After driving for more than 100km from Innamincka - hardly a significant metropolis itself - through dust, sand, sparse scrub and not much else, the sudden shock of the water view is breathtaking. Cross over from the merciless, parched side of the last low rise and you're confronted by a huge body of fresh water stretching to distant dunes.

You don't expect it, not out here in the middle of nowhere, deep in the outback. But Coongie Lakes has been here forever. As remote as it seems when you stand on the shores and contemplate how far from home you are, Coongie is a crucial part of a global chain of wetlands used by migratory birds who wing their way from as far away as Siberia.

Aborigines used the resource, too, leaving behind relics such as shell middens, stone tools and even, apparently, burial sites. On my last trip out there, we found a beautiful little spear point, which we admired, photographed and consigned to the sands again.

I've been to Coongie Lakes many times, though never for long enough to explore the whole lake system. When there's enough water around, you can paddle a kayak - which are available for rent in Innamincka - across the main lake (Coongie), and along channels through wetlands and floodways that lead into other lakes, such as Marroocutchanie and Marroocoolcannie.

Walking around the lakes is an option but the kayaks are much more relaxing and give you close-up glimpses of water rats that porpoise through the water, turtles poking their heads up for air, and no end of birds. There are 205 species of birds here at times, according to Environment SA, and plenty of mammals, fish, frogs and reptiles, too. Unfortunately, there also seems to be a healthy population of rabbits that the dingoes can't keep down.

When you arrive from Innamincka, go to the end of the road for your first look at the lake, and to read the info board. Backtrack a few hundred metres and you'll find a route over a red dune. Drop tyre pressures and you'll cruise over to where the many campsites are along the shores. This track goes only a couple of kays or so; if you want to go further, you'll have to do it on foot.

To read the full story, grab the January issue of 4X4 Australia, on sale at your local newsagent now.

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