The Northern Capital

Chris Whitelaw — 12 March 2020
Townsville is an important cultural and trade hub, but there's plenty to see and do

Townsville, 1,350km north of Brisbane, is a vibrant modern city and the commercial, industrial and cultural hub of one of Australia’s most productive regions. Almost the de facto ‘Capital of North Queensland’, it also plays an important strategic role as the base for several Australian military units and is a regular port of call for naval vessels and cruise liners. As the northern centre for higher education and research, it is home to the James Cook University and the headquarters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, with premier cultural attractions such as Reef HQ, Museum of Tropical Queensland and Townsville Maritime Museum.


The city lies in the ‘Dry Tropics’, with a climate that is more savannah-like than ‘wet tropical’. The east-west orientation of the coastline alters the effect of the prevailing south-east trade winds, producing winter months characterised by less rainfall and more sunshine. The region’s wet season spans October to March, when cyclones may descend from the Coral Sea. Some 15 of these have tracked near Townsville, one of the worst being category 3 Althea in December 1971, which caused an estimated $50 million worth of damage and the loss of three lives. 


Despite its industrial trappings, Townsville is a city of charm and style with a relaxed vibe seen in its elegant heritage-listed buildings, verdant botanical gardens and close proximity to Magnetic Island, one of the most captivating destinations in the Great Barrier Reef.

The inner city stretches along The Strand, a 2km beach and parkland, and is overlooked by the red granite monolith of Castle Hill (286m), from which several lookouts provide panoramic views. The historic heart of the city is the waterfront precinct of Flinders Street East, where many gracious buildings bear witness to the town’s evolution from a provincial outpost to a pre-eminent place of commerce. Throughout the city, former colonial banks mingle with high-rise office blocks and hotels, and late-night revellers frequent old pubs that were once the locals of wharfies and railwaymen.

Ross Island (South Townsville) accommodates the port precinct, support industries and a network of road and rail infrastructure. The health of Ross River is maintained by three weirs, fish stocking and dredging, keeping it deep and clean for recreation like waterskiing, fishing and rowing. 


Magnetic Island, 8km north, is composed of 300 million-year-old granite and was part of the mainland before rising sea levels filled Cleveland Bay and West Channel about 7,500 years ago. Its mountainous landscape is dotted with rounded rock outcrops that rear above eucalypt woodland and rainforest gullies. The island’s dramatic coastline is a series of sandy coves separated by boulder-strewn headlands fringed by reefs and mangroves. 

More than half the island is national park which protects a wealth of terrestrial and marine wildlife, including northern Australia’s largest koala colony. Sandy beaches provide turtle nesting areas, mangrove communities are important fish nurseries, and extensive seagrass meadows support a large dugong population. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park surrounds the island in zones designated for various recreational and commercial uses.


The traditional owners of the Townsville region are the Bindal and Wulgurukaba people, who occupied the coast from the Burdekin River south of Ayr to the Herbert River north of Ingham, as well as Magnetic and Palm Islands. The maritime prowess of the Wulgurukaba is reflected in their name, which means ‘canoe people’. Archaeological evidence found near Townsville establishes that Indigenous people lived in the region for at least 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans.

Townsville was first visited by Europeans when James Cook reached and named Cleveland Bay and Magnetic Island in 1770. He was followed in 1802 by Matthew Flinders during his circumnavigation of the continent. Phillip Parker King anchored Mermaid in the bay for three days in 1819, while his companion, botanist Allan Cunningham, came ashore to collect specimens for return to England. James Morrill was cast up near Cape Cleveland after the wreck of the barque Peruvian in 1846 and was rescued by local Indigenous people, with whom he lived for 17 years before joining the settlement at Townsville in 1863.


In 1861, John Melton Black persuaded Sydney businessman, Robert Towns, to finance the establishment of a port on Cleveland Bay to serve the growing pastoral and mining industries. A suitable location, originally dubbed ‘Castletown’, was chosen at the mouth of Ross Creek. When declared a port of entry in 1865 the settlement was renamed Townsville after its benefactor. The first steamships arrived soon after and, following the discovery of gold in 1867, Townsville rapidly grew into a major port and service centre.


In 1880, the ‘Great Northern Railway’ was established with Townsville as its terminus, progressively linking the port to various mining centres. Local industry flourished and international trade began in 1891 when construction of a freezing facility enabled graziers to export meat directly to the United Kingdom.

The turn of the century saw further development of harbour facilities and the creation of an industrial estate in South Townsville to handle the huge quantities of bulk ore from Mount Isa and oil storage depots for the Shell and Vacuum Oil companies. 

With its strategic location and extensive harbour facilities, Townsville played a major role during the Second World War. It was a military base for up to 90,000 Australian and US troops, a springboard for allied naval vessels in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and home to seven airfields from which raids were launched in support of offensives in the South West Pacific. Townsville continues to support the Australian Defence Force, with an RAAF base, Army barracks and port for Navy vessels.


Between 1960 and 2000, waves of development resulted in the construction of facilities to handle commodities such as sugar, zinc, copper, oil, processed fish, steel and LPG. 

More recently, over $500 million has been invested in upgrading port infrastructure. Work has begun on the $1.6 billion Townsville Port Expansion Project, a 30-year staged construction of six new berths and associated infrastructure in the Outer Harbour, land reclamation and dredging to expand the main shipping channels. A further $150 million will be invested to develop a marine precinct adjacent to the port and upgrade the harbour at the mouth of the Ross River, including a marina for recreational boats.


Townsville is Queensland's third largest commercial port after Brisbane and Gladstone. It’s managed by Port of Townsville Limited, a Queensland Government-owned corporation responsible for maintaining dredging, security, berth infrastructure and business development. 

Townsville port can accommodate Panamax-size vessels at eight berths geared for handling bulk and liquid cargo, live exports, containers and general cargo. The port precinct incorporates heavy lift loading/unloading equipment, roll-on/roll-off facilities, cargo laydown areas, and biosecurity and custom services.

The port has one of the most diverse trade profiles of any provincial port in Australia, with more than 20 shipping lines connecting 136 destinations around the world. International trade through the port is valued at around $9 billion annually. The port also supports tourism’s $500 million contribution to the local economy by providing berthing for cruise ships — a record 12 carrying 13,000 passengers and crew during 2017–18 — and a dedicated passenger terminal alongside charter operators to Magnetic Island and the Great Barrier Reef. 


Prevailing winds around Townsville are moderate to strong and predominantly from the south-east. Calmer conditions occur during the winter months, but between November and April there is a risk of cyclones. A Tropical Cyclone Watch is instigated when a potential cyclone is imminent and extreme weather event contingency plans for the Townsville region are published on the Maritime Safety Queensland website.

Cleveland Bay is large and shallow, most of it less than 10 metres deep, with continually shifting sand bars inshore. Despite regular maintenance, the port is subject to constant siltation and depths may differ from those shown on charts. The flood tide fills Cleveland Bay from the north-east, flowing to the west across the harbour entrance at speeds of up to 0.5 knots. The ebb tide is less noticeable and sets to the east across the entrance. 

The port is generally approached between ESE and NNW from the Inner Route of the Great Barrier Reef. Approaching from the north, passing east of Magnetic Island, vessels should keep at least half a mile off the island to obtain not less than 9.1 metres of water at LAT. Passing to the west of the island, a direct course for West Channel may be steered with due regard for the islands en route. This northern approach passes through the Halifax Bay bombing exercise area (clearly defined on the charts), which can’t be entered when it is active — check with Townsville Radio on VHF 16 whether it is active or not. 

Final approaches to the harbour are via the Sea (or Entrance) Channel starting off Nelly Bay on Magnetic Island and running 11km south-west to the port, and Platypus Channel beginning 2km north-east of the port. If entering Ross Creek, small craft must not transit the port’s swing basin or channel if the port control tower light is flashing or the front lead of Platypus Channel is activated.

Although Cleveland Bay provides good holding ground, anchorages sheltered from prevailing south-easterlies are scarce, which is why some skippers prefer to anchor around Magnetic Island and commute into the city by ferry. The only trade wind anchorage in Townsville is under the lee of the Western Breakwater in rapidly shoaling water over good-holding mud. Dinghy access to the ‘Duck Pond’ inside Breakwater Marina is permitted at a daily landing rate. Alternatively, a dinghy can be taken to the beach outside the marina in the vicinity of the Townsville Sailing Club. 

The Townsville Marine Precinct, at the mouth of the Ross River, has a barge ramp, ship-lift, docking and associated marine facilities. There are approximately 50 trawler berths and pile moorings, with size limits of 65 metres. The river and boat harbour are entered through a well-defined channel east of the main harbour that is dredged to maintain a depth of 2.5 metres. An arch bridge crosses the river mouth with a clearance of 6m. Facilities for recreational craft are limited to fore and aft pile berths, available through the port authority, but are usually fully booked. Haul-out, chandlery, repairs and maintenance services have been moved into the small boat harbour. Along Ross Creek there are two public jetties, both with 20-minute limits.


Townsville has two marinas for recreational boats: Breakwater Marina adjacent to the harbour entrance and Townsville Yacht Club in Ross Creek.

The front and rear leads to the Breakwater Marina are located on its western arm and mark the centre of an entrance channel dredged to about 2.5m. The marina provides short- and long-term accommodation for vessels between 10m and 45m at 325 berths. All berths have water and single-phase electricity up to 15amps, with three-phase power available at larger berths. Unleaded and diesel fuel is available 24/7 from the floating fuel wharf inside the marina entrance. LPG gas cylinder refills are also available. There is no sullage pumpout facility, but a dedicated waste compound receives general refuse, paper/cardboard recycling and waste oil. Amenities for marina tenants include bathrooms, laundry, barbecues, free WiFi, car parking, restaurant and bar. Security is monitored by a network of CCTV cameras. The marina has no vessel haul-out, slipway or hardstand but services available within the marina or nearby include chandlery, detailer, diver, electrician, electronics, plumber, refrigeration, rigger, sailmaker and shipwright.

Townsville Yacht Club Marina is in the heart of the city, adjacent to the dining and entertainment precinct on Palmer Street and a few minutes’ walk to the Flinders St Mall. It has 165 berths for vessels up to 20 metres, accessed via an entrance of 2.7m depth. All berths have water and 240V power, some with three-phase, and are available for short- and long-term rental. Amenities include ensuite-type bathrooms, laundry, restaurant and bar. It has a haulout/slipway and services on-site or nearby similar to those at Breakwater Marina, but no fuel or LPG. Pontoons are accessed via swipe card gates and monitored by CCTV. Power boats and yachts are equally represented in the Club’s 1,500-strong membership, which enjoys a full calendar of sailing events like the Port Hinchinbrook Blue Water Classic (Easter) and Magnetic Island Race Week (September).

Across the bay, Magnetic Island Marina at Nelly Bay has 110 moorings for vessels up to 20 metres and a maximum draft of 5 metres. Electricity (15A and three-phase) is connected to the berths and amenities include showers, toilets, laundry and fuel. The local IGA is only two minutes’ walk away. A regular 20-minute ferry service operates daily to Townsville and island buses connect to Picnic Bay and Horseshoe Bay.


Townsville Bulletin Square Visitor Information Centre

Fliners Street, Townsville 

P (07) 4721 3660 or 1800 801 902 


Port of Townsville

Benwell Road, South Townsville

P (07) 4781 1500 



Maritime Safety Queensland 

60 Ross St, South Townsville 

P (07) 4421 8100


Townsville Breakwater Marina

26 Mariners Drive, The Strand

P (07) 4721 2233

Channel 10 VHF



Townsville Yacht Club Marina

1 Plume Street, South Townsville

P (07) 4772 1192 


Magnetic Island Marina

123 Sooning Street, Nelly Bay, Magnetic Island

P (07) 4758 2417 or 0408 026 886 




Destination Townsville Queensland Travel Industrial Coastal


Chris Whitelaw