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Australia, with an area of 7 682 300 square kilometres, is approximately the same size as the continental United States (excluding Alaska) and twice as big as India and Pakistan combined. It is one of the oldest land masses, with a geological history stretching back almost 3500 million years. It is the flattest of the continents and, after Antarctica, the driest. The scarcity of rainfall in the interior and its often harsh climate have been factors in the concentration of approximately 80 per cent of the population in a narrow coastal lowlands belt, concentrated in the south-east and south-west of the continent and comprising little more than three per cent of the land area. Low rainfall has also affected the nature of primary industry. Two thirds of the continent is used for agricultural and pastoral industry, but less than 10 per cent of that area is taken up with crops and sown pastures. The rest is given over to the grazing of animals on native pastures. Most of the remaining one third is commercially unused desert and semi-desert.


The Australian landform is shaped as a broad plateau of level to rolling slopes with some highland areas, particularly along the Great Dividing Range which runs close to the east coast from the far north of Queensland to southern Tasmania. When the early explorers crossed the Great Dividing Range and opened up the inland plains for development, they soon found that the scarcity of major rivers placed a limitation on population growth. But the settlers who followed them found other opportunities. When this huge lowlands area stretching westwards to the central desert was shown to be suitable for the breeding of fine wool sheep, it spurred the development of the wool export industry which was the backbone of Australian trade for more than a century. The explorers also found gold and other minerals which sparked major development. The gold rush of the 1850s brought half a million free migrants to Victoria and doubled the populations of New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland in a decade.

Later exploration into remoter parts of the continent showed that many of Australia’s mineral and energy resources lay there. Gold was found in the latter half of the 19th century in the Kimberleys in the north of Western Australia and at Kalgoorlie in the southern half close to the Great Victoria Desert. The discovery of lead and zinc deposits at Broken Hill in the west of New South Wales in 1883 and later discoveries of copper, lead and zinc at Mt Isa in north-western Queensland led to major export industries and the establishment of substantial communities in the remoter areas the Australians call the outback. A new mineral boom was initiated in the 1960s when major deposits of iron ore, bauxite, nickel and mineral sands were discovered in outback areas of Western Australia and Queensland.

This document has been prepared by Australia's International Public Affairs branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The help received from Australian government departments, associated organisations and other authorities is gratefully acknowledged. Information is current to April 1995. Money values are in Australian currency, weights and measures in Metric.