Like surfers scouting for the ultimate wave, gliders have travelled nationwide to soar across the Gulf of Carpentaria’s rare roll-like cloud formation known as the morning glory.

The long rolling clouds often appear in northern Australia during spring, when cool ocean temperatures meet with warm land temperatures.

Geoff Pratt, from Cairns, has been making the annual pilgrimage to Burketown for the Morning Glory Festival for the last 20 years, and said it was always worth the effort.

“When I was a child, I always wanted to fly, and I finally got to actually fly like the eagles do,” he said.

“The morning glory phenomenon — it’s like the ultimate way for glider pilots.

“Surfers go all over the world to catch that ultimate wave, well this is pretty much it for me, and it’s different each time. It’s always special.”

The gliders meet at Burketown airport, take off, fly towards the cloud, and when they’re ready, turn off the engines

“As a glider, you’ve got to find air going up faster than you’re going down and that’s what happens in front of the cloud,” Mr Pratt said.

“There’s a really strong updraft and that’s what you fly along.”

‘No, it’s not scary’

Graeme Clinton travelled from Perth for the rare event, with his glider tightly contained in a large trailer.

Despite participating in a sport where pilots turn off their engines thousands of feet above the ground, Mr Clinton said he had never felt scared.

“No, it’s not scary, it’s quite pleasant to sit there in a known source of lift,” Mr Clinton said.

“Those clouds have never let anyone down yet.”

Mr Clinton explained that a successful flight depended on finding the ‘lift’ — where air pockets push the aircraft upwards.

“A glider is using the air currents over the wing to produce lift,” he said.

“A glider technically is always descending through the air so that air will flow over the wings, but out here on the morning glory the air is rising anyway, so the combination of the slight descent from the glider and the rapid rise of air takes the glider up and causes no problems.”

And while Mr Clinton said most seasoned pilots only got a few opportunities to fly the morning glory, Burketown had what he described as a “cracker season”.

“On most years they get about four morning glory clouds. We’ve been here for just a week and we’ve been on six of them so far.”

Cultural meaning

Gangalidda traditional owner Murrandoo Yanner said his people believe the morning glory was created by Walalu, the Rainbow Serpent, and is of great cultural significance.

“The general principle we believe is that the spirits of all our dead ancestors are watching over us and travel on that cloud to check out the lower Gulf and go across all their country,” Mr Yanner said.

“Secondly, it’s an energy source.

“People involved in traditional Aboriginal law and ceremony can tap into that energy.”

Mr Yanner said the cloud also indicated a change in season.

“We know it’s sea turtle season, there’s going to dew, so it signifies a change in us for our fire practice — we can start burning,” he said.

The cloud formation was also celebrated as part of Burketown’s Morning Glory Festival, held over the weekend.