Official name : Commonwealth of Australia

Area: 7,686,300 square kilometers (2,966,200 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Mount Kosciusko (2,229 meters/7,314 feet)

Highest point in Australian territory: Mawson Peak (2,745 meters/9,000 feet), an active volcano on Heard Island near Antarctica

Lowest point on land: Lake Eyre (16 meters/52 feet below sea level)

Hemispheres: Southern and Eastern

Time zone: 10:00 P.M. in New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland = noon GMT; 9:00 P.M. in South Australia and Northern Territory = noon GMT; 8:00 P.M. in Western Australia = noon GMT

Longest distances: 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) from east to west; 3,837 kilometers (2,374 miles) from north to south

Land boundaries: None

Coastline: 36,735 kilometers (22,831 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 4.8 kilometers (3 miles)


The nation of Australia, which also happens to be the world's smallest continent, is situated in the Southern Hemisphere southeast of Asia, between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Australia covers an area of 7,686,300 square kilometers (2,966,200 square miles). It is slightly smaller than the contiguous United States (not including Alaska and Hawaii). Australia is divided into six states and two territories.

Many Australian place-names reflect the country's history as a British colony, as well as the influence of Dutch and French explorers who visited the region during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In the late twentieth century, some Aboriginal place-names replaced the British colonial names.

The following table lists the area of each of the six Australian states in both metric and English units:

New South Wales 801,600 309,500
Queensland 1,727,200 666,900
South Australia 985,000 379,900
Tasmania (Island) 67,800 26,200
Victoria 227,600 87,900
Western Australia 2,525,500 975,100


Mainland Australia has two territories: Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. The following table lists the area of each region in metric and English units:

Northern Territory 1,346,200 519,800
Australian Capital Territory 2,400 900

Since 1936, Australia has claimed an additional 6.1 million square kilometers (2.4 million square miles) on the continent of Antarctica as Australian Antarctic Territory—about 40 percent of the total land area. Three scientific bases are in operation there: Mawson (established in February of 1954), Davis (established in January of 1957), and Casey (established in February of 1969).

Furthermore, Australia claims authority over several nearby inhabited islands including Christmas Island, which is located in the Indian Ocean 2,623 kilometers (1,630 miles) northwest of Perth. Christmas Island covers an area of about 135 square kilometers (52 square miles), and in 1996 it had an estimated population of 813; 61 percent of the island's residents were Chinese and 25 percent were Malay. Not far from Christmas Island, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of twenty-seven islets with a total land area of 14 square kilometers (5 square miles), two of which are inhabited. In 1996, the estimated population of these two islands was 609. Another possession, Norfolk Island, is northeast of Sydney and covers an area of 36 square kilometers (14 square miles). British explorer James Cook discovered Norfolk Island in 1774; the British government later sent prisoners here during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1856, descendants of the British sailors who had carried out a mutiny on the ship, HMS Bounty , in 1789, joined the prisoners and settled on Norfolk Island. As of 1996, the estimated permanent population was 2,209.

Australia also claims authority over a number of uninhabited islands. The Coral Sea Islands were declared a territory of Australia in 1969; they have no permanent inhabitants, but researchers temporarily take up residence at a meteorology station on one of the islands. The mountainous Heard Island, which is about 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) southwest of Perth, covers an area of 910 square kilometers (350 square miles) and has a dormant volcano known as Big Ben (at an elevation of 2,740 meters/8,990 feet). Shag Island is just north of Heard Island; only 42 kilometers (26 miles) to the west are the small McDonald Islands. About 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) southeast of Tasmania, the rocky Macquarie Island measures 34 kilometers (21 miles) in length and about 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) in width. Macquarie Island is uninhabited except for a base maintained at its northern end since February 1948; at its southern end, it houses the biggest penguin rookery (a breeding ground) in the world.


The climate of Australia is warm and dry. The following table summarizes seasonal temperatures and precipitation levels in the capital city of Sydney:

Summer December to February 22°C (71°F) 89 mm (3.5 in.)
Fall March to May 18°C (65°F) 1345 mm (5.3 in.)
Winter June to August 12°C (54°F) 76 mm (3.0 in.)
Spring September to November 19°C (67°F) 74 mm (2.9 in.)


Australia has one of the flattest terrains of any country in the world. Erosion over thousands of years has rounded and flattened the mountains of Australia, so that only 6 percent of the land is over 610 meters (2,000 feet) above sea level. The country may be divided into regions according to topography (description of the surface of the land).

The Eastern Highlands (also called the Eastern Uplands) encompass the eastern portion of the country, stretching from the Cape York Peninsula in northern Queensland south through New South Wales and Victoria. Average elevation in this region is about 152 meters (500 feet). The country's highest peak, Mount Kosciusko—at 2,229 meters (7,314 feet)—is found in the southeast corner of the mainland between Melbourne and Canberra.

The Western Plateau is a large desert region, covering approximately the western two-thirds of the country. The Western Plateau rests on an ancient rock shield or foundation, and the average elevation throughout is 305 meters (1,000 feet) above sea level. The Western Plateau has one mountain range (Hamersley) at its western edge, and three mountain ranges (Macdonnell, Musgrave, and Petermann) that stretch to its eastern edge. From these ranges southward, the Western Plateau is generally a flat tableland, with dramatic outcroppings of granite or sandstone. Four deserts are situated on the Western Plateau. The dry central part of the Western Plateau is popularly referred to as the "Outback." The Darling Range, also known as the Darling Scarp, is found along the plateau's southwest coast.


Several bodies of water surround Australia. Along the northern coast lie the Timor Sea (northwest of Darwin) and the Arafura Sea (directly north of Darwin between Australia and the neighboring nations of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea). The Coral Sea lies east of the Cape York Peninsula along the northeast coast. Stretching directly east is the Pacific Ocean. The Tasman Sea lies along the southeast shore of mainland Australia northeast of Tasmania Island. (Tasmania and the Tasman Sea are both named for the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who arrived in Tasmania in 1642.) Finally, the Indian Ocean surrounds the southern and western coasts of mainland Australia.

Seacoast and Undersea Features

The Grea Barrier Reef, the world's longest coral reef, extends for 2,010 kilometers (1,250 miles) just off the northeast coast of Queensland. It encompasses 207,000 square kilometers (79,902 square miles), and it supports a marine ecosystem that includes islands as well as coral reefs. Lake Alexandrina, a coastal inlet that is sometimes referred to as a coastal lake, is situated near Meningie to the southeast of Adelaide and to the east of the Great Australian Bight.

Sea Inlets and Straits

The coastline of Australia features a number of gulfs where the land curves around the sea. The Gulf of Carpentaria forms a deep U -shape on the northeast coast between Arnhem Land and Cape York Peninsula. In 1623 Djan Carstensz, a Dutch explorer, named the gulf in honor of Pieter de Carpentier, who was then the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Another Dutch East Indies governor-general, Anthony van Diemen, gave his name in 1644 to Van Diemen Gulf, which lies just west of the Gulf of Carpentaria between Darwin and Melville Island. To the south of Van Diemen Gulf is Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, named in honor of eighteenth-century French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's older brother by a French explorer in 1803.

To the south, the Great Australian Bight is formed by a large semicircular curve in the southern coast. ("Bight" describes a bend in a coastline or the bay that is formed by a curving coastline.) Along its eastern edge near Port Lincoln is Spencer Gulf, a finger-shaped gulf which points northward about 320 kilometers (198 miles) into South Australia. Bass Strait lies between Tasmania and the mainland. In 1798, explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders sailed through the strait, demonstrating for the first time that Tasmania was an island.

Islands and Archipelagos

The state of Tasmania (sometimes called Tasmania Island) is a large island located 241 kilometers (150 miles) off the southeastern coast of the mainland. Tasmania has the same geology as the Eastern Highlands, with rugged terrain and a large central plateau. Elevations reach 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) on Tasmania. Between Tasmania and the mainland in the Bass Strait lie King Island and Flinders Island.

Two of Australia's largest islands lie off the northern coast of Northern Territory. To the west of Darwin is the largest, Melville Island, measuring 5,786 square kilometers (2,333 square miles). To the east in the Gulf of Carpentaria is Groote Eylandt (Dutch for "Great Island"), which covers 2,285 square kilometers (882 square miles), and Mornington Island. North of Broome in Western Australia lie the three uninhabited Ashmore Islands, as well as Cartier Island, which was annexed as part of the Northern Territory in 1938. Kangaroo Island, off the southern coast near Adelaide in South Australia, measures 4,416 square kilometers (1,718 square miles). Fraser Island, a part of Queensland that covers 1,643 square kilometers (634 square miles), is the largest all-sand island in the world.

To the northwest, the Bonaparte Archipelago features numerous small, rocky islands and a deeply indented coastline.

Coastal Features

Many peninsulas extend along the coast. In the northeast, the Cape York Peninsula points north toward Papua New Guinea. Across the Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem Land represents the edge of the Western Plateau and features rugged highlands and broad valleys. To the northwest, the Eighty Mile Beach, a stretch of sandy beachfront, marks the coastal edge of the Great Sandy Desert. Just off the high cliffs that mark the shore southwest of Melbourne, limestone pillars known as the Twelve Apostles emerge from the sea.


There are no notable lakes in Australia.


The most important and longest continuous river system in Australia, referred to as the Murray-Darling River System, flows through parts of four states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. This river system provides the water for 80 percent of the irrigated land in the country. With an annual runoff volume of 22.7 billion cubic meters (801.6 billion cubic feet) of water, the Murray-Darling River System is Australia's largest. Compared to the world's largest river system, the Amazon River in South America, however, the Murray-Darling River system carries less than one percent of the water volume that is transported by the Amazon

The Murray-Darling River System drains an area of 1.1 million square kilometers (410,318 square miles), or about 14 percent of the total land area of the country. Measured from its source in Queensland to its mouth at Lake Alexandrina south of Adelaide, Murray-Darling measures 3,370 kilometers (2,022 miles), or about one-half the length of the world's longest river, the Nile in Egypt. The Murray River, the Darling River, and their tributaries are among the few river systems in Australia that have year-round water flow.

The Murray River measures 2,520 kilometers (1,512 miles), flowing west and southwest, eventually emptying into Lake Alexandrina, a coastal lake south of Adelaide that opens into the Indian Ocean. The Murrumbidgee River, one of the Murray's tributaries, measures 1,575 kilometers (950 miles). Other tributaries include the Lacklan and Goulburn Rivers.


A river system is made up of a principal river and its tributaries (the rivers that flow into it). A river system begins with the drainage of rainfall and ends in a large body of water, usually an ocean. After a rainstorm, rainwater—called runoff—drains downhill until it eventually accumulates at a low point and begins to flow. As the water flows from higher to lower elevations, two or more small rivers join together to form a larger river. This larger river—usually the one that gives its name to the river system—continues to flow. Sometimes several other smaller rivers, called tributaries, join with the main river as it flows toward a larger body of water such as a lake or ocean.

The point at which a river flows into the ocean is called its mouth. A river system begins at a place called the source or headwaters. The source is the point farthest away from the mouth where water begins to flow. Ports—cities that support shipping activity—often develop at a river's mouth. Ports have docks and roads to allow goods to be transported by ships and other vehicles into and out of the country.

The Darling River, flowing from the junction of the Culgoa and Barwon Rivers in New South Wales, measures 1,390 kilometers (834 miles). The headwaters of the Darling River originate in the MacIntyre River, which forms part of the border between Queensland and New South Wales. The MacIntyre River eventually flows into the Barwon River, generally agreed to be the main source of the Darling River. The Barwon-MacIntyre section, sometimes called the Upper Darling River, measures 1,140 kilometers (700 miles).


About 35 percent of the land area of Australia is categorized as desert because it receives so little rainfall. The Great Victoria Desert (Western Australia and South Australia) is the largest individual desert, covering about 4.5 percent of Australia's total land area at approximately 348,750 square kilometers (134,618 square miles).

Other deserts, in descending order from largest to smallest, are: the Great Sandy Desert (Western Australia), representing 3.5 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 267,250 square kilometers (130,160 square miles); the Tanami (or Tanamy) Desert (Western Australia and Northern Territory), representing 2.4 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 184,500 square kilometers (71,220 square miles) just north of the MacDonnell Ranges; the Simpson Desert (Northern Territory, Queensland, and South Australia), representing 2.3 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 176,500 square kilometers (68,130 square miles); the Gibson Desert (Western Australia), representing about 2 percent of Australia's total land area, covering approximately 156,000 square kilometers (60,200 square miles)

Tasmania Gordon Lake Gordon 12,450 439,485
Western Australia Ord River Lake Argyle 5,797 204,634
New South Wales Eucumbene Lake Eucumbene 4,798 169,369
Victoria Dartmouth not named 4,000 141,200
Queensland Burdekin Falls Lake Dalrymple 1,860 65,658
Northern Territory Darwin River not named 259 9,140
Australian Capital Territory Corin not named 75.5 2,665
South Australia Mount Bold Mount Bold 45.9 1,620

in the center of the state along its western border; the Little Sandy Desert (Western Australia), representing about 1.5 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 111,500 square kilometers (43,040 square miles); the Strzelecki Desert (South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales), representing 1 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 80,250 square kilometers (30,980 square miles); the Sturt Stony Desert (South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales), representing less than 1 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 29,750 square kilometers (11,484 square miles); the Tirari Desert (South Australia), representing less than 1 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 15,250 square kilometers (5,888 square miles); and the Pedirka Desert (South Australia), representing less than 1 percent of Australia's total land area, covering 1,250 square kilometers (482 square miles).


Rimming the southern edge of the Western Plateau is the Nullarbor Plain, a flat lowland region of limestone along the Great Australian Bight. (Nullarbor comes from the Latin, meaning "no trees.")

The Central Plains, also called the Central Eastern Lowlands or the Interior Lowlands, rest on large horizontal deposits of sedimentary rock, and run from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north to western Victoria. Lake Eyre, the nation's lowest point, lies in this region.

There are rolling hills on the west coast near Perth. Other hilly areas lie near Adelaide in South Australia, and in the Eastern Highlands.


Australia is one of the flattest continents on Earth. The summit (highest point) of the highest mountain, Mount Kosciusko (2,229 meters/7,314 feet) in the southeast, can be reached by car. Mount Kosciusko, along with its surrounding plateaus and extinct volcanoes, is in the larger range known generally as the Australian Alps; the specific system that includes Mount Kosciusko is known as the Snowy Mountains.

Geographers use the term Great Divide to describe the mountains that run the length of the country in the east. These mountains are also referred to as the Great Dividing Range. The coastline in this area features deep gorges and high, sheer rock cliffs. Moving north, the highlands gradually decrease in altitude. Along the northeastern coast, the Great Divide also includes the Eastern Highlands, where the elevation is just over 900 meters (3,000 feet).

The Western Plateau features several mountain ranges. At the far western edge lies the highest of these, the Hamersley Range, which includes a peak that exceeds 1,219 meters (4,000 feet). Extending to the eastern edge of the Western Plateau are the Macdonnell Range, the Musgrave Range, and the Petermann Range.

All three ranges run from east to west and are characterized by deep gorges. The Macdonnell and Musgrave Ranges have peaks that rise to almost 1,500 meters (4,900 feet). The Darling Range, named for Sir Ralph Darling, a former governor of New South Wales, lies in the extreme southwest corner of the country. Its highest peak is Mount Cooke (582 meters/ 1,920 feet).


A network of caves punctuate the Nullarbor Plain. Among the best known are the Abrakurrie Cave and the Koonalda Caves, huge caves which are situated about 76 meters (250 feet) below ground.

Some of the most spectacular caverns are underwater along the coast. These attract scuba divers from around the world.


Forming the northern edge of the large Western Plateau, on the northwestern border of the state of Western Australia, lies the Kimberley Plateau, with elevations reaching over 900 meters (3,000 feet).

The western portion of the Western Plateau is generally a flat tableland, with dramatic outcroppings of granite or sandstone. The most well known of these is Uluru, the Aboriginal name for the location formerly known as Ayers Rock. Uluru is the world's largest monolith—a large cylindrical stone outcropping—and is over 335 meters (1,100 feet) high.

In the southwest near the Darling Range, limestone pillars about the size of a person protrude from the surface of a flat, barren plain.


Dams have been built to create water storage reservoirs in every state and territory.


The Outback is a popular term that refers to the interior of the country, especially the dry center of the Western Plateau and the northern plains. Australians use the term "the bush" to refer to rural areas, especially wilderness.

Life in the Outback may be compared loosely to the rough cowboy lifestyle of the historic American West. "Outback" was first used to describe remote areas far away from civilization. Now, however, "Outback" refers to a broader picture—a place where men and women struggle to live and work in a challenging environment; "the bush" simply describes the geographical places located far from cities and towns.



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Berendes, Mary. Australia. Chanhassen, MN: Child's World, 1999.

Darian-Smith, Kate. Exploration into Australia. Parsippany, NJ: New Discovery Books, 1996.

Dolce, Laura. Australia. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.

Israel, Fred L. Australia: The Unique Continent. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.

Lowe, David. Australia. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

McCollum, Sean. Australia. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 1999.

North, Peter. Welcome to Australia. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 1999.

Williams, Brian, and Brenda Williams. World Book Looks at Australia. Chicago: World Book, 1998.


"Australia's Southern Seas." National Geographic, March 1987, p. 286–319.

Brian, Sarah Jane. "What's Up Down Under." Contact Kids, September 2000, p. 20.

Bryson, Bill. "Australian Outback." National Geographic Traveler, October 1999, p. 86ff.

Gore, Rick. "People Like Us." National Geographic, July 2000, p. 90.

Web Sites

Australia's National Mapping Agency. (accessed March 12, 2003).

Australia Speleological Federation. (accessed March 12, 2003).

Bureau of Meteorology. "Climate Facts." (accessed March 12, 2003).

User Contributions:

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Col Burns
You must correct this. Mawson Peak (2745m) is not the highest peak or mountain in the Australian Territory. The highest peaks in the Australian Territory are in fact Mt McClintock (3490m)and Mt Menzies (3355m), both are in the Australian Antarctic territory ln Antarctica.
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