The island continent

Mainland Australia, with an area of 7.69 million square kilometres, is the Earth’s largest island but smallest continent. It stretches about 3700 kilometres from north to south and 4000 kilometres from east to west.

In area, Australia is the 6th largest nation after Russia, Canada, China, the United States and Brazil. It is about twice the size of the European Union or the ten nations that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Its ocean territory – the third largest in the world – spans three oceans and covers around 12 million square kilometres.

Australia’s average elevation is only 330 metres, the lowest of all the continents. Its highest point, Mount Kosciuszko, is only 2228 metres. The lack of height is more than compensated for in landscape variety. The giant monolith Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory and the striking beehive mountains of Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles) in Western Australia attract visitors from every corner of the world, as do the country’s beaches and rainforests.

States and territories

The responsibility for governing this vast continent is shared between three levels of government – the federal Australian Government, the governments of the six states and two territories, and about 700 local government authorities.

Australia has one of the most urbanised and coast-dwelling populations in the world. More than 80 per cent of Australians live within 100 kilometres of the coast.

The Australian Capital Territory is 290 kilometres south of Sydney. It was established in 1911 as the site of Canberra, the nation’s capital. It is home to important national institutions, including the Australian Parliament, the High Court of Australia, the National Gallery, the National Library, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian War Memorial.

New South Wales is Australia’s oldest and most populous state. Its capital, Sydney, is the nation’s largest city. The city’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House are national icons, and Sydney Airport is the country’s major international gateway.

Victoria is the smallest of the mainland states in area but the second most populous and the most densely populated. Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, is Australia’s second-largest city. Victorians’ enthusiasm for sport is legendary and the state stops each November for the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s premier horse race. The Australian Tennis Open and the Australian Formula One Grand Prix are also held in Melbourne.

Queensland, the second-largest state in landmass, stretches from the tropical rainforests of Cape York in the far north to the more temperate areas in the south-east of the state. The unique Great Barrier Reef runs along its north-east coast. The capital of Queensland is Brisbane.

Did you know?

Located just off the coast of southern Queensland, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. It measures more than 123 kilometres in length and reaches 25 kilometres at its widest point. The island features freshwater lakes, sand dunes, wetlands and rainforest. It is also famous for its coloured sands, stained from decayed vegetation leaching into the sand, with deposits up to eight million years old. Fraser Island has a World Heritage listing due to its uniqueness and is a popular tourist destination.

South Australia is known as the ‘Festival State’, with more than 500 festivals taking place there every year. The state has 13 wine regions and is a hub for Australia’s food and wine gourmets. Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, contains many fine examples of colonial architecture.

Western Australia is the largest state in area. The east of the state is mostly desert while to the west the state is bound by 12 889 kilometres of the world’s most pristine coastline. About three-quarters of the state’s population lives in Perth, the capital.

Tasmania is separated from mainland Australia by Bass Strait and is the smallest state in Australia. With its unspoilt wilderness landscapes, it is one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations for both Australians from the mainland and overseas visitors. Every year on 26 December the keenest of sailors race from Sydney to Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, in the nation’s most hotly contested sailing event.

The Northern Territory is twice as big as France but has a population of about 200 000 people. Darwin, on the northern coast, is the capital and Alice Springs the principal inland town. The Northern Territory is home to the famous Uluru–Kata Tjuta and Kakadu national parks.

Land area and population of Australia by states and territories at June 2007


Area (square kilometres)

Estimated Resident Population (millions)


Estimated Resident Population (millions)

New South Wales

800 642





227 416





1 730 648




Western Australia

2 529 875




South Australia

983 482





68 401




Australian Capital Territory

2 358




Northern Territory

1 349 129





7 692 024




Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
Note: The total population figure for Australia includes other territories administered by Australia.

Australia also administers Ashmore and Cartier Islands, Christmas Island, the Cocos (or Keeling) Islands, the Coral Sea Islands, Heard and McDonald Islands, Norfolk Island and the Australian Antarctic Territory (covering 42 per cent of the Antarctic continent) as external territories.

Did you know?

Mawson is Australia’s oldest Antarctic station, established in 1954 and named after Antarctic explorer and geologist Sir Douglas Mawson. The station is renowned for its cold winds, with gusts often exceeding 180 km/hour.

Between October and March each year, more than 400 people are deployed to Australia’s three permanent Antarctic research stations, Mawson, Davis and Casey, and a subantarctic station on Macquarie Island. All four stations are occupied year-round and provide a base for a variety of scientific projects, including research into climate change, marine ecosystems and human impacts on the Antarctic environment. State-of-the-art satellite communication technology enables scientific and medical information to be transmitted from the stations to Australia and allows staff to maintain contact with their families and receive the latest online news.


Although 6.5 per cent of its land mass is arable, Australia’s diverse climatic zones, technical expertise and hardworking farmers combine to produce a wide range of highly sought-after agricultural and forestry products. Australia’s location in the Southern Hemisphere also makes it ideally situated to supply counter-seasonal produce to markets in Asia, Europe and North America during their winter months. Australia exports around 65 per cent of its farm products; 60 per cent of its forest products; 98 per cent of its wool; and 51 per cent of its dairy products.

Landscape and climate

The Australian landscape is distinctive and varied. In the centre and the west there are vast stony and sandy deserts; in the east, sweeping plateaus and plains flank narrow coastal slopes. Australia’s coast features broad sandy beaches and lush vegetation. These are backed by a great variety of landforms, ranging from the steep cliffs of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and the eroded volcanic rock of the Glasshouse Mountains north of Brisbane, to flat plains on the southern coast west of Adelaide.

The Murray and Darling rivers are the two longest river systems in Australia. Together they form the Murray-Darling Basin, which covers more than one million square kilometres – 14 per cent of the mainland. Lake Eyre, in the centre of the country, is a vast salt lake more than 9000 square kilometres in area which is dry for lengthy periods.

About one-third of the mainland lies north of the Tropic of Capricorn, with the remainder stretching to 39° South. About 70 per cent of the country is arid or semi-arid, and a large part of the centre is unsuitable for settlement. Eleven principal deserts make up some 20 per cent of the mainland area. More than one-third of the continent is virtually desert owing to low rainfall.

The national average annual rainfall of 465 millimetres varies greatly each year and is distributed unevenly around the continent. The driest area is the Lake Eyre drainage basin, which averages less than 125 millimetres annually. The wettest regions are in the tropical north-east and in the south-west of Tasmania, with more than 3500 millimetres recorded in some parts of Tasmania’s mountain ranges.

Despite these erratic rain patterns, Australia has fertile areas close to the coast, where the bulk of the population lives. Here Australians experience a range of climates, from wet and humid tropical conditions in the far north, through warm and temperate on the central east and west coasts, to cooler conditions on the southern coasts and in Tasmania.

All regions in Australia enjoy warm summers and relatively mild winters, and it rarely snows in the capital cities. The highest temperature ever recorded in Australia was in 1889 in Cloncurry, Queensland, when the mercury rose to 53 degrees Celsius. The coldest temperature was recorded in 1994 at Charlotte Pass in New South Wales at minus 23 degrees Celsius.

Did you know?

Australia is currently moving north-east at a rate of 73 millimetres per year. Geoscience Australia monitors regional earthquake risk by measuring the movement of tectonic plates. The Australian continent is part of the Indian-Australian tectonic plate, which is slowly moving, carrying the continent with it. Geoscience Australia’s 16 global positioning system receivers are located across Australian territory, including three receivers at Australia’s Antarctic bases, one on Cocos Island and one on Macquarie Island south of New Zealand. Each receiver measures horizontal and vertical movement to an accuracy of one millimetre.