The state of Western Australia (1996 population: 1,292,097) is the largest and most sparsely populated in Australia. More than ninety per cent of Western Australia is part of the Great Plateau, which has an average elevation of between 300 and 450 m. The interior is arid and almost river-less and only salt lakes remain of ancient river systems. The wealth of the state depends mainly on its rich mineral deposits. The mining boom in the 1960s resulted in towns being built in remote areas and in port development in the north-west.
The state is one of the world’s largest sources of iron ore, which is mined in the Hamersley Range of the Pilbara Region. Large deposits of oil and natural gas have been found off the north-western coast. Natural gas from Dongara, south of Geraldton, supplies fuel for Perth, the capital city, and for industry at nearby Kwinana where oil is refined and bauxite is processed into aluminium. Other minerals obtained from Western Australia include nickel and uranium. Gold, first discovered in the 1890s, was obtained until the 1950s at Coolgardie and is still obtained at Kalgoorlie. Secondary industry has developed rapidly in association with mining. Industry in Western Australia includes engineering and ship-building, and the production of cement, bricks, paper, fertiliser, plastics, iron and steel.
Despite the low rainfall in most of the state, there is a significant rural industry, particularly in the south-west where wheat and wool are produced. Beef cattle are raised in the Kimberlys where the Ord River scheme also provides irrigation for crops such as cotton and oil seeds.
Perth is the western terminus for the Trans-Australian Railway which operates passenger and freight services from Sydney. Fremantle, the port of Perth, is the largest general cargo port in Western Australia, though other ports such as Dampier and Port Hedland handle larger tonnages. These are mainly of iron ore shipped to Japan and other countries.
Europeans knew of the existence of Western Australia in the seventeenth century. The English explorer, William Dampier, visited the north-western coast in 1688 and 1699, but his reports were unfavourable. It was not until 1827 that James Stirling selected the Swan River area as the site for the settlements of Perth and Fremantle. The first settlers arrived in 1829 and convict labour was used from 1850 until 1868. The coast of Western Australia was granted self-government in 1890, and the discovery of gold at Coolgardie in 1892 and at Kalgoorlie in 1893 accelerated the development of the state.