Higher Power


Not all guardian angels have halos and feathery white wings. Some wear Blundstones, a thermal Isuzu jacket and clip-on UHF radio. Our muddy-trousered saviours are ankle deep in the frigid river water in Victoria’s High Country, calmly guiding us down a rock shelf smeared with slippery red mud. Keep it slow. A little bit left. Easy, easy. Right rear wheel’s about to drop off that rock. Perfect. You’re through. Well done.

Fellow I-Venture Clubbers punch the air and cheer: another one’s made it safely across. “Would you have attempted that on your own?” I ask my co-pilot. “No chance,” he mutters. “I’d have turned around and gone home.” Lead driving instructor David Wilson’s a convincing chap. That’s why all his MU-X and D-MAX-driving ducklings are safely over the river. Dave’s I-Venture team has quickly earned the trust of the intrepid adventurers. 

Tyre pressures are optimal—20psi in our case. Plus, we’ve soaked up all the off-roading tips we need and learned about the smarty pants electrical and mechanical components that make these 4x4 Isuzu's so darn capable in the wild. The crux of I-Venture odysseys is discovering how off-road equipped your D-MAX, MU-X and you really are—and the fun that, that brings.

There’s a frisson of fear, understandably, but doesn’t that get the happy endorphins flowing? You’re the one in charge of guiding your 4x4 through what appears to be impossible terrain, but there’s reassuring hand-holding from experts. Skills improve, camaraderie overflows and, good grief, a cold beer and a hot shower at day’s end rarely felt this good.

Speaking of warm-and-fuzzies, our kick-off spot for the three-day adventure is the Alpine National Park town of Bright, and its autumnal glow is magical. Trees are a mix of pinks, oranges and reds, and the clear Ovens River gently burbles through the town’s heart. It’s still early in the season, so the snow bunny hustle hasn’t yet punctured the serenity. But there’s a buzz between the Isuzu drivers—a mixed dozen of MU-X's and D-MAX's—as we kick-off under rich blue skies.

It’s a twisty bitumen climb in the direction of Mt Hotham’s exclusive ski resort. As we reach the thinner air and skeletal ghost gums, we peel off onto dustier terrain. It’s here we begin the steep and rocky climb up the Blue Rag Range Track, the jewel in the High Country’s crown. Out come tyre pressure gauges and we’re soon sporting 20psi (a single cab D-MAX without much tray weight goes to 15psi front and rear after some wheel-spinning dramas), stretching our rubber footprints. “It’s free traction,” we’re wisely told.

And so it proves. As I shift our MU-X into low range, I’m reminded of how simple and clunk-free it all is. Kids these days will never know the perils of manually locking an old 4x4’s hubs on a freezing day, rain pelting your back and boots sinking into muddy quagmires. I still have the scars. Now’s not the time to grumble. We’re rock climbing with ease, there’s a relaxing ABC podcast through my wireless Apple CarPlay and the Alpine panorama opens up all around.

Regardless, it’s always eyes on the trail. Loose rocks and steep drop-offs demand respect, but following my leader helps, especially as advice, tips and warnings flood the two-way radio, punctuated by the odd dad joke and geography lesson. Trig Point here is at 1,726m and there’s champagne views for days. “Can you find me a better 360-degree view in Australia?” challenges Wilson, and you know it’s good, because he’s a patriotic South Australian. I hope it’s a rhetorical question, because I’m utterly stumped.

Hills and mountains are like stacked quilts to the horizon, rich with contrast and lavender hues. The weather gods have been kind. Then it’s back the way we came—steady as she goes—and we head towards Devils Hollow, now enjoying views to the back of Mt Hotham. It’s hard to think this will all be blanketed by snow in a few short weeks. Next morning we head due west from Bright towards Mansfield, via, of course, the scenic river-crossing route.

It’s here, as we inch down to the meandering Howqua River, that those aforementioned guardian angels walk us through this most treacherous part of our odyssey. A misstep here and you could re-model your vehicle’s ribcage, although our Isuzu's underbody protection adds a welcome suit of armour. Recent rains mean the mud-caked rocks do a fair impression of ice rinks, but our guides keep the faith. Trust their instructions and we’re through with barely a bump, and even as the rain starts to pour, happy Isuzu folk are out of their cars cheering on each winning attempt.

It’s become quite the spectator sport. We’re left shaken, stirred and deeply impressed. Black cockatoos squawk overhead, horses play in the fields of one of the few properties out here, and a stubborn black cow seems intent on blocking our progress. As it lounges on our stony path, Wilson hops out, ready to execute his best Crocodile Dundee mind trick. The cow denies him the opportunity, so our learned guide gets back behind the wheel and instead shares a handy recipe for his gorgonzola and sliced potato pizza specialty.

We take a break after traversing the Howqua, giving time to see what treasures these waters offer. Out come gold pans and fishing rods, some seeking nuggets of the shiny stuff, others simply a good size trout for tea. The fishes prove too wily for our hooks, but flecks of precious metal are soon spotted in one lucky panner’s bowl. Don’t expect a modern day gold rush in these parts, but even finding a flea-sized bit of gold ups the heartrate.

We head to Mansfield via the vast William Hovell Dam and note we’ve barely seen another vehicle all day. A few were camping out along the river, their wood smoke hanging over the valley. Such a glorious smell has us yearning to cosy up in a sleeping bag around the campfire and break out a chunky shiraz and some old war stories. Our final day is classified ‘hut day’, as we discover (and genuinely seek shelter) in some of the region’s hand-built wooden survival huts. The weather’s taken a turn for the Baltic, an evil wind and dark skies remind us that winter is coming. We head to the base of Mt Buller, then divert up the dirt road to Mt Stirling.

There’s still good visibility walking the short path to the lush Bindaree Falls waterfall, those rains giving one of nature’s greatest natural outdoor showers serious power. Forging higher, mist and fog zap our driving visibility to around 10 metres. It’s eerie, still, and getting harder to see where to place the front wheels over some large but blessedly secure rocks. Bindaree and Howqua Gap huts provided ample shelter from the cold—I was ready to fire up the stoves—but at Mt Stirling’s summit is Australian movie royalty.

Built specifically for 1982’s The Man From Snowy River film, Craig’s Hut is the wooden shelter that’s all Hollywood teeth, photo calls and autographs. Our drama was finding it. We’re blanketed in fog now, barely able to see our bull bars in front. A few travellers still sport shorts and thongs—brave souls indeed with 6˚C showing on our dashboard. Forging higher, mist and fog zap our driving visibility to around 10 metres. It’s eerie, still, and getting harder to see where to place the front wheels.

Hardy or daftly caught out, it’s another reminder of how rapidly the weather can change up at the top of Ned Kelly country, where even a bushranger would slap on a beanie under his slitted helmet. Through it all the constant has been how very capable our Isuzu steeds have proved. No punctures, no recoveries, and only a couple of tow bar touchdowns to report.

We adventurers look far too refreshed and clean after three days in these wilds. Well, bar the committed participant who tested a muddy water-crossing’s depth with her legs rather than a long stick. Admirable dedication. We also know we’ve only scratched the surface of the trails, rivers and views on offer in Victoria’s High Country. But we leave with fresh skills, newfound confidence and educated in the importance of preparation and teamwork for such trips.

Like proud parents our instructors send us off into the wild world, knowing we’ll return here in our highly capable Isuzus to experience it all over again. Without Blundstone-sporting angels to cheer us along, perhaps, but safe with their gospel echoing in our ears. Turn around and go home? Good Lord, no.

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