COPETON Dam up near Inverell in northern NSW is three times the size of Sydney Harbour when full, is 104 metres deep, has some of the best freshwater cod (monsters up to 1.3 metres are caught regularly) and offers an array of water sports. Plus, it has a rich history and some of the best waterfront camping you’ll find.
Back in the 1930s, Inverell and the nearby Gwydir Valley needed a new water supply, so a proposal was planned to dam the current location for irrigation to an ever-increasing agricultural production.
World War II came around and funds dried up, but in 1966 the current location was approved and work started in 1968. It took five years to complete the wall, while further improvements have been added the past few years including external spillways and nine massive gates.
Prior to the valley flooding, two small towns – Copeton (formally Boggy Camp) and Dasey Town – were busy supplying workers to the nearby goldmine. The stockyards, cemetery and buildings are now deep underwater, but relics rise from the deep when severe drought strikes the area. In 1994 the dam registered a two per cent water level and it was possible to see some of the 39 cemetery headstones, the mine tower and old fence lines.
Most people head to Copeton for the magical camping and watersports, where you can fish, sail, jet-ski or swim in this vast waterway; with around 45km² of water to explore it’s easy to find a quiet cove. Camping options are pretty good, too, as there are kilometres of free camping, as well as paid sites at the Inland Water Holiday Park.
4x4 opinion: The good and bad of camping
For a small fee the northern side of the dam, along Auburn Vale Road from Inverell, contains waterfront sites where fires and dogs are permitted. The serene sites have basic showers and toilets and plenty of boat-launching spots. Free camping can be found on the eastern side coming in from Howell, but with no facilities you’ll need to be totally self-sufficient as it’s a long way into town if you forgot loo paper.
The Inland Water Holiday Park is nothing short of amazing. Here you can camp on the water’s edge or on grassy sites near facilities, and as far away from others as you please. There’s a golf course, canoe hire, walking trails, playgrounds for the kids, and much more. Take a stroll around the park and you’ll see a vast array of wildlife, from deer, pelicans, emus, kangaroos and predatory birds like the squawking plovers.
4x4 opinion: Encounters with outback wildlife
This area is part of the Fossickers Way route, where punters can scratch around for gems and coloured stones. On the eastern side of the dam near Howell the Conrad Mine began operation back at the turn of the century and diamond and tin were discovered, and some of the original shafts dug by hand are nearly 250-feet deep. The mine was shut down in the mid-1950s, and safety procedures are now in place to clean the site up and preserve it for historical reasons.
While the Conrad Mine was operational other areas within the region were explored, and smaller mines were opened with a host of gems and minerals found. Sapphires were discovered in the area and by 1970 there were more than 100 mining operations in the district all searching for this shiny stone. Inverell is now known as the Sapphire City.
Halfway between Copeton Dam and Inverell on the Copeton Dam Road, the local shire has put aside a large lump of land where you can fossick for free. Signposted at Staggy Creek, it’s only a short drive through several paddocks (keep the speed down and shut the gates) to the digging fields. Staggy Creek Reserve is part of an ancient creek bed that has eroded down to what it is today.
Even though the ground has been trawled for the past 20 years it’s still exciting to scratch around for an alluvial diamond, black tourmaline, tin or clear quartz. The best way to explore is to walk around and check out the amount of holes (shafts) others have dug.
The eastern side of the dam, not far from the hamlet of Tingha, holds hidden mining history dating back to 1841 when tin was discovered and mined. With some 6000 people working in the area tin was soon exhausted and the boom was over by 1890. Chinese people worked and lived among the miners and their heritage is prevalent in town, where several buildings and a museum still stand.
Tingha has a quaint, little caravan park with honest sites and basic facilities. Here you’ll receive information on where you can scratch for gems and perhaps some local knowledge on where the locals and diehard diggers go. First-timers should head to the Tingha Sands Quarry on Howell Road, where, for a few dollars, you can dig around for crystals in piles of sand and washed dirt. The kids will love digging in a safe location.
Deep in the forests at Tingha are relics of an old stone baker’s oven and a few baking pits. Better still, the site and underground wine cellar of the Mannix Hotel can be found nearby. The story goes that shortly after the pub burnt down the owner’s young daughter fell down a mine shaft and died. Unfortunately, the owners had enough bad luck in this area and decided not to rebuild the pub and moved away, leaving only a stark reminder where their little girl was buried.
It’s not a trip to experience extreme four-wheel driving – you probably won’t even lock the hubs – but it’s a great fossicking adventure for the entire family, with some of the best camping you’ll find.
What a wonderful world on 4x4 explore
Copeton 4x4 Travel Planner
Copeton Waters is 35km SW of Inverell, which is 430km SW of Brisbane. The Inland Park is more than 9km², and there’s more than 25km of water frontage to camp on.
WHAT TO TAKE
Fuel, takeaway food and basic items can be bought at the shop. There are no facilities on the northern and eastern free-camping sides. Fossickers should bring a spade and a sieve.
With powered and unpowered sites available, swags, tents, camper trailers and caravans are all catered for. The softies can even hire a cabin for overnight stays.
THINGS TO DO
Fishing, fossicking, birdwatching, photography, walking trails, exploring, golf, tennis and swimming – the list goes on.
For more info on facilitates or camping at Copeton Waters Park, phone: (02) 6723 6269.
The Inverell Information Centre can advise on free camping areas, places to fossick and explore, or general info, phone: (02) 6728 8161.