Australia Geography: Location

Australia is an island continent whose landscape - much of it uncompromisingly bleak and inhospitable - is the result of gradual changes wrought over millions of years. Although there is still seismic activity in the eastern and western highland areas, Australia is one of the most stable land masses, and for about 100 million years has been free of the forces that have given rise to huge mountain ranges elsewhere.

From the east coast a narrow, fertile strip merges into the greatly eroded Great Dividing Range, that is almost continent-long. The mountains are mere reminders of the mighty range that once stood here. Only in the section straddling the New South Wales border with Victoria, and in Tasmania, are they high enough to have winter snow.

West of the range the country becomes increasingly flat and dry. The endless flatness is broken only by salt lakes, occasional mysterious protuberances like Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), and some starkly beautiful mountains like the MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs. In places, the scant vegetation is sufficient to allow some grazing. However, much of the Australian outback is a barren land of harsh, stone deserts and dry lakes with evocative names like Lake Disappointment.

The extreme north of Australia, the Top End, is a tropical area within the monsoon belt. Although its annual rainfall looks adequate on paper, it comes in more or less one short, sharp burst. This has prevented the Top End from becoming seriously productive agriculturally.

The west of Australia consists mainly of a broad plateau. In the far west a mountain range and fertile coastal strip heralds the Indian Ocean, but this is only" to the south. In the north-central part of Western Australia, the dry country runs right to the sea. The rugged Kimberley region in the state's far north is spectacular.

Australia is the world's sixth-largest country. The continent and the island of Tasmania, off the eastern part of the south coast, make up the Commonwealth of Australia. Its area is 7,682,300 sq km, about the same size as the 48 mainland states of the USA and half as large again as Europe, excluding the former USSR. It constitutes approximately 5% of the world's land surface. Lying between the Indian and Pacific oceans, Australia is about 4,000 km from east to west and 3,200 km from north to south, with a coastline 36,735 km long.