Towns in Australia

Exploring Australia, town by town

Nhulunbuy NT


Postcode: 0880

Nhulunbuy is the name of the township created on the Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory of Australia when a bauxite mine and deep water port were established nearby in the late 1960s. At the 2001 census, Nhulunbuy had a population of 3,766.

This area in Northeast Arnhem Land has belonged to Yolngu Aboriginal people for over 40,000 years.

Matthew Flinders, in his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803, met the Macassan trading fleet near present day Nhulunbuy, an encounter that led to the establishment of settlements on Melville Island and the Coburg Peninsula. A beach close to the township is named Macassan beach in honour of this encounter.

In 1963, a Federal government decision excised part of the land for a bauxite mine to be operated by the North Australian Bauxite and Alumina Company (Nabalco – now Alcan). The Yolngu aborigines at Yirrkala were strongly opposed, and forwarded a bark petition to the Australian House of Representatives, which attracted national and international attention and which now hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.

When government did not change its mind, the Yolngu took their grievances to the courts in 1971, in the case of Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (the Gove land rights case). Yolngu lost the case because Australian courts were still bound to follow the terra nullius principle, which did not allow for the recognition of any “prior rights” to land to Indigenous people at the time of colonisation. However, the Judge did acknowledge the claimants’ ritual and economic use of the land and that they had an established system of law, paving the way for future Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia.

The town of Nhulunbuy was then established, housing the workers and their families, who were employed by the Swiss Aluminium company. The mine is now owned by Alcan. At one stage there were over 100 different nationalities present. Population during the 1970s rose to approximately 3,500 with 1,000 students at the combined primary and high school. In 1981 a new high school was opened.

Permits are required to drive to Nhulunbuy over 700 km of unsealed roads so most supplies and visitors are brought by air to Gove Airport or by sea.

Nhulunbuy is only 20 km from the Indigenous community of Yirrkala, famous for its aboriginal art.