Daring pilots head to the Gulf of Carpentaria for the rare chance to ride the amazing cloud phenomenon, the Morning Glory.

Story By Barry Slade

When it comes to big waves, most of us reserve a special kind of awe for those who seek out and ride the world’s mightiest moving mountains – waves such as Mavericks, Jaws, Waimea and those at Cortes Bank. But for all their awesome efforts, those dedicated to snaring the world’s biggest ocean waves may just be outdone by a bunch of landlubbers. Turns out that the real big-wave surfers can be found in Australia’s outback. The difference is that these waves aren’t in water – they’re made of moving air. They are still waves, however, and they pack an almighty punch. In fact, they act in the same way as waves in the ocean do because the atmosphere abides by the same laws of fluid dynamics. A group of intrepid, pioneering hardcore glider pilots wait around for weeks on end until conditions are right to tackle these monsters head on.
To find these uber-waves, you’ll need to go to a very remote part of northern Australia – the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is the only place in the world where this phenomenon – known locally as the Morning Glory – occurs with any predictability. On these unique clouds the gliders aren’t – as they usually would be – dependent on random thermals to stay aloft. The giant suck of air rising up the front of the wave provides all the energy they need and offers them a steep, invisible wave face where drop-in speeds can reach nearly 260 kilometres an hour, and all kinds of crazy surf-style manoeuvres can be performed.
“You come over the face of the cloud and streak down it, maybe dipping into the cloud all the way to the bottom, and then just arcing up into a full loop,” Rick Bowie, one of the sky surfing pilots, says. “You can just soar on and on for an hour or more, doing acrobatics, anything you want. Meanwhile, the sight of this wave-shaped cloud and its outrageous size are just blowing you away.”
The glider pilots share the bravado of their big-water-wave cousins because the potential for disaster is equally real – the dynamics of the wave cloud make wipeouts a strong possibility. That tremendous uplift at the front of the cloud is matched by an equally powerful downward draft at the back. Blundering into it is probably terminal for a motorised craft, and certainly so for a glider.

This Story is from Issue #60

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2008