Capricornia Harbour Town

From modest beginnings, Gladstone has developed into one of the most substantial and commercially successful harbour cities in Australia. It is the principal port of Central Queensland, a region of some 117,800 sq km straddling the Tropic of Capricorn. ‘Capricornia’ contributes more than $21 billion to the Queensland economy every year through agriculture, accounting for almost 10 per cent of the state’s total primary production, and the Bowen Basin coal fields, which generate 40 per cent of the state’s export earnings.

Gladstone is the region’s industrial heart and is crucial to its ongoing prosperity. Just about everything here is big – it’s Queensland’s largest multi-cargo port with the State’s biggest power station, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) complex is one of the largest in Australia, and the aluminium smelting and refining facilities are the most productive in the world. To service this concentration of industry there are nearly 5,000km of public roads, including sections of the Bruce and Dawson Highways, dedicated freight, coal and passenger rail lines, and an airport with regular scheduled services to and from Brisbane and other ports.

Despite the close proximity of all this booming industry, Gladstone retains the charm of a coastal holiday resort with a relaxed lifestyle and a pleasant sub-tropical climate tempered by prevailing southeast trade winds. Situated 530km north of Brisbane, Gladstone is embraced by two rivers, the Calliope to the north and the Boyne to the south. The inner city occupies hills overlooking Auckland Creek that feeds into a deep, natural harbour (Port Curtis) sheltered by Curtis and Facing Islands, with the smaller Quoin Island inshore between them.

The suburban population of some 63,000 spreads inland from the port across a lowland plain and merges in the dormitory towns of Tannum Sands and Boyne Island, about 20 minutes south of the CBD. These have become popular tourist destinations in their own right, featuring long golden beaches, foreshore parklands with walking paths and recreational facilities, and ready access to fishing grounds among the estuaries.

Dominating the landscape to the northwest of the city is the volcanic peak of Mount Larcom. Named after a naval colleague by Matthew Flinders when he explored Port Curtis in 1802, it is sometimes called “Lion Mountain” because of its distinctive profile. Rising 632 metres above the Calliope delta, the mountain is a popular venue for hikers, rewarding a 2-hour ascent with panoramic views of the coast and beyond to the shimmering Coral Sea and the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

At 676 sq km, Curtis is the largest of the local islands, a curious mix of LNG industrial estate amid pristine natural environment protected by the Curtis Island National Park. Turtle Beach, on its seaward flank, is the third largest breeding site for flatback turtles in Queensland. A regular vehicle and passenger ferry service connects to Southend, a small settlement on the south-eastern tip, which makes a convenient base for exploring the island on hiking trails or 4WD tracks. Bush camping is available in the national park.

Facing Island, 12km from Gladstone, offers unpowered beachfront camping with limited facilities at The Oaks, perfect for those with a four wheel drive, a fishing rod or a surfboard. Quoin Island lies at the entrance to Port Curtis, just 5km off the coast. It is a sanctuary from the industry of the city with clean beaches, bushwalking and facilities for windsurfing, swimming, fishing and boating. The Turtle Rehabilitation Centre is dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of ill and injured sea turtles. Both islands are accessible by private boat or ferry from Gladstone.

The region’s coastal environment includes extensive mangrove wetlands and estuaries that provide vital habitats for large numbers of migratory birds and significant populations of fish, turtles and aquatic mammals. The hinterland west of the city is a colourful patchwork of open plains, impressive mountain ranges, bushland, lakes and winding rivers. About 30 minutes from Gladstone, the Boyne River is dammed to form Lake Awoonga, a major reservoir and popular recreation area made legendary by the massive barramundi frequently caught here. For those less dedicated to angling, canoes can be hired and there is swimming from anchored pontoons or sailing from a boat ramp.

The Gladstone region is the traditional country of the Bailai and Gooreng Gooreng Aboriginal people. Although nomadic, due to a scarcity of permanent water in the area, they were aggressive in their resistance to white settlement, resulting in many bloody clashes and reprisals.

The first Europeans to sight the area were with James Cook on the Endeavour in May 1770. During his 1802 expedition in the Investigator, Matthew Flinders charted and named Port Curtis after Admiral Sir Roger Curtis, the Commander-in-Chief at the Cape of Good Hope. John Oxley further explored the harbour and surrounding countryside in 1823 but deprecated what he saw, noting that the countryside lacked an adequate water supply and its timber was useless for construction.

Nevertheless, Port Curtis was selected by the then Colonial Secretary, William Gladstone, to be the capital of the Colony of North Australia, which was established by Letters Patent in February 1846. The advance party under George Barney, the man chosen to be its Lieutenant Governor, arrived in January 1847 and established a settlement at a site now known as Barney Point. Plagued by an oppressive wet season and attacks by local Aborigines, the venture was abandoned after only three months. However, interest in the location remained and, spurred by the expansion of pastoral holdings in the hinterland and the discovery of gold and minerals in Central Queensland, the town was surveyed and Port Curtis renamed Gladstone in 1854, in honour of the man who had championed its establishment.

Initially, growth was slow and the settlement was overshadowed by Rockhampton on the Fitzroy River, 100km to the north. But the excellent port proved a magnet for entrepreneurs and by the 1880s wharves had been constructed at Auckland Point, where the creek enters Port Curtis, facilitating trade dominated by meat, wool, sugar and live cattle. Development was given further impetus by the arrival of the railway in 1896 and the later establishment of meat works, a dairy cooperative and a bulk oil installation. Coal exports began in the 1920s and quickly developed into the port’s most lucrative trade.

The local economy was boosted in the 1930s by the advent of tourism, with flying boats operating locally to the holiday destination of Heron Island and Auckland Inlet becoming a waypoint for commercial air services by British Imperial Airways and Qantas Empire Airways bound for London via Singapore. At the height of the Pacific War, Gladstone’s sheltered deep-water harbour assumed strategic importance as a base for Allied naval vessels operating in the Coral Sea.

In the 1960s, Gladstone launched into an era of industrial development and economic prosperity that continues to the present day. Queensland Alumina Limited (QAL) established a refinery at Boyne Island to process bauxite shipped from Weipa on Cape York; the Queensland Government constructed the state’s largest power station at Auckland Inlet; Queensland Cement Ltd (now Cement Australia Gladstone) operates the largest cement kiln in Australia; Boyne Smelters Limited produces more than 570,000 tonnes of aluminium per annum, using alumina powder produced at the nearby QAL plant; and Rio Tinto became one of the world’s leading alumina producers with a second refinery at Yarwun.

LNG exports from Gladstone began in 2015, with three plants on Curtis Island processing coal seam gas from the Bowen and Surat basins via a 420km underground pipeline. In the largest concentration of private-capital investment in Australia’s history, Queensland Curtis LNG, Australia Pacific LNG and Santos GLNG simultaneously constructed plants that will jointly account for about 8 per cent of global LNG production, for domestic consumption and export to China, Korea, Japan, and Malaysia.

Concurrent with this industrial boom has been the growth of the Port of Gladstone, which now comprises eight main wharf centres with 20 operational berths along 40km of coastline from Boyne Wharf to Fisherman’s Landing. The port handles about 1,800 vessels each year, trading a diverse range of products with 38 countries. Overall, nearly 120 million tonnes of cargo pass through the Gladstone facilities annually, making it one of the busiest ports in Australia and a vital component of local, state and national economies.

Tourism is also growing, with over 3.3 million international and domestic visitors spending nearly $800 million in the region and the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Since the arrival of the first cruise ship in March 2016, Gladstone port has hosted 20 visits by 11 liners, each bringing as many as 2,000 visitors. As well as being a gateway to the Reef and many spectacular inland national parks, the city offers its own array of tourism opportunities.

Opened in 1985, the Gladstone Art Gallery and Museum is housed in the handsome Old Town Hall on Goondoon Street and hosts a mix of permanent Australian art, travelling exhibitions and an extensive collection of material revealing the region’s social history. Within its precinct stands a statue of four-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, William Ewart Gladstone, after whom the town was named. Another cultural attraction is the Gladstone Maritime Museum which focuses on the maritime history of the region. The highlight of its collection, the 42-metre former patrol boat HMAS Gladstone, is now permanently docked at the end of East Shores Parkland on Auckland Creek and is open for tours on weekends.

Developed on a nautical theme, the East Shores Maritime Precinct is a world-class recreational hub on Auckland Point and includes a waterfall and water park, a waterfront boardwalk incorporating a viewing platform overlooking Auckland Creek, barbecue facilities and landscaped lawns for leisure activities. A proposed $29.5 million expansion of the precinct will include an amphitheatre, waterfront café and cruise passenger interface.​

Towering above East Shores is Auckland Hill with a lookout that affords spectacular views of Port Curtis and the offshore islands. A nearby café provides refreshment for walkers who have climbed the stairway flanking the waterfall. Another lookout on Round Hill at the end of Boles Road offers the best overall views of Gladstone and its industrial landscapes. To the south is Boyne Island and Tannum Sands; the east looks towards the city’s harbour; the north encompasses the city centre and the islands; and to the west lies the city’s ever expanding suburbia.

Being one of Australia’s largest ports, a visit to Gladstone isn’t complete without a stroll through the Marina Parklands and Spinnaker Park. Embracing the inner harbour with 43 hectares of green space, these parks contain sheltered barbecue areas, a beached cove, native wetlands and 2.5 kilometres of walking tracks.​ The harbour is the home of Gladstone Marina operated by the Gladstone Port Corporation for private boats, and docks that accommodate a commercial fishing fleet, Curtis Ferry Services (CFS) and the local Volunteer Marine Rescue. CFS runs regular tours of the busy port, taking in Auckland Inlet, the harbour islands and the wharfs and industrial plants on Curtis Island and Fisherman’s Landing.

The maritime precinct also includes the Gladstone Yacht Club (GYC) adjacent to Lady Nelson Park on Auckland Creek. Known to the locals as “Yachties”, this historic establishment is the finish line for the famous Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Race, held each April to coincide with the Gladstone Harbour Festival that attracts tens of thousands of people to the foreshore for a week of diverse entertainment.

About 5km south of the city centre, the beautiful Tondoon Botanic Gardens is a delightful retreat from the industry of the city. Opened in 1988, the Gardens feature more than 1,500 tropical plant species in 55ha of native parkland surrounding Lake Tondoon. The grounds include a café, some interesting sculptures, a Japanese garden (the Garden of Stillness and Movement), an herbarium and arboretum and an interpretative nature trail with information about the birds in the lakes.

Set in a balmy sub-tropical landscape, on the doorstep of the Southern Great Barrier Reef, Gladstone has much to offer visitors by way of interest and recreation – a busy port and thriving industrial complex, golden beaches fringing foreshore parklands and a user-friendly marine environment in the very heart of the city. Boaties will particularly enjoy the fascinating maritime history and facilities that make it easy to access Port Curtis and its pristine islands. Affordable accommodation can be found in the city or in the satellite towns of Boyne Island and Tannum Sands, which abound with venues for travellers with vans or trailers. For all these reasons and more, Gladstone is a really unique and worthwhile destination.

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