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The Yanyuwa have a detailed knowledge of their climate. This includes an acute understanding of both micro and macro scale variations. The most striking feature of the region's tropical climate is the intensely seasonal variation. Photos 1 and 2 taken of the same area in the "wet" and "dry" illustrate this seasonal contrast. Summaries of temperature and rainfall statistics for the Borroloola region are given in figure 1. As the graphs in this figure indicate, the contrast between the dry season and the wet season is stark but it is a Eurocentric view to consider that there are only two seasons in Northern Australia. As the Yanyuwa five season calendar (figure 2) indicates, the climatic pattern is much more complex than this. Other researchers working in northern Australia have recorded the complexity of Aboriginal recognised seasons. Thomson (1949a:16) notes a six season system from his work in eastern Arnhem Land. Chase (1980:156) also records six recognised seasons from his Cape York fieldwork and Anderson (1984:96-97) records 5 seasons from another part of Cape York.

Figure 1: Temperature and rainfall figures for the Borroloola region.
(Click on figure for enlarged view).

Figure 2: Yanuwa concepts of seasons. (Click on figure for enlarged view).

 

 

Photo 1: "Dry"
Photo 2: "Wet"

Notes: The months listed are only an approximate guide to when events start and finish. The exact date of onset of seasons is variable. It is the sequence and not the date of their occurrence that is recorded in Yanyuwa knowledge of the seasons (and plant and food resources see figures 4 and 5).

In the Yanyuwa calendar ngardaru is the hot weather time of August and September. During ngardaru grasses die back, waterholes often dry out and dust storms (kurumbirribirri) are often whipped up by strong hot winds (yunduyduwarra). Na-yinarramba is the hot humid weather of November and December. This is a period of extreme human discomfort as temperatures regularly top 40 degrees C. and accompanying high humidity make any strenuous activity difficult. There is little relief at night time as the temperature rarely falls below 25 degrees C. and the humidity persists. During this period there are often intense rainless electrical storms. In areas in the region that have not been managed by Aboriginal burning, lightning strikes during such storms often start large bush fires. A startling local meteorological feature that occurs at this time of year along the coast are the rolling clouds known as "morning glories". This feature plays a role in Yanyuwa mythology songs. The cloud is also used as an indicator that flying foxes and certain bird species are about to commence their seasonal migrations.

The first storms of the wet season provide an enormous relief to the hot humid conditions. Spirits are lifted and tensions relaxed as rain finally falls after what is often a period of six to eight rainless months. The Yanyuwa sub-divide the wet season into wunthurru (early storm period) and lhabayi (wet season proper). Lhabayi is a period of heavy rainfall but it usually falls less violently than the rain of wunthurru. An unpredictable variable in the wet season are cyclones (warlungarnarra) that can occur any time between November and May. (Figure 2 shows them occurring in the area in March as this is a common month for cyclones). Late in the wet season there are also usually burrumanamala (knock him down) winds. These are windy rain storms which often flatten the high (often two metres and over) grass that has rapidly grown during the wet season.

Rra-mardu corresponds to the European recognised dry season. This is a long pleasant period with sunny generally cloudless days and cool evenings. During rra-mardu heavy fogs (rra-wuna) often occur. The understandings the Yanyuwa have of these fogs are a good example of micro-climate knowledge. The Yanyuwa can predict with great accuracy the pattern of how these fogs are thicker and more common the closer one moves towards the coast. The fogs produce very heavy dews that make sleeping out in the open most unpleasant and wet. As a result this is a period of numerous colds, coughs and often influenza. The fogs are considered to have dangerous properties capable of causing the death of old people. Such fogs, however, tend to last only a few weeks and for the rest of rra-mardu conditions are pleasant and this is the time when large energy-draining ceremonies were held. European behaviour in the area has also been very season specific. For example, the recent tourist boom in the area) is concentrated in the pleasant months of rra-mardu. As Bella Marrajabu notes (1987 Tape 60A 9 min.)[1] "when storm come now they all [go] back to their country''.

 

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Footnote

[1] This and all subsequent quotes from Yanyuwa people are from tapes I made which are now lodged with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In Baker 1989b I discuss the methods used first to collect this material and secondly to transcribe it so that the location to the nearest minute on the tape is known.