There’s a distinct change in the atmosphere when you reach an outpost of civilisation in the Outback, a subtle electric charge that you can taste on the tip of your tongue if you stop and take a deep breath. Whether it’s some kind of mind-field created when people group together in a place largely devoid of them is neither here nor there, but what’s undeniable is that the air’s a bit thicker in Innamincka as we roll in from the Strzelecki Track.
Micah Brouwer, the expedition leader (and driver of the Hema LandCruiser 79 Dual Cab mapping vehicle) is filling the sub tank before my Volleys satisfyingly crunch on the gravel outside the Innamincka Trading Post, while his wife Jen has already unclipped their two boys – Toby (age 7) and Brendan (who turned 4 the day before on the Strzelecki) – and is shuttling them and their matchbox cars to a likely patch of dirt nearby. The way they operate is impressive, but shouldn’t be too surprising: as a family, the Brouwers have mapped High Country Victoria for the better part of two months, as well as some of the most remote tracks in the Outback. Their routines are well-oiled and well-proven, and after more than five weeks mapping the Flinders Ranges and surrounding regions, they’re more pertinent than ever.
Before I know it, I’m talking to another integer on Innamincka’s transient population stat board, discussing where we’ve been and where we’re going in reciprocity. My head bobs in genial acknowledgement as he tells me the vast distances he’s covered, drawing a line in the air with his finger as he paints me a mud map in invisible ink. As with most of the travellers we meet, his course has seen him encounter a vast array of weird and wonderful places, so when he catches up to the present and tells me that he’s heading down into the Flinders after departing Innamincka, I ask whether he’s been to see the desert lakes that lie a little over 100km north-west of where we’re standing. His forehead creases and he shakes his head – he’s heard a lot about the famed Coongie Lakes, but he’s never been.
After we shake hands and offer some well-wishes, I cast my eyes over the sheer number of four-wheel drives and motorbikes parked around the visitor centre, the trading post and the iconic Innamincka Hotel, all of whom have come to partake in and contribute to the static electricity that creates this blip on the radar of emptiness. I take another deep breath before hopping into the Nissan Patrol that is our photography vehicle, and while getting another taste of that electricity, I silently lament that we could be driving into a similar jamboree atmosphere at Coongie Lakes that night.
THE DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
To the casual observer, Charles Sturt seemed rather dogged in his desire to find Australia’s purported inland sea during his mid-nineteenth century Outback expeditions. The relief Sturt and his party would have felt to find such a thing would have been momentous, especially considering they had overcome a brutal drought in Outback New South Wales and then made it through the searing gibber plains of Sturt’s Stony Desert, only to be rebuffed by the endless rolling dunes of the Simpson Desert; forcing Sturt to finally give up his dream of finding the inland sea for good. In that context (and even with his misplaced convictions), Sturt was surely both relieved and amazed to stumble across the vibrant wetlands of Coongie Lakes.
Even without those mortal fears and the pain of travelling such distances on foot, it’s not difficult to appreciate the Coongie Lakes for what they are. Surrounded by a carapace of desert landscapes laid out like a series of booby traps across Central Australia, the lakes (of which there are more than 20) are a shining beacon of animal and plant life that would be rare on the coast, let alone in the dune country of the Strzelecki Desert.
The Strzelecki Track had been as straightforward a drive as you can imagine, with predictable conditions that are tailor-made for the big rigs that cruise to and from the gas and oil fields centred around Moomba. Access to these fields continue for much of the drive along the Montepirie Track from Innamincka and, admittedly, it strips part of the feeling of remoteness from the desert as we whirr past.
Just as that sentiment settles in the Patrol begins to rattle, as if it too is taken unawares by the corrugations that suddenly rise up to meet us. I glance at the map and notice we’re entering Malkumba-Coongie Lakes National Park, and more importantly, escaping the well-travelled routes that the gas companies traverse. After an age of driving on well-kept tracks designed for the lowest common denominator, the rough drive invigorates us with an unsaid anticipation. Untended and wild, the track is shaking us awake, letting us know that we’re on the precipice of something truly special.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MEETING PLACE
Change is incremental in the Outback: whether it’s an artistically-eroded gorge or the groove of a track from years of travel, things transition slowly. The Kimberley’s Windjana Gorge - once part of an ancient Devonian reef - is still intact, while there are 100-million-year-old dinosaur footprints at Winton that you can still go and look at today. So, as we draw closer to the lakes and the landscape begins to morph from dusty yellow to rich red sand dunes, I begin to question my understanding of the Outback’s underlying rhythms. The terrain is becoming more arid, but the map is saying we’re closing fast on Coongie Lake. The red dunes, which are reminiscent of the Simpson Desert, are sporadic throughout the Strzelecki Desert, but here they’re pervasive.
We crest a larger one in pursuit of the Hema LandCruiser and, just like that, the lake is in front of us. With the afternoon’s golden hour rays bathing it in warm light, the entire scene is awash in a blaze of burnt orange and yellow, which shifts kaleidoscopically as we circumnavigate the lake’s edge behind the data-capturing LandCruiser. The team had already captured the information they needed at the national park’s only campsite that has a toilet (or any facilities for that matter), before then heading off to finish mapping the area and settling in at one of the waterside bush campsites. As we drive parallel to the lake I feel guilty for disturbing the peace with two loud four-wheel drives, but I see no commotion despite the obvious presence of birdlife – no flapping wings, no rippling waters, and no curious heads of campers poking up to see who’s intruding on their spot. After our encounter with a positively bustling Innamincka earlier that day, this fact is one of the most surprising discoveries so far. We hook around to the furthest campsite that sits near the point of an isthmus, park the vehicles for a two-night stay and step out to get our first clear view of Coongie Lake.
Quiet, expansive and fringed by those blazing dunes, the lake exudes an imperturbable sense of stillness. It’s immediately evident that everything living is trying to get a piece of its stoic abundance, with twisted and gnarled trees huddled around the lake’s edge, while the ghostly black silhouettes of spoonbills dance as they trawl the shallows. Some swans cruise by out on the lake proper, casting long shadows that are only exceeded by those of the pelicans gathered on a nearby sandbar. The light is starting to fade, and after doing some exploring with camera in hand I arrive back in camp and vaguely hear some cutlery clacking in the distance; it reminds me that there are in fact other campers somewhere further around the lake. Getting one last look around while there is light to do so, I take another deep breath and it tastes fresh – like there’s no-one around but us to enjoy this magnificent natural oddity.
There’s a saying in business that people vote with their feet, and I think it’s fair to posit that the same could be said of the relationship between flora, fauna and environ. The convergence of these natural pillars is what creates an ecosystem, and so if an ecosystem is vibrant and harmonious, business is good – and when business is good in nature, it almost always means it’s somewhere worthwhile.
I get out of my swag just before dawn, amazed at the agreeability of the temperature, and grab my camera bag before marching out to some likely spots for photography and bird-watching. Success isn’t difficult with either, thanks to a plethora of good light and winged subjects to enjoy. Both the number and variety of birds are impressive – cormorants, herons, kites, ducks, loads of pelicans and many unrecognisable species - but what’s most arresting is that they all braved the prohibitive surrounding landscapes to come here (since most are migratory). For a waterbird, it seems this is a five-star eco resort, complete with an egregious travel threshold to dissuade less motivated fare. Yet, as I pull my eye from the viewfinder and look around, there’s wildlife everywhere – an unwavering reflection of the rich bounty that the lake proffers to its patrons (feathered and otherwise). As a by-product of this, the area is internationally recognised as a globally significant wetland, a fact that becomes less surprising by the second.
Getting back to our lakeside setup, I see Micah, Jen and their boys revelling in soft morning light and the fact they don’t need to pack up the camper trailer for another day yet. With the prospect of a day of leisure ahead, the serene beauty of Coongie Lake begins to come into focus. Myself and the other photographer, Matt Williams, head out on foot to clamber through the bush and seek out Coongie Ruins, which we can glimpse from the wrong side of Cooper Creek on the western side of the lake. Returning to camp we find Hema’s mapping family lazing under a coolabah, staying cool in the measured heat of the day to a strummed tune from Micah’s ukulele.
At the end of the formal 4WD track around the lake is a tall dune you can climb atop, and as we sit in the mid-afternoon sun and look out at this watery island amongst a sea of desert, it becomes plain that there is much more exploring to be done. Alas, time is against us, but at least I can leave with the knowledge that paradise is waiting, guarded by the fierce gatekeeper of the Outback and hidden in plain sight.