Most people have heard of Copeton Dam just up near Inverell in northern NSW. The facts are pretty impressive - three times the size of Sydney Harbour when full, some of the best freshwater Cod fishing around (monsters up to 1.3 meters are caught regularly), 104 metres deep and offers an array of water sports on the dam. But to be honest, we reckon this place is amazing because it has some of the best waterfront camping you'll find and history abounds in the area.
Inverell and the nearby Gwydir Valley just north of the dam needed a new water supply, so back in the 1930’s a proposal was planned to dam the current location for irrigation to the ever-increasing agricultural production. WW11 came around and funds dried up, but wind the clock to 1966 and the current location was approved with work commencing in 1968. It took five years to complete the wall and further additions have been added in the past few years with external spillways and nine massive gates.
Prior to the valley being flooded, two small towns - Copeton ( formally Boggy Camp ) and Dasey Town were busy supplying workers to the nearby gold mine and along with stockyards, a cemetery and buildings they all now lie deep underwater. It’s not until the dam suffers from a severe drought that relics rise from the deep. Back in 1994 the dam registered a 2% 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 water sports where you can fish, sail, jet ski or just swim in this vast waterway, and with around 45 square kilometres of water to explore it’s not hard to find a quiet cove. Choices for camping are pretty darn good too with kilometres of free camping to paid sites at the Inland Water Holiday Park. For a small fee head to the northern side of the dam along Auburn Vale Road from Inverell. With waterfront sites, fires and dogs permitted, basic showers and toilets, plenty of boat launching spots with total serenity you'll fall in love here. Free camping can be found on the Eastern side coming in from Howell, with no facilities you need to be totally self-sufficient as it’s a long way into town if you forgot the loo paper.
The Inland Water Holiday Park is nothing short of amazing. Here you can camp as hard as you want away from others, camp on the water's edge, have grassy sites, near facilities, fires are allowed and with 24km of water frontage on 1000 acres there is somewhere for everybody. From the moment you arrive, you are made at home from one of the many staff that are passionate about their job and the dam. The kids and big kids at heart can be kept busy for days with playgrounds, golf course, canoe hire, walking trails and much much more. Don’t be surprised when you take a stroll around the park and see the vast array of wildlife from deer, pelicans, resident emu’s, plenty of kangaroos, predatory birds to squawking plovers. It’s not until you drive this mammoth park to realise just how vast it is and the options available.
This area is also known as part of the fossickers way where you can scratch around for gems and coloured stones. Not people know that diamonds were found in this area. On the eastern side of the dam just near Howell, the Conrad Mine began operation back at the turn of the century when Diamonds and Tin were found and over the years the mine hit good times and bad with problems with arsenic, water and collapses. Some of the original shafts that were all dug by hand are nearly 250 feet deep. Eventually, the good fortune ran out and the mine was shut in the mid-1950s. Currently, safety procedures are in place to clean the site up and to preserve it for historical reasons. While the Conrad mine was operational other areas were explored within the region and smaller mines were opened with some degree of luck with a host of other gems and minerals found. Sapphires were found in the area and by 1970 there were over 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 where it’s been eroded down to what it is today. Even though the ground has been dug over for the past 20 years it’s still pretty exciting to scratch around for an alluvial Diamond, black Tourmaline, Tin or clear Quartz. The best way to explore here is just to walk around and check out the number of holes ( shafts ) that others have dug. Either dry sieve or if there is any water in the small dam let the water wash the dirt away and hopefully expose a surprise or two.
On the eastern side of the dam not far away the hamlet of Tinga holds hidden mining history dating back to 1841 when Tin was discovered and mined. With some 6000 people working in the area the Tin was soon exhausted by 1890 and the boom was over. The Chinese worked and lived amongst the miners and their heritage is still prevalent in town where several buildings and a museum still stands.
Tingha has a quaint little caravan park where for a few dollars offers honest sites with basic facilities, you’ll also receive local info on where you can scratch for gems and maybe a little secret local knowledge on where the locals and die-hard diggers go. For the first-timers, head to the Tingha Sands Quarry on the Howell Road. For a measly few dollars, you can dig around in their piles of sand and washed dirt for crystals as small as jelly beans up to palm size. The kids will love the easy digging in a safe location.
Weekend fossickers still flock to this area to try their luck in the towns creek and outer bushland. There are old mullock heaps left beside mines in nearby forests where digging is easy to look for Crystals, Jelly Beans, Smokey and clear Quartz and much more. Deep in the forests at Tingha there are relics of an old stone bakers oven and a few baking pits. Even better still the site and underground wine cellar of the Mannix Hotel can be found nearby. The story goes is that the pub burnt down and then shortly after 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 never to be seen again leaving only a stark reminder where their little girl was buried.
It’s not a trip where you'll experience extreme 4wding, maybe you won't even lock the hubs but whether it be a family weekender to a fossicking trip away the Copeton area has some of the best camping you'll find, history and relics can be found and if you're lucky you might even find a gem or two.
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