The jewell off the Newell: Inverell, New South Wales

Allison Watt — 9 October 2023
Known as the Sapphire City, Inverell is a true gem of the New England High Country just a short detour off the Newell Highway.

Known as the Sapphire City because of the many mines which uncovered the beautiful blue gems in the 1970s and 80s, Inverell is one of the gems of the New England High Country and is located on the Gwydir Highway, easy to access from both the Newell and New England Highways.

But there’s so much more to Inverell than just fossicking for the elusive blue gems. Whether it’s adventure, art and culture, history and heritage, Inverell has something for everyone and you can choose your own adventure in this beautiful unspoiled region.

Tin history and wood turning 

Our journey to the Inverell region started just down the road in Armidale, where we’d spent a chilly but pleasant long weekend visiting family. It was a wet but short 100km drive north-west via Guyra to the small town of Tingha to visit the Wing Hing Long Museum and General Store.

This fascinating building is reminiscent of a rural general store from the early 20th century with thousands of items on display depicting the rise and decline of a tin mining town as well as the importance and diversity of the contributions made by Chinese Australians to rural life.

Tin was first discovered in the district in the 1870s, resulting in a population boom which peaked later that century. Wing Hing Long was established as one of a number of general stores servicing the tin mining communities of the district. It was a typical general store where you could buy groceries, drapery, ironmongery, tobacco — just about anything.

The first owner of the store was Ah Lin who bought the land from George Fearby in 1881. It was subsequently owned by another four Chinese businessmen: Jock Sing (1883–1887); Ah Bow (1887–1899); Charles Hing (1899–1918) and Jack Joe Lowe who bought the store in 1918.

Lowe landed in Cooktown in 1900 and arrived in Tingha with his wife and eldest son in about 1915. The store remained in the Lowe family’s ownership until 1998. Guyra Shire Council purchased the store and all its contents to be run as a living museum by the Wing Hing Long Committee of Management, all volunteers. The building is now listed on the State Heritage Register.

On the morning we arrived, we were warmly greeted by longtime volunteer and committee member, Jean Symes, who took our $3 entry fee and gave us an oral history of the store. She then went off to make our delicious Devonshire Tea ($5) while we wandered around the many rooms of this historic building, agog at the fascinating historical items on display including grocery items with original prices still attached, dresses and Chinese clothing, a photographic history of the store, common household items such as a gramophone and a model replica of the tin mine.

A few kilometres up the road from Tingha, in Gilgai, is New England Woodturning and Sculptures, run by master craftsman Rob Day who hand makes and turns every item on display and for sale in the shop on his property, from simple pens and knives to the most complex of working wooden models with thousands of parts such as clocks. Rob also makes and plays his own didgeridoos from all manner of materials including traditional timber and agave. He gave us a demonstration of the different sounds that can come from a didge depending on the material used and its size.

While woodturning and woodworking has been Rob’s mainstay for decades, he recently branched out into creating sculptures from scrap metal and a wander through his garden of quirky pieces is fascinating. There’s a koala made entirely from rusted nuts and bolts sitting in a ‘tree’, a soaring eagle; a life-size tree constructed entirely of star pickets, and a deer with a gasoline tank for a body and bicycle handlebars for antlers. When we visited, Rob was just about to start on a sculpture commissioned by the shire, to take pride of place in the centre of a roundabout at the entrance to town.

We bid farewell to Rob and made the short drive into town to check into the Inverell Caravan Park, a small park at one end of the main street which is an easy walk into the bustling town centre with all the usual shops plus an amazing array of top-quality homewares and fashion boutiques and great cafes. For a Melburnian who hadn’t had a good coffee for a while, this was nirvana.

Managed by Sharon and Michael Lagden, Inverell Caravan Park is part of the New Zealand owned Kui Group which has a host of parks around Australia, including many up the Queensland coast. While only small in size it features modern, air conditioned cabins with ensuite bathrooms, powered and unpowered sites, a swimming pool, covered barbecue area, laundry, and the most modern and clean amenities I’ve ever come across in a caravan park. Very appropriately for the middle of winter, they are heated!

Inverell has no shortage of places to eat and on our first night we chose The Union Inverell in Otho Street (the main street) for a lovely fireside dinner in a beautiful historic building. I enjoyed a dish of delicious spinach and ricotta ravioli and Ray said the Wagyu beef burger really hit the spot. A shared piece of passionfruit cheesecake with coffee rounded off a terrific day.

Village, vehicles and vignerons

There’s no point beating around the bush on this issue — New England is cold in winter and if having your water hose to your van freeze isn’t cold enough for you, I don’t know what it. But the cold night did give way to a sunny day with a cloudless sky.

The Inverell Pioneer Village was the first stop on our itinerary and it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the town. It comprises more than 30 authentic buildings from around the region, all of which have been relocated to the site and resurrected to tell the story of their pasts.

They include a post office, blacksmith’s shop, the Inverell Times print shop, a dairy, pub, general store, homestead, school and miners hut, to name a few. Also on site is a huge display of rare steam engine vehicles and old farm tractors.

You could spend all day wandering through these buildings and taking in all their contents, but we had to visit the National Transport Museum, just around the corner. The museum contains 120 vehicle exhibits, all undercover in one building, including vintage, veteran and classics.

On display is a 1906 Dayton (believed to be the only one left in the world); a 1912 Renaut, various Holdens and Fords a 1929 Packard, Rolls Royce, Bentley and a number of Chevrolets. I even saw my first ever car — a Mazda 1500 with three on the tree (column shift) or was it four?

If you’re not a car buff, the museum has a number of other interesting displays and collections including a section dedicated to the famous Grafton to Inverell cycle race, motorbikes, sewing machines, cameras, dolls and wedding cakes, and even an old Bondwood caravan. It really is an eclectic mix of memorabilia.

From the museum we drove back to Tingha to taste some of the wines on offer at Topper’s Mountain Wines just off the Guyra Road. The drive to the winery is a bit deceiving, a windy dirt track that took us through the stunning Topper Plateau Conservation Area and left us wondering whether we had taken a wrong a turn. After a few kilometres, the forest clears and the view of vineyards sitting in the clearing on top of the plateau as we emerge from the forest is just breathtaking. 

Cellar Door and Vineyard Manager, Jo Goodwin, welcomed us and provided some interesting history to Topper’s Mountain Wines which, at more than 1000m above sea level, is one of the highest wineries in the country.

Owner Mark Kirby bought the property in 1998, recognising that the deep red basalt derived soils would be ideal for grape growing. He planted the first vines in 2000 and some more two years later. The porous soils are full of minerals and drain well so are ideal for producing the beautiful cool climate wines for which Topper is renowned. Whites such as Gewurztraminer and Petit Manseng, Viognioer and reds Nebbiolo and Pinotage Viognier are among the most popular in their small, boutique range, as is the fortified Touriga Ncacionale.

While chatting with Jo we taste the lovely wines while enjoying the stunning views of the vineyards, purchasing a couple of bottles to take with us. A new cellar door and function centre is under construction and there are plans for bed and breakfast accommodation.

Topper’s wines are available online, at the Inverell Information Centre and some restaurants and wine stores in the New England region. Tastings are by appointment only.

After another busy day of sightseeing, we head to the popular Inverell Returned Services Memorial (RSM) Club for dinner. An RSM Club differs from a Returned Services League (RSL) Club in that the building itself is the memorial to returned service men and women from the region. There are only two RSMs in NSW.

The club is huge and includes a variety of dining options from a bistro, cafe and pizzeria to an à la carte restaurant, kids play area, two bars and covered outdoor areas, a bowling green and pokies. It was raffle night and very busy when we were there and we each enjoyed the roast pork and all the trimmings for dinner.

Sapphires and waterfalls 

The next morning I met with Peter Caddey, Manager Administration and Marketing Services at Inverell Shire Council, for a coffee in one of the many fine cafes in the bustling town centre and he filled me in on Inverell’s many tourism offerings for visitors.

Inverell was built on agricultural and later tin mining but it’s sapphires that have made the town famous and given the Shire its Sapphire City slogan. Peter said many travellers find Inverell a perfect place to base themselves for a few days and explore all that the magical New England region has to offer. Towns such as Moree and its hot artesian springs, Tenterfield and the famous saddler made famous by Peter Allen and the beautiful town of Armidale are all an easy drive from Inverell.

Commercial sapphire mining started near Inverell in 1919 but ceased in the 1930s because of the Great Depression. There was little recorded production up until approximately 1960, when commercial mining resumed due to a worldwide sapphire shortage. During the 1970s there were more than 100 active mines in the New England region, however this number declined significantly in the 1980s due to weakening demand and exhaustion of the previously rich alluvial sources. Currently there are only a small number of commercially active mines in the area.

Fossicking is still a popular activity among visitors to the region. In town visitors can fossick for sapphires, gems and precious stones at Billabong Blue Sapphire Fossicking Park. For those who are a bit more serious about fossicking and have all the gear, there are a few sites out of town that allow camping and are also great spots for bushwalking and birdwatching.

And if you don’t find your own sapphire, you’ll be able to pick up a lovely local piece of jewellery at one of the many jewellers in town. Unfortunately, we missed out on fossicking because of some recent rain, but it’s a great reason to return.

We bid farewell to Peter and drove about 50km north to Ashford which provides access to the nearby Kwiambal (kigh-am-bal) National Park about 25km away. It is here that the Macintyre River rushes through the sculptured granite gorges and plunge pools at Macintyre Falls, before meeting the junction at the Severn River.

Comprising 3077 hectares of woodlands including rugged valleys, waterfalls and waterholes, the Kwiambal National Park is a great spot to throw in a fishing line or to walk the many tracks ranging in length from 600m to 7km and graded from easy to difficult. As well as Macintyre Falls, the Limestone Caves — home to rare bats and magnificent limestone formations — is another popular location. There are picnic shelters, barbecue facilities, toilets and camping areas at various locations throughout the park.

From Kwiambal, we drove back to Inverell, packed up the caravan and made the short drive 17km out of town to the Copeton Northern Foreshores Campground on the shores on Copeton Dam.

Fishing all year round

At three times the size of Sydney harbour, the magnificent Copeton Dam is an angler’s paradise and apparently is home to the best Murray cod fishing in New South Wales. In fact, it’s one of the only inland waterways in the state where there is no closed season for Murray cod. There’s also a plentiful supply of yellow belly, catfish and silver perch.

The campground at Copeton Northern Foreshores has recently undergone a $5 million state-of-the-art upgrade thanks to some State Government funding and now boasts the longest boat ramp in the southern hemisphere. Water levels in the dam were up because of recent rains so we didn’t get to see it in its entirety. 

The campground has a resident caretaker/ranger and the facilities include powered and unpowered sites, a splash park and playground for the kids, showers/amenities, kiosk, laundry, camp kitchen, free gas barbecues and dedicated fish cleaning stations. There’s also a function centre which is available to hire, and its elevated position provides beautiful views over the water. We were lucky enough to secure one of the drive-through powered sites for the night, so we didn’t have to unhitch the van.

This was our last night in the Inverell region and the pleasant bush surrounds of the Northen Foreshores campground made for a restful night.

We packed a lot into a few days, but if you enjoy long trips there's so much more to see in the Inverell region. Next time you’re enjoying a road trip along the Newell Highway, make the short detour to experience this New England gem. 

And if you're in the area this October, check out the Inverell Sapphire City Festival from 20-23 for some family-friendly fun. There are a number of pre-festival events planned, including markets, gala openings and tours, so make sure you check it out!

The author and her partner were guests of Inverell Shire Council.

Contact details

Copeton Northern Foreshores
1873 Auburn Vale Road
Inverell NSW 2360
P: 02 6723 0250

Inverell Caravan Park
21 Glen Innes Road
Inverell NSW 2360
P: 02 6722 3036

Inverell Pioneer Village
Tingha Road
Inverell NSW 2360
P: 02 6722 1717
Open Tuesday–Friday 10am–4pm, Saturday and Sunday 9.30am–1.30pm

Inverell RSM (Returned Servicemen’s Memorial) Club
68–76 Evans Street
Inverell NSW 2360
P: 02 6722 3066

Kwiambal National Park
P: 1300 072 757 (13000 PARKS) for the cost of a local call within Australia excluding mobiles

National Transport Museum
69 Rifle Range Road
Inverell NSW 2360
P: 02 6721 2270
Open every day 9am–4pm

New England Woodturning and Sculptures
29 Ponds Road
Gilgai NSW 2360
P: 02 6723 1350
Open Tuesday–Saturday 9am–4pm

The Union Inverell
79 Otho Street
Inverell NSW 2360
P: 02 6721 3359

Toppers Mountain Wines
13420 Guyra Road
Tingha NSW 2369
P: 0411 880 580
Open by appointment only

Wing Hing Long Museum
10 Ruby Street
Tingha NSW 2369
P: 02 6723 3156
Open Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Public Holidays 10am–3pm


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