Sub-Tropical Powerhouse

Chris Whitelaw — 16 January 2020
Despite being the principal port of Queensland, Gladstone has kept the charm of a coastal destination

From its modest beginnings, Gladstone, 530km north of Brisbane, has developed into one of the most substantial and commercially successful ports in Australia. Just about everything here is big — the world’s biggest aluminium smelter and refinery, the world’s fourth largest coal exporting terminal, Australia’s biggest cement plant, one of Australia’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) complexes, and Queensland’s biggest power station.

Yet, Gladstone retains the charm of a sub-tropical coastal resort with a relaxed lifestyle and a host of natural and cultural attractions including golden beaches, a beautiful botanic garden, an impressive maritime museum, a large marina and easy access to the southern Great Barrier Reef. 

The inner city occupies hills overlooking Auckland Creek that feeds into a harbour sheltered by Curtis and Facing Islands, with the smaller Quoin Island inshore between them. Curtis Island is separated from the mainland by a constricted passage called ‘The Narrows’. A suburban population of some 63,000 spreads inland, while Tannum Sands and Boyne Island have grown as dormitory suburbs to the south of the city. 

The Calliope River rises in a range of the same name and flows 98km to the Pacific Ocean north of Gladstone. The Boyne River descends 125km from the Great Dividing Range and branches to discharge into Port Curtis, south of the city, and the Coral Sea between Boyne Island and Tannum Sands. The Boyne is dammed to form Lake Awoonga, a major reservoir and popular recreation area made legendary by the massive barramundi frequently caught here. The region’s extensive coastal wetlands and estuaries provide vital habitats for large numbers of migratory birds and significant populations of fish, turtles and aquatic mammals.

Dominating the landscape to the northwest is the volcanic peak of Mount Larcom, named by Matthew Flinders after a naval colleague during his 1802 expedition. Rising 632 metres above the Calliope delta, the mountain is a popular venue for hikers, rewarding a two hour ascent with panoramic views of the coast and the shimmering Coral Sea.

Curtis, the largest of the local islands, is a curious mix of LNG industrial estate and 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 Gladstone Marina 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.


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 discover the area were with James Cook on the Endeavour in May 1770. During the 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 area in 1823 but deprecated what he saw, noting that the harbour was difficult to enter, the countryside lacked an adequate water supply and its timber was useless for construction.

Nevertheless, then Colonial Secretary, William Gladstone, selected Port Curtis to be the capital of the Colony of North Australia. 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 Aboriginals, the venture was abandoned after only three months.

However, interest in the location remained and, spurred by the expansion of pastoral holdings and the discovery of gold and minerals in Central Queensland, the town was surveyed and renamed Gladstone in 1854, in honour of the man who had championed its establishment. 


Initially, Rockhampton on the Fitzroy River, 100km to the north, overshadowed the settlement. But the excellent port proved a magnet for entrepreneurs and by the 1880s wharves had been constructed at Auckland Point facilitating trade dominated by meat, wool, sugar and live cattle. Development was further encouraged 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, now the port’s most lucrative trade, began in the 1920s. 

The advent of tourism in the 1930 boosted the local economy, with flying boats operating 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. At the height of the Pacific War, Gladstone’s sheltered deep-water harbour also became the base for Allied naval vessels operating in the Coral Sea. 


In the 1960s, Gladstone launched an era of industrial development and economic prosperity that continues today. In 1967 the Queensland Alumina Limited refinery was established at Boyne Island to process bauxite from Weipa. It is still one of the largest alumina refineries in the world with an annual production capacity over 3.9 million tonnes. 

To meet the huge demand for electricity required for alumina production, the Queensland Government constructed a $280 million power station on Auckland Inlet in 1976. Now owned by a consortium including Rio Tinto Aluminium and NRG Energy, the power station remains Queensland's largest, consuming four million tonnes of coal a year and drawing seawater for cooling at the rate of 245 million litres every hour.

In 1981, Queensland Cement Ltd (now Cement Australia Gladstone) opened a limestone mine at East End, just south of Mt. Larcom, and a cement processing plant at Fishermans Landing, 12km north of Gladstone. CAG boasts the largest cement kiln in Australia, with a production capacity of 1.6 million tonnes a year, and supplies domestic and overseas markets.

Gladstone’s industrial capacity was further boosted in 1982 with the opening of Australia’s second largest aluminium smelter on a 60ha site at Boyne Island. After a $1 billion expansion in 1997 and a $720 million upgrade in 2012, Boyne Smelters Limited can produce more than 570,000 tonnes of aluminium per annum. 

The 2002 construction of a refinery at Yarwun, 10km northwest of the city, turned Rio Tinto Aluminium into one of the world’s leading alumina producers. The refinery is capable of producing over 3.4 million tonnes a year.

LNG exports from Gladstone began in 2015, with three plants on Curtis Island processing coal seam gas from the Bowen and Surat basins from a 420km underground pipeline. In the largest concentration of private-capital investment in Australian history, Queensland Curtis LNG, Australia Pacific LNG and Santos GLNG simultaneously constructed liquefaction plants and storage facilities, with dedicated berths for loading container vessels. The plants account for about 8 per cent of global LNG production and approval has been given for a fourth plant at a cost of $15 billion.

Along with this boom, the port’s infrastructure to facilitate coal exports has expanded. The RG Tanna Coal Terminal receives coal via two rail supply chains from the southern Bowen Basin, achieving a throughput of 60 million tonnes each year. This represents about 70 per cent of the port’s exports, primarily for steel mills and power stations in Asia and Europe. Once completed, the multi-billion-dollar Wiggins Island Coal Terminal at Golding Point will double the port’s coal exports.


The Port of Gladstone comprises 8 main wharf centres with 20 berths over 40km of coastline. It is owned by the Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC), which manages pilotage, dredging, security, berth maintenance and port operations. Port navigation is controlled by Maritime Safety Queensland. 

Each year about 1,800 vessels and nearly 120 million tonnes of cargo pass through Gladstone facilities, making it one of the busiest ports in Australia and a vital component of local, state and national economies. GPC’s 50 year plan forecasts an ultimate port shipping capacity of more than 300 million tonnes per annum.

Gladstone is also a port for cruise ships, which berth at the Auckland Point Terminal. Since the arrival of the first cruise ship in 2016, the port city has hosted 20 visits, each bringing as many as 2,000 passengers seeking tourism opportunities in the region and the Southern Great Barrier Reef. 


There are four main entrances into Gladstone Harbour, the main shipping access being through the dredged South Channel from the southeast. Small boat alternatives are from the northeast via the all-weather East Channel between the southern end of Facing Island and East Banks, from the north via North Channel between Facing and Curtis Islands and from the northwest through The Narrows between Curtis Island and the mainland.

Vessels approaching from the north should keep 1.5 nautical miles clear of Facing Island's shores due to the presence of rocks. Approaching from Pancake Creek in the south, vessels need to keep well off Point Richards, the northwest tip of Rodds Peninsula, in order to clear the Jenny Lind Bank and Seal Rocks, both 7–8 nautical miles from East Point lighthouse on Facing Island.

A combination of increased volumes of commercial shipping and record numbers of recreational boats can create congestion in and around shipping channels, raising the potential for collision. Vessels over 10 metres long must notify Gladstone Harbour Control on VHF 13 before entering the harbour boundaries and stay on that frequency while entering, leaving or moving within the pilotage area. The ship navigation charts for the Gladstone area show the safest course for small vessels to keep out of the way of big ships.

During dominant southeast trade winds, the only snug anchorage in Port Curtis is along Graham Creek, north of the LNG industrial zone on Curtis Island, and in Endfield Creek at the southern end of the island. Using a rising tide, it is also possible to cross a shallow bar and anchor in the Calliope River. There are also many all-tide, deep-water creeks and inlets along The Narrows and in the main channel at either end of Cattle Crossing to anchor. Swing moorings in Auckland Creek offer alternatives to berths as anchoring is not allowed in Gladstone Marina.


Gladstone Marina is a dredged basin off Auckland Creek surrounded by extensive parklands. With a combination of 320 fixed wharf and pontoon moorings, the marina can cater to a variety of private, charter and service vessels, as well as local and coastal tourers. The floating marina system utilises concrete encased styrene pontoons, with generous mooring and manoeuvring space and safe shelter during inclement weather. All berths have access to 240V power supply, fresh water and facilities that include shower and toilet amenities, a coin operated laundry, telephones, free barbeques and CCTV camera security. A courtesy bus service operates daily to get to the nearby CBD and shopping centre. Services within the marina complex include the Heron Island Boat Transfer Terminal, Curtis Ferry Services, Baileys Marine (refuelling service), Ship and Sail Chandlery, MIPEC Gladstone Slipway, Compleat Angler and Gladstone Visitor Information Centre. The marina is owned and operated by the Gladstone Ports Corporation and has a 4 Gold Anchor accreditation. 


Gladstone Visitor Information Centre

72 Bryan Jordan Drive, Gladstone

P (07) 4972 9000



Port of Gladstone 

40 Goondoon Street, Gladstone 

P 07 4976 1333 


Regional Harbour Master

P (07) 4973 1200


Gladstone Marina

Bryan Jordan Drive, Gladstone

P (07) 4976 1398


Maritime Safety Queensland

Regional Harbour Master 

P (07) 4973 1200

A/H emergency (07) 4973 1208


VMR Gladstone

P (07) 4972 3333

VHF 16, 80, 82

MHz 27 – 88


Destination Gladstone Queensland Coastal Port Travel


Chris Whitelaw and Supplied