Recently I joined some friends who were very new to four wheel driving on a little trip to the Victorian High Country. We picked some tracks that I knew well, hoping they would create a sense of adventure without being too intimidating.
Observing the exhilaration (and trepidation) of my friends as they negotiated the same steep tracks and beautiful creek crossings that I first started out on was a really strong reminder of why I fell in love with four-wheel driving.
My friends were much more comfortable venturing out with someone who had been there before. And it was a real pleasure for me to get out there and share my (limited) experience.
I-Venture Club concept
After spending some time with the Isuzu I-Venture Club, I learnt they provide the same experience – only much better. The I-Venture Club is available to Isuzu owners and aims to share the basics on how to get the most out of your 4WD, take you to some fantastic 4WD locations and organise all the logistics for you. All you have to do is pay your money, turn up and have a great time.
The I-Venture Club run events all over the country, but this one also happened to be in the Victorian High Country. We met up in Bright at a fantastic time of year with the European trees putting on a stunning autumnal display of colours. The first order of the day was breakfast with an informal theory session delivered by I-Venture Club lead trainer, David Wilson. He went through when to use 4WD high, 4WD low and the rear diff locks. We also met Steve Cooney, our co-instructor who has a wealth of knowledge on all things four-wheel drive. We then hit the road digesting the gourmet breakfast and the knowledge imparted.
Day one – Blue Rag Range Track
The substantial convoy of Isuzu utes and wagons made its way along the Great Alpine Road blacktop towards the mountains. There were eight customer vehicles, four 2023 stock standard vehicles allocated to the media and two support vehicles driven by our instructors, also very stock. We peeled off onto the Dargo High Plains Road hitting dirt road for the first time with David Wilson reminding us to select 4WD high on the fly.
Soon we were at the base of the famous Blue Rag Range Track. Here the convoy pulled over and aired tyre pressures down to 20 PSI. I had been up Blue Rag twice before, once on a motorbike and once on a lifted 4WD. I was looking forward to soaking up the view again and seeing how a stock standard vehicle would tackle the terrain. Neither disappointed. The Hema Victorian High Country Atlas & Guide describes Blue Rag as “the most impressive view in all of the High Country”. No arguments from me. And we saw how the whole convoy ate up the climb with slow, controlled driving under the tutelage of David and Steve on UHF. Deploying the rear diff locks for the last short but very steep, rock section meant that smooth and steady momentum was all that was required, rather than the bouncing and revving I have seen on other vehicles on this climb.
Even though we had an armchair ride, there was a buzz amongst the drivers for what we had just tackled. After a catered lunch we headed back down Blue Rag and explored some more side tracks off the Dargo High Plains Road. We finished off the day driving back to Bright for a nice pub meal and comfortable hotel accommodation.
Day two – Technical driving
We were off bright and early on day two convoying along the picturesque Buckland Valley. We then picked up Goldies Spur Track climbing around the southern edges of Mount Buffalo, followed by a gravel road transport section towards Dandongadale. In the afternoon we were rewarded with some next-level 4WD action. Some twisty steep descents heading towards King River showed off the articulation capability of the MU-X wagons and saw more than one D-MAX ute get a wheel in the air. No dramas – just interesting to see the difference between the rear coil spring suspension in the wagons and the leaf spring set up in the utes.
Our descent brought us to the 4WD obstacle, loved by many, loathed by some – the bog hole. The convoy lined up and tackled it one by one. When it came to my turn Steve advised “Drop in slowly and gently but once the front wheels are in give it plenty of right pedal or you are going to get hung up on the diff.” I dropped in and gave it juice but Steve barked “more, more, more” down the radio to encourage me and the car along. Of course, Steve was right as I nearly came to a standstill, but traction kicked in and I climbed out the other side. My eventual exit was greeted with a big cheer, as were all the other drivers. We were now a tribe of Isuzu drivers, intoxicated with life and all loving the bog hole challenge.
The next challenge was a pretty serious rock-shelf descent into a river. While David and Steve had been a barrel of laughs the whole trip, they now had their game faces on. We were told this was a millimetre-perfect manoeuvre and we had to do exactly as we were told to bring the vehicles through without any damage. Watching some vehicles go through before me, you could see them slide under locked brakes for short periods, followed by wheel lifts in some sections and tow bars scraping on the exit. When I lined up it was apparent that I could not see the obstacles at all – just the bonnet and a drop below you. You were completely in the hands of your instructor guiding you through. “Right hand down, now straighten up, left hand down, bit less, now easy does it as you drop off”. In reality, the instructors drove the cars remotely via their UHF instructions to us. We were just actuators sitting in our driver's seats pressing the pedals on command. Again, there were more cheers as everyone completed the challenge and the tribe was even stronger. The rest of the drive was pretty cruisy, and we made it to Mansfield for dinner and lodgings.
Day three – Monument Track and Craig’s Hut
Our final day took us on the main drag towards Mount Buller. At Mirimbah you veer left on Mount Stirling Road. The morning was full of fun stuff like panning for gold, visiting huts and Bindaree Falls where you can walk around behind the cascade and look through it.
The afternoon saw us put our serious 4WD hats back on as we took the steep, low-range Monument Track up into the clouds, literally. It was a surreal experience watching the convoy snake up the mountain with very limited visibility with just the glow of the vehicle taillights in front of you. Steep, rocky sections saw diff locks deployed again and we all made it up to the famous Craig’s Hut. The site has some pretty spectacular vistas, but we had eerie cloud cover enveloping the hut. It was straight out of the movies. This is apt because Craig’s Hut is in fact a film set for the iconic Australian movie The Man from Snowy River.
We descended back down Monument Track and wrapped up the trip at the Iron Bark Brewery in Mansfield where we swapped stories and started planning our next adventures.
What I learned
The Isuzus are very capable vehicles in standard format. What we did on street tyres with the correct pressures was impressive. Factory-fitted rear diff locks are a game changer for this style of vehicle when the going gets tough.
Starting off your 4WD adventures with experienced instructors is a fantastic way to gain confidence and learn the basics. Truly, hats off to these guys for getting all these vehicles through some potentially troubling terrain with no damage whatsoever.
We live it up in hotels, but there is an abundance of great camping sites along the route. You can easily find them with Hema maps and navigators.
Living and travelling as a convoy was a great social experience for like-minded people. Some of the participants had been to multiple I-Venture events before and were competent drivers. They kept coming back because they enjoyed the vibe, and all of the logistics were taken care of.
Travelling in a big mob does slow you down a bit. Once you gain more experience and buddied up in a smaller group you would be able to fit more into a day. And to be fair, the media contingent holds things up a bit as we shoot our footage. However, if you want to get an insight into how the media rolls at a gig like this, you will see it up close and personal.
I reckon $2000 per couple for a guided, expert tour with meals and accommodation is a pretty good deal.
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