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The I-Venture Club is a unique animal. It’s a 4×4 club of sorts dedicated to owners of Isuzu D-MAX and MU-X 4x4s, backed by the folk at Isuzu Ute Australia. For the last two years, sadly, they haven’t been able to run long-form events due to obvious reasons.
With that pesky air-borne virus no longer holding things back, the team wanted to get the ball rolling. And in style, I might add. Yep, time for a good old trip to one of the (in my opinion) best four-wheel driving destinations in Australia – the Victorian High Country.
Arrival – the adventure begins
The first stop for the trip was our meeting point for the adventure in the picturesque town of Bright. At this time of the year, it was an absolute treat to visit. Trees lining the streets had well and truly turned in colour before the cool of winter. We were treated to an autumn-inspired show driving through the winding roads to find our accommodation for the night. The peak time to be in this part of the world basically. It put all of us in the mood for adventure.
While Bright was a scenic first stop for the trip, it had nothing on what our convoy was about to experience as a group over the next few days. In saying that, we did enjoy the hospitality of the local brewery that night for a feed. It would be rude to not support local businesses, right?
On this trip, there were 14 vehicles in our convoy. They ranged from brand new stock standard condition units, right up to really well-thought-out touring four-wheel drives. This would show the group just what you can do in a stock four-wheel drive. Also, it highlighted the importance of a few key upgrades. Such as a mild suspension upgrade and lift, some bar work, and a larger set of tyres for enhanced off-road performance. Will the stock Isuzu 4x4s be able to keep up? Well, there was only one way to find out.
Leaving somewhat bright and definitely early from the car park of our accommodation, we received instructions from the four-wheel drive trainers and guides for the trip, David Wilson, our driver trainer and Isuzu brand ambassador from Adventure 4WD, and Steve Cooney from Brisbane Hinterland 4WD Training. I’ve personally been four-wheel driving my whole life, but you never stop learning in this game. It’s always great to have the support of people who know what they are doing.
Those new to four-wheel driving on the trip most definitely expressed how grateful they were for the experienced trainers on board. It provided them with the chance to make mistakes and learn in a controlled environment… and what an environment we were about to experience.
Blue Rag Range
We headed for the hills, climbing in altitude quickly ready for our first obstacle of the trip. The legendary Blue Rag Range track. This is quite a baptism of fire for newcomers, as the track starts steep and doesn’t really stop feeling steep till you reach the trig point at the top. I’m happy to say, everyone made it to the top for lunch without issue. Well, maybe a few new scratches on the side steps. But that’s a small price to pay for 360-degree views as scenic as these are. What a track!
We descended Blue Rag Range the way we climbed it, which was just as dramatic an experience as the morning’s climb. Once back under the clouds, there was enough time left in the day to explore a local hut called Lanky Plain Hut on the Dargo High Plains, which is a favourite activity of mine when in the area. It’s an eye-opener into how previous generations lived, as well as the techniques used to just get the job done and build a structure to keep the elements out and the warmth of the fire in.
With a few photos taken and an afternoon tea consumed (you’ll always eat well on an I-Venture Club trip), we were ready to head back to Bright. We travelled through Harrietville and past the hilariously named town, Smoko. Then off to dinner for a chance to swap war stories. It’s amazing to see people that didn’t know each other at the start of the day, with limited off-road experience, get together and bond over a newfound common interest.
Oh, yes it is certainly possible to drive Blue Rag Range Track in a stock standard Isuzu 4×4. This group just proved that point.
If yesterday was all about steep climbs, today was all about river crossings. Including the most challenging section of track we’d drive on this trip. Before the action started though, a scenic drive on dirt to Mount Buffalo and our first utterly gorgeous water crossing on the King River.
With confidence levels now up, Uncle Wilson, our trip leader declared the next challenge would be the hardest of the trip. This would be the last section of the McDonald’s Spur Track. Now, David Wilson is the chillest person you’re ever likely to meet, but when he says to the group in a briefing that we need to listen to his every word and drive with millimetre-by-millimetre accuracy, you know things are about to get serious.
As always, pictures don’t do these sections of track justice to how steep the drop-off was. Nearly all of the vehicles touched Mother Earth with their towbars. And a few sidesteps looked a little worse for wear, but every single punter made it through this descent into the river. Thanks to Mr Wilson and Steve’s sublime guidance. This is champagne four-wheel driving in one of the best parts of Australia; the Vic High Country never disappoints.
With the final rock section and deep river crossing out of the way, we aired the tyres up from 20 psi. Our preferred tyre pressure on the trip. A welcome warm shower was followed by a memorable pub meal in Mansfield combined with excellent banter from the crew. There’s something special about travelling with like-minded people. Especially when we are all from different walks of life.
Depending on your outlook, the weather on day three had certainly changed. I’m not sure if the cold weather and mist made for better or worse track conditions. It was utterly beautiful climbing through the Mount Buller area though. Bindaree Falls was the first main stop and a beautiful sight. It’s not a hard walk from the car park, and I recommend making the effort. It’s a great sport to take a few happy snaps.
The main attraction of the day was reaching the summit of Monument Trail (which was a challenging drive) to explore the famous Craig’s Hut. Now, sadly due to the weather, you could barely see your hand in front of you. Sadly, the view from Craig’s Hut was therefore non-existent.
In saying that, this made the drive up Monument Trail one I’ll never forget. It felt as though we had driven into a cloud, with nothing but the taillights of the D-MAX in front of us guiding the way. It was the perfect mix of eerie yet stunningly beautiful. And cold. Really bloody cold.
The decision was made to drive back down Monument Trail after we explored Craig’s Hut and the surrounding area. We then headed back to Mansfield for the evening. Again, our fearless leaders were on hand to assist and guide the convoy through tricky sections. Before we knew it air was being pumped back into the tyres of all 14 vehicles and another tick off the bucket list had been accomplished.
My set of wheels for the trip – Isuzu D-MAX and MU-X
I managed to spend time in both a base model LS-M Isuzu MU-X and a higher spec LS-U D-MAX (dubbed Blue Boy). The aim was to spend time in both vehicles to compare how they drive on and off-road.
And what did I learn? For my needs, the Isuzu MU-X in LS-M trim is the pick. I like simple vehicles, I currently don’t have the need for a ute. Also, the MU-X handles the rough stuff a little better than the D-MAX. And why is that? Well, there are three main reasons.
Firstly, coil springs on all four corners provide a compliant ride on rough terrain. Speaking of rough terrain (how’s that for a segue), the MU-X not only has a rear differential locker standard, it (unlike the D-MAX) has a magic button called Rough Terrain Mode. What this does is re-calibrate the vehicle’s traction control system to kick in earlier in the rev range. And it works super well I might add, providing much more traction in undulating terrain. I’ve asked the people at Isuzu if this will be featured in upcoming D-MAX models as it is that good. Fingers crossed we’ll have an answer soon.
Lastly, the Isuzu MU-X has a better departure angle of 27.6 degrees vs 24.2 degrees with the D-MAX. You’d expect this from a wagon that isn’t lugging a long tray around. What this meant was the MU-X more manoeuvrable in technical terrain. There were fewer bumps and scratches in the process too.
Make no mistake, the current crop of Isuzu four-wheel drives are capable machines. They have also proven themselves to be incredibly reliable too. This was actually my fourth trip with the I-Venture Club. From the Flinders Ranges to Western Australia, Stockton Beach, and now the Victorian High Country. I’ve not seen one mechanical failure on these trips. Well, other than a punctured tyre or two – now that is saying something.
What is the I-Venture Club?
If you own an Isuzu MU-X or D-MAX, and are looking for a group of likeminded four-wheel drivers to experience this great country in, or even if you are looking to brush up on your four-wheel drive skills, check out the I-Venture Club’s website. There is a list of upcoming trips and a gallery of previous trips to help you see if this is for you. https://www.isuzuute.com.au/events/i-venture-club
I-Venture Club for the invite, David Wilson from Adventure 4WD for his banter, sharp spotting skills on tight sections of tracks, and knowledge of four-wheel drives. Also, to Steve Cooney from Brisbane Hinterland 4WD Training for his assistance and expertise on the tracks as well as just being a good bloke to travel with.