Marvellous Mackay

Chris Whitelaw — 13 February 2020
Rich in history and beautiful natural assets, Mackay is both a thriving commercial port and ideal destination

Mackay is a bustling coastal city 970km north of Brisbane with a modern port and a sophisticated business sector. During its long and prosperous history, it has been known by many names — Alexandria, ‘Sugar Capital of Australia’ and, most recently, ‘Gateway to the Bowen Basin’. Its official name honours Captain John Mackay, who explored the region in 1860. 

Basking under a tropical sun beside the Pioneer River, the streets of the city centre are graced with manicured median strips, Royal Palms and flowering planter boxes. Many buildings in the CBD are heritage-listed examples of early 20th century art-deco architecture. Sculptures and colourful terrazzo mosaics depict the region’s abundant natural assets, which include golden beaches, the Great Barrier Reef and the hinterland rainforests of Eungella National Park.


The Pioneer River is named after HMS Pioneer, which brought Queensland Governor George Bowen to the area on a visit in October 1862. The river rises south-west of Mackay in ranges that receive annual rainfall in excess of 3,000mm. Its catchment unites 10 tributaries that collectively meander as the Pioneer for 120km to the Coral Sea at Mackay, where it is spanned by the 485m Forgan Bridge.

The upper parts of the catchment are too steep for agriculture, but the alluvial floodplains support thriving sugarcane plantations. In its lower reaches, the river is too shallow for navigation, with drying sandbanks encountered only a few kilometres upstream from its mouth. 

Situated just shy of the 21st parallel, Mackay has a humid tropical climate, with pleasantly mild winters but swelteringly hot summers accompanied by monsoonal low-pressure systems and occasional cyclones that may cause the Pioneer to flood. This has happened 20 times since records began. In February 2008, 600mm of rain fell over the city in six hours, swelling the river to just over 7 metres — well short of the 1958 record of 9.14 metres. 


The Mackay coastline is dotted with numerous continental islands that were once mountain ranges before rising seas isolated them offshore. Over the past 500 years fringing coral reefs have formed and the sparkling turquoise waters are part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Many of the islands are also terrestrial national parks. 

Unsurprisingly, the islands are popular with boating enthusiasts for the many sheltered anchorages and opportunities for snorkelling, fishing, walking and bush camping. Zoning maps issued by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service provide information about access, permitted activities and fishing restrictions. 

Perhaps the best known of the islands is Brampton, 35km north of Mackay. While there is public access to the island’s national park — for a relaxed beach stroll or invigorating hike up Brampton Peak — the once popular resort is closed. Brampton was bought by United Petroleum in 2010 for $5.9 million. They intended to build a seven-star resort, but this never eventuated and the island is currently for sale. 


For thousands of years before European settlement, the Mackay region was inhabited by the Yuibera Aboriginal people, whose culture and lifestyle were nourished by the bountiful resources. They were seafaring tribes, using canoes or log rafts to fish and hunt reptiles, birds and marine mammals. Today large middens, fish traps and stone artifacts used by the Yuibera can be seen. 


James Cook reached the Mackay coast in June 1770 and named several landmarks. In September 1802, Matthew Flinders sailed up the coast, adding more names to the map as he went.

John Mackay discovered and explored the lush Pioneer Valley in May 1860. He returned in 1862 with cattle and horses overlanded from Armidale, NSW to stock a pastoral run at Greenmount, 18km west of the present-day city. He later surveyed the river and produced a chart that underpinned the official declaration of Port Mackay. 

Ships soon arrived with settlers who established themselves on the banks of the Pioneer River. The shallow-draft ships of the day were able to navigate the river at high tide and wharves were constructed to unload supplies. An 1863 survey laid out a grid of streets for the new town of Alexandria (later changed to Mackay), and the valley was carved up by pastoralists.


Among them was John Spiller. Experienced in sugar production, in 1865 Spiller established a cane plantation with a home-made sugar mill. This was so successful that, within a decade, 5,000 acres of plantations and 16 crushing mills were exporting sugar. During the 1880s, sugar acreage tripled, and Mackay grew into a ‘sugaropolis’ founded on a booming industry still going today. 

Underwriting this extraordinary growth were indentured South Sea Islanders who worked as virtual slave labour. Outrages concerning the traffic, known as blackbirding, and conditions of their servitude provoked the introduction of legislation abolishing the use of these workers, which ceased in 1906.  


The same year Mackay became a city, 1918, it was devastated by a cyclone that raged for three days — 30 people were killed, 75 per cent of its buildings were damaged or destroyed and sugar crops and mills were ruined. 

The city’s recovery and development was overseen by Scottish-born Labor politician William Forgan Smith, who served as the Member for Mackay in the Queensland Legislative Assembly (1915–1942) and as State Premier for the last 10 years of his career. On his watch, Mackay made outstanding progress in the 1920s and maintained growth through the Depression years, including, crucially, the opening of new deep-water outer harbour in 1939.

Co-operatives were formed to consolidate harvesting, crushing and distribution, and rail networks were used to bring the cane from outlying plantations to large centralised mills. In 1957, a bulk-handling sugar terminal was opened at Mackay Harbour, followed by bulk storages for fertilizer, chemicals and grain. A new bulk sugar terminal was opened in 1989 and was the largest storage facility of its kind in the world. Despite a relative decline in the sugar industry world-wide, it continues to flourish in the Mackay region, which produces about 850,000 tonnes of raw sugar and 180,000 tonnes of the by-product molasses annually.

Mackay has one of the fastest-growing economies in Queensland and with more than $1 billion worth of projects approved or under development, it’s well positioned to capitalise on recent growth and take advantage of its status as a ‘new-age’ regional city.


The North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, a Queensland government-owned body, manages the daily operation of the Port of Mackay, maintaining infrastructure, dredging and pilotage services, security and business development. Port safety, licensing, navigation aids and pollution control is the responsibility of Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ).

Mackay Port, 5km north of the city, has an east-facing harbour bounded on the north by a 900m breakwater extending to Forgan Smith Point, and on the south by a 1.5km breakwater terminating at Bagley Point. The basin is dredged to a depth of 8.5 metres. A 750m projection of land separates the commercial port from the shallower Mackay Marina. 

The port’s infrastructure comprises four multi-purpose cargo wharves capable of accommodating vessels up to 230m in length and 50,000-tonne displacement. The principal imports are refined fuel products, fertilisers and magnetite, and exports include sugar (raw and refined), ethanol, molasses, scrap metal, bulk grain and coal. In 2017–2018, the port was Queensland’s fourth largest multi-commodity port.


Conditions are calmer in the winter months, while November to April carries a risk of cyclones. A Tropical Cyclone Watch is instigated when a potential cyclone is imminent and extreme weather event contingency plans for the region are published on the MSQ website.

Vessels approaching from the south and east should make for the leading beacons on the mainland west of Slade Island and just north of the northern breakwater. From the north, Slade Island is passed to starboard and, to avoid the island’s off-lying reefs, vessels should use lead lines before approaching within three nautical miles of the port. On final approach, leading beacons into the main outer harbour can be used before turning onto the marina’s beacons. All vessels navigating near the harbour must stay clear of ships and tugs and maintain a watch on VHF 16. When departing, do not proceed until the amber warning light at the marina entrance is deactivated.

Anchoring is not permitted within the marina, which necessitates payment of a daily berth fee when seeking refuge in a storm, awaiting haul-out deadlines or obtaining supplies.

Navigating the Pioneer River is generally only possible below the Forgan Bridge, and even this can be problematic. Subject to local knowledge and with a nearly high rising tide, final approach to the bar should be in the SSE to ESE quadrant. At low tide, the bar at the river entrance dries to around 2.3m and sandbanks upriver expose to leave a gutter along the south bank with depths of up to 1m. During neap low tides, keel yachts could anchor here after sounding for the best depths and a readiness to depart when the spring tides approach. Getting ashore is not possible below the neap high tide level except at the ramp. Bar depth and precise course of the channel vary over time and newcomers should consult the local VMR before attempting entry to the river.


Mackay Marina lies between Mackay Harbour and Harbour Beach. It is protected to seaward by a breakwater of large rocks able to withstand the 6.5m tides and rough seas of severe monsoonal weather. This sea wall is topped by a two-lane road that has become a popular sightseeing venue. Mackay is a port of entry, with full customs and quarantine services on a dedicated berth in the marina.

The marina is home to the Pine Islet Lighthouse, constructed in 1885, and operated in the Percy Isles, 120km southeast of Mackay, until 1985 when it was replaced by an automated beacon. The 11m tower and light assembly were restored and relocated to the marina where the original kerosene lamp was relit in December 2002. It remains the last operational kerosene light in Australia and is visible for 21 nautical miles.

Mackay Marina Village is part of the Queensland-owned Port Binnli Group. Set in tropical gardens behind a palm-lined esplanade overlooking the marina, the village precinct incorporates shops, bars and restaurants, and offers accommodation in townhouses, multi-storey apartments and the Clarion luxury hotel.

The marina contains 479 berths, including 102 purpose-built multi-hull berths of varying sizes, 6 mega-berths of 60-metre capacity, 18 big berths for vessels up to 38m, purpose-built berths for mono- and multi-hull vessels with a 4.5m draught, as well as 32 commercial fishing berths, a maintenance berth and 3 unloading berths.

Services for marina tenants include secure car parking, amenities block and laundry, refuse and waste oil recycling facility, gas bottle refills, 24/7 refuelling dock and utilities (15 amp single-phase and 3-phase power and water). The marina has been twice named Marina of the Year, is a certified Clean Marina and is the only marina in Queensland to qualify for Fish-Friendly Status. 

The Mackay Marina Shipyard is the largest base in the district for the maintenance and refit of all marine craft, with facilities that include a 65-tonne travel-lift designed to slip boats of up to 28ft beam, slipping of single-, double- or triple-hulled vessels, abrasive blasting, specialist paint and maintenance sheds, and 36 secure cradles. Chandlery supplies, diesel mechanics, marine electricians, marine surveyors, shipwrights, riggers, repairers and maintenance are some of the other services available on site. 


Mackay Visitor Information Centre

320 Nebo Road, Mackay 

P (07) 4944 5888 or 1300 130 001 


North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation

Lot 50 Mulherin Drive, Mackay Harbour

P (07) 4969 0700 or 1300 129 255



Mackay Marina Village 

Mulherin Drive, Mackay Harbour 

P (07) 4955 6855



Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR 448 Mackay)

Mulherin Drive, Mackay Harbour

P (07) 4955 5448

VHF 16, 21, 80

27Mhz 88

MF/HF 4125, 6215



Travel Destination Mackay Queensland Coastal Port


Chris Whitelaw