gusts.

     I was told (obviously incorrectly, I now find) that this cloud formation occurred only in the Gulf Of Carpentaria and the Gulf of Mexico.

     Following my first experience, I saw quite a few more morning glories during my four-year stay in Normanton and in the Gulf, some of them rolling through town as early as 2 a.m.  I was told that the larger ones could extend more than 200 miles from end to end, e.g., from Croydon to Burketown and beyond. Sometimes there was just one cloud, often there were two, and occasionally there were as many as three. What usually alerted me to the very early morning ones at home was the noise of empty beer cans clattering noisily down the main street of town. Litter - mostly papers, aluminium beer cans and glass stubbies - was a bad problem in Normanton then; I don't know whether it still is.

     The morning glory seen at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. on a night of a full moon in the Gulf is an awesome and beautiful thing to behold.  Once or twice, I woke my wife Carmen to get up and have a look at the more spectacular examples. One unexpected feature of the cloud, I noticed, is that it appears to roll backwards upon itself as it progresses across the sky. That is, the roiling cloud at the base moves forward, then up and behind the front of the main cloud mass, rather like a pencil rolling across a desk, but spinning along its main axis in reverse motion as it carries forwards.

     It was beaut to see your photos. I wish I'd taken a few of my own, but I rarely had a camera with me when I saw one, or it was at night, and photography was useless. I recall seeing something about the morning glory a few years back on ABC-TV. Quite interesting.

     Anyway, that's it. I've had my say.

     Bob King

How Electricity Works
Bob King, 26/10/02

In just four years up the Gulf, I heard and saw enough things to yarn about for ages. There are some marvellous characters there and I met mobs of 'em. 

In the early 70's, Burketown had no commercial power supply. Everyone had their own gen sets and battery banks.

"Nope. Can't read. Never went to school. Never had a day's training in me life."

One character I met was an old mad coot in Burketown. It was said that he was a fantastic handyman who could turn his hand to any hopeless repair job and get things working again - anything from a windmill to a sewing machine to a Council grader. 

He rattled on for an hour one night about how to provide and distribute electric power to the town. He drew plans and diagrams that made complete sense, although he looked as silly as a two-bob watch. I can't remember his name, poor old bugger. He really seemed to know what he was talking about, but he looked such a derro that I wondered about his past history. When in town, he slept in an old abandoned 1930's Ford sedan in the vacant block across the road from the pub. He used to wind the windows up and smoke like a chimney to protect himself from the mossies. 

"Are you an electrician or an electrical engineer by profession?" I asked.

"Nope. Can't read. Never went to school. Never had a day's training in me life."

"How do you know so much about electricity?"

He looked around to see if anyone else was taking any notice, drew me close and whispered hoarsely in my ear (with an alcohol-laden breath).

"I can see the bloody stuff running through the wires! I can bloody see it, but no bastard believes me. Do you? Well, do ya?" he demanded.

I held my breath, nodded mutely, and tried to get away from his fumes, potent enough to shrivel rubber vines at twenty paces. I still don't know if he was having me on, but I shouted him a couple just to hear some of his yarns.

A few months later, I heard that he'd died, burnt to death in the old bomb that he camped in. His "bedroom" had caught fire, presumably because he'd gone to sleep with a lit cigarette, and woke up too late. They could hear his screams, but no one could get near the car because of the ferocity of the flames. 

A very sad and terrible demise, but a spectacular one, they said. 

And speaking about new-chums in the Gulf, the yarn I loved was the bloke (a Turk, I think) who jumped ship in Weipa from a bulk alumina carrier. He wanted to stay in Australia, so he went bush to get away. 

He stayed away one or two nights (can't remember exactly), then reappeared in town, terrified out of his wits, screaming he'd been attacked by giant "vampire" bats. The poor bugger had strayed into a flying-fox camp, and their screams and stink almost sent him round the bend. He rejoined his ship and didn't stay in Australia, the report said. 
I'm pretty sure this story is not apocryphal. As a matter of fact, it was broadcast on the ABC news one day, and that's how I got to hear of it.


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