The Gulf Country is characterised by numerous turbulent wet-season rivers that pass over coastal lowlands to the Gulf of Carpentaria, but the headwaters are far distant. Beginning from the Northern Territory border there is the Nicholson River, fed by tributaries from Lawn Hill (Boodjamulla) National Park and by the Gregory River from Riversleigh World Heritage area. Moving east, and then north into the Cape York Peninsula, there are:

RiverHeadwatersPasses near or through
LeichhardtParoo Range,
near Mount Isa
East of Burketown
FlindersCloncurry30 km west of Karumba
NormanGregory Range,
between Croydon
and Richmond
100 km north of Karumba
MitchellChillagoe280 km north of Karumba,
near Kowanyama

The outer limits of the Gulf Country's headwaters are marked very approximately on maps by the Barkly Highway, Flinders Highway, Kennedy Developmental Road and the Peninsula Developmental Road. There are also the Wellesley and South Wellesley Islands (including Mornington and Bentinck Islands) north of Burketown.

Saline coastal flats fringe most of the Gulf, extending up to 30 km inland in spots, most concentrated from the Burketown area to Karumba.

The coastal part of the Gulf was explored by Abel Tasman in 1644, but his Dutch masters rejected the place for trade or commerce. Matthew Flinders carried out marine and botanical surveys in 1802, described the hinterland as plains of promise and brought it to the attention of adventurous pastoralists. Ludwig Leichhardt travelled from Brisbane to Point Essington (Darwin) in 1844 and provided a comprehensive geographical report, and Augustus Gregory did the reverse journey in 1855. His dissenting voice about the potential of the plains of promise was ignored. The ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition (1861) predated the settlement of Burketown in 1866.

Most inland European exploration was done by invading pastoralists. The first inrush in the 1860s was defeated by stock losses and Aboriginal resistance. A second attempt in the late 1870s and the 1880s succeeded, replacing sheep with hardier cattle and inflicting 'frontier justice' on the Aborigines. Inland, there were mineral discoveries at Cloncurry, Mount Cuthbert, Gunpowder and many other sites.

Burketown was a customs post and administrative centre of Burke Shire (1885). Two years before, the Carpentaria local government body was established, running east from Burke Shire and north along Cape York Peninsula. Its administrative centre was Normanton, which became a freight-forwarding centre to mines in Croydon Shire (1887) and Etheridge Shire (1879). The other inland shires of the Gulf Country are (moving west from Etheridge), Richmond (1916), McKinlay (1891), Cloncurry (1884) and Barkly Tableland/Mount Isa (1914).

West of Burketown there is the Doomadgee Aboriginal Shire Council, population 1052 in 2006. Mornington Island Shire Council's population was 1032. Immediately north of Carpentaria Shire there is Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council with 1021 people (2006).

Railway connections from eastern Queensland to the Gulf have been dreamt of but incompletely realised. Normanton's little line to Croydon (1891) is a fondly regarded tourist attraction. The Savannahlander train from Cairns to Forsayth (Etheridge headwaters) is another tourist favourite. From the Townsville to Hughenden pastoral railway, extensions were pushed westwards to Cloncurry (1908), Dajarra and Mount Isa (1915, 1924) and Mt Cuthbert (1916-49), all with minerals in mind.

Comparative census data for the shires in the Gulf has been:


Sue Neales, The Gulf Country, Terry Hills, NSW, Australian Geographic Ltd, 2000

Dick Eussen, Australia's Gulf Country, Adelaide, Rigby Ltd, 1976

Tony Roberts, Frontier justice: a history of the Gulf Country to 1900, St Lucia, UQP, 2005

Burke, Carpentaria, Cloncurry, Croydon, Doomadgee, Kowanyama, McKinley, Mornington Island, Mount Isa and Richmond Shires entries


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