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A cloud forms in the remote Australian outback of northern Queensland which offers some of the most dramatic and exciting gliding conditions in the world.

By Gavin Pretor-Pinney


The Morning Glory cloud sweeps in over the Gulf coast of northern Queensland

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THE REMOTE SETTLEMENT of Burketown, in Australia’s northern Queensland, is not the sort of place you’d expect people to travel thousands of miles to visit. With a population of just 178, Burketown sits in one of Australia’s most remote shires. But every September and October, a small group of individuals journey from all corners of the country for the appearance of a remarkable and dramatic cloud called the Morning Glory. Clouds don’t usually have names, nor are they normally linked to a particular location, but then the Morning Glory is no normal cloud. Looking like a huge white roll of meringue, it stretches up to 600 miles (about the length of Britain) and sweeps over Burketown at speeds of up to 35mph. The visitors who come to marvel at this beautiful and awe-inspiring meteorological phenomenon are an intrepid group of glider pilots, for whom the cloud promises the most unique and thrilling flying conditions of anywhere in the world. Each year they come to this sleepy town in the hope of ‘soaring’ the Morning Glory, an exhilarating gliding adventure that can only be described as cloud-surfing.

It is the end of September and I’ve decided to go and see this cloud for myself. But stories abound of pilots travelling thousands of miles to see the Morning Glory, only to leave a few weeks later empty-handed. Clouds, after all, are the most chaotic of nature’s displays - even the common ones defy all attempts at prediction. So as I sit looking out of the window from the luxury of my Qantas flight from London, I consider the fact that my trip to the other side of the world to see a cloud could well turn out to be a wild goose chase. The light aircraft that brings me into Burketown touches down in the dusk of the town’s deserted airstrip. Its tyres skid down on to the tarmac as I do the opposite of most people arriving at an exotic location: I close my eyes and pray for clouds.

On the drive into town, it feels as though I have arrived somewhere just beyond the middle of nowhere. ‘It is real outback here,’ says Paul Poole, who runs Savannah Aviation, the town’s light aircraft charter firm. ‘This truly is one of the last untamed areas of Australia.’ Poole operates flights between the various remote townships of the Gulf of Carpentaria. With the immense distances involved and the inhospitable savannah terrain, aircraft are the only sensible way of getting around. The town relies on Poole’s aircraft more than ever during the December to February wet season, when this whole flat region becomes flooded, rendering the dirt roads in and out of it impassable. Mount Isa, the nearest large town, is 200 miles away and the road is only half-finished. ‘Once they complete that road,’ Poole says, ‘you won’t recognize this place. The change will be unbelievable and the Morning Glory will become the biggest thing in Australian gliding.’

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