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Vanished wet season of 1952 has eerie similarities to NT's current dry spell

By Jesse Thompson and Rebecca McLaren, Thursday March 14, 2019 - 20:03 EDT
ABC image
'The water was soup' in this creek near Yuendumu after the big dry of 1952. - ABC

The Northern Territory's wet season, or lack thereof, may be one for the record books.

The Bureau of Meteorology believes Darwin could be on track for its driest wet season on record, measuring 890 millimetres of rainfall — just over half the average.

Further afield, maximum temperature records for March tumbled this week in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and a handful of more remote areas.

It gave cause for to revisit another season in which the promise of rain evaporated.

It was 1952 and long-range rainfall data shows its total rainfall was dwarfed by the surrounding years.

With the rainfall axis adjusted, the gap becomes so steep it looks like an error.

But in fact, archival records tell stories of an economy-destroying drought, ruined birthday parties and whimsical attempts to make rain during what was soon declared the worst drought in the history of the north.

'Cattle gathered like grasshoppers'

The earliest editions of the NT News were slim weekly publications with front-page stories about the death of King George VI and a unnamed local girl rumoured to be starring in Charles Chauvel's film Jedda.

First hitting the stands early in February 1952, the newspaper also covered the drastic drought conditions sweeping the north.

By far the drought's most significant effect was on agriculture.

The stock routes were too dry to sustain country-crossing movements of cattle, dealing the first of several deep blows to what was then the Territory's dominant industry.

"It had a severe impact and it would take years for the herds to recover from those losses," Alice Springs historian Alex Nelson said.

The extent of that severe drought, especially throughout the Barkly Tablelands and slightly further north, is captured in a series of headlines.

In March, an article heralding the "worst drought in the history of the north" forecast the loss of 1 million head of cattle in drought-stricken areas.

One report titled "Tragic toll of cattle in drought area" was illustrated with a grim image — carcasses amassed in piles of 50 awaiting incineration, each paying "mute testimony to the increasing seriousness of the Northern Territory drought".

A week later in early April, the season was declared to be the "driest season for 50 years", with a journalist reporting that in "places where isolated storms had fallen, cattle were gathered like grasshoppers on a green lawn".

Salvation for some areas came the following month in what Mr Nelson termed a wet winter followed by successive seasons of heavy rainfall.

History repeating?

Scattered throughout the 1951-52 drought are eerie similarities to this year's hot, dry wet season.

Mr Nelson noted the phenomenon of wild horses dying around a drying waterhole, "virtually an identical situation" to .

Another incident resembles the .

In October 1951, a committee for Alice Springs' Anzac Oval made an ultimately ill-fated decision to grass the field using donations from people's yards.

But the inhospitable desert climate, alongside the town's strict water restrictions, soon threatened to brown the lawn, and volunteers resorted to hand-watering the grass at night to keep it alive.

"It did survive, but because the country was so dry all around it, an additional problem to just the watering was that it attracted all the rabbits around the district," Mr Nelson said.

"They had literally hundreds of rabbits coming to graze the grass."

Dead fish, flights of fancy

In the Top End, people still felt the effects of the drought, albeit on a much less significant scale.

One article speaks of an Adelaide River boy "robbed" of a birthday tradition.

"The lad's birthday in 1950 and again in 1951 was the occasion of the phenomenon of fish raining from the skies, and it was great fun for the youthful guests of the birthday parties gathering them up," a report from April 18, 1952 read.

"But this year the weather man let him down."

Elsewhere, barramundi were reportedly "committing suicide" by leaping out of creeks and streams, trapped by drying pools of water.

And in Darwin, residents paid witness to a rainmaker equipped with three skyward mirrors and a belief that rain was made by reflecting the sun's rays back into the upper stratosphere.

The person reportedly claimed credit for rain in south-eastern Australia two months earlier, and would go on to claim credit for drought-breaking rains over the Barkly Tableland.

But a prickly weather bureau employee quickly lanced his pride.

"At first it was claimed that rain would be produced in Darwin and then 'beamed' inland to drought-stricken areas — this in spite of the prevailing south-east winds," the employee wrote in a letter to the editor.

"Territorians will, I am sure, take this near-sorcery for what it is worth. The peanut growers had nothing to fear after all."


© ABC 2019

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