SCHOOL OF THE BEACH
SERIOUS OFF-ROADING IS ALL TOO OFTEN SEEN AS SERIOUS BUSINESS FOR SERIOUS MEN. THIS IS UNDERSTANDABLE, TO A POINT, BECAUSE SOMETIMES SERIOUS OFF-ROADING IS VERY SERIOUS INDEED. THE ARMED FORCES USE 4WDS. AS DO SEARCH-AND-RESCUE TEAMS, AND MINERS, AND NORTHERN TERRITORY CROC WRANGLERS AND OUTBACK COPS. BASICALLY, THE SORT OF BLOKES WHO DRAG HALF-FALLEN CARAVANS BACK UP CLIFFS AND THEN DRIBBLE SOLO ALL DOWN THEIR FRONTS.
All very serious. And all very important. But it's also a shame, because it detracts from the fact that, really, serious off-roading doesn't have to be serious, and it's for everyone: man and woman, young and old, expert and novice.
"It is a truism that 90 per cent of 4WD owners in Australia don't go bush with their 4WDs," grins David Wilson, the deeply respected South Australian off-roading instructor who launched the world's first dedicated 4WD TV show, Beyond The Bitumen, in the late '90s. "But with the right sort of vehicle under your bum, you can see some incredible places.
"Too many people don't realise when they buy a 4WD that it really is a ticket to adventure. That's why we're here today."
‘Here' is Moreton Island. Welcome to one of the first outings for Isuzu UTE Australia's groundbreaking new I-Venture Club—your ticket, if you're a novice, to getting off the beaten track ... and even further into the sticks if you're an old pro.
Moreton is a 37km-long sand island just 58km north-east of Brisbane. Sand is the name of the game on Moreton, an island that, together with adjacent Fraser Island, forms the largest sand structure on the planet. More than 97 per cent of Moreton is national park, and with the ferry ride from the Queensland capital taking just 75 minutes each way, it's a mecca for off-roading enthusiasts. Wilson has more than 40 years' off-roading experience, and if circumstances require he can splash carbonated lemon squash down his shirt with the best of them. Since 1993 he's also been spreading the gospel as an instructor. Now he's here.
Each D‑MAX or MU‑X is perfectly good as an everyday road vehicle—and many owners will forever be happy simply to conquer the occasional gravel driveway. But for those keen to venture further afield, in the reassuring company of dedicated instructors, there's I-Venture. It offers the chance to become an off-road champion in some of the country's most breathtaking and challenging destinations. (For details of forthcoming trips, as well as tips and galleries, see iventureclub.com.au.) "The great thing about being on Moreton Island today is we'll get into a mix of sand and hills and everything in between," says Wilson, as the MiCat ferry disgorges its cargo onto the beachfront. A nose-to-tail convoy of 16 I-Venture D‑MAX and MU‑X vehicles soon stretches north along the beach.
"As an off-roader on the beach, you're always looking for the next fishing spotor the next remote, perfect wave. We're learning how to engage 4WD correctly and drive in an appropriate fashion that's eco-friendly as well, and having an awesome time—that's what it's all about."
For an eight- to 10-week season every year from 1952 to 1962—during which time the processing factory worked 24 hours a day nonstop—Tangalooma was one of Australia's busiest whaling ports. Now, however, the humpbacks glide serenely by. The only thing that beaches is the MiCat, which remarkably appears to have no draft at all, nudging shorewards to unload 52 vehicles at a time. On the way over, our motley crew of super-keen Isuzu drivers with their tagalong family members and friends has been schooled on the basics of tyre pressure and sand driving by David. We have all sorts. There's Hugo, a baby-faced sparkie who's brought his girl and his flash new X-RUNNER; Kilcoy couple Devin and Karen, who will liven up stops by getting out, cranking the stereo, and dancing on the tray; and Bruce, a digital marketing consultant who's driven down from two hours north in his brand-new MU‑X, and who used to be 1990s Australian soapie heart-throb Bruce Samazan. ("Mate, no-one's recognised me in about five years," he grins.) We have mums and fathers and daughters, and couples and buddies, and complete novices and the relatively experienced. There's also Grant, who runs the MiCat ferry.
"TODAY WE'LL GET INTO A MIX OF SAND AND HILLS AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN... ON THE BEACH YOU'RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR THE NEXT FISHING SPOT OR THE NEXT REMOTE, PERFECT WAVE."
It's a vigorous day, and by lunchtime we've tackled water crossings and soft- and hard-sand driving and learned how to cope with all manner of beach hazards. We've powered up and down hills through axle-deep silica, stopped for insights into hidden dangers and expert tips, and nosed through dense scrub.
After a great lunch on the beach below a lighthouse, David demonstrates how to drag out a bogged vehicle from deep sand without snapping your snatch strap— which, admittedly, sounds painful—and Grant is in his element on the island he knows so intimately. Moreton has almost 200km of tracks and trails, and the shoreline can be intimidating. "I've seen lots of vehicles bogged on these beaches," he says, "and it's great just having confidence to drive on the sand without worrying about going in up to your axles!"
Devin knows his cars. Now a windscreen repairman, he admits to also being a qualified mechanic and panelbeater, and he used to run Kilcoy's RACQ depot. On weekends he and Karen enjoy trail biking or fishing at the 4WD haven of Double Island Point. Devin's a tall, rangy, knockabout bloke, and his Aussie-ness is almost magical, as if Steve Irwin had fallen into a vat of radioactive soup at a Banjo Paterson recital and come out with didgeridoos for arms. But that's not all.
Most new car owners satisfy themselves with endless waxing and the occasional Facebook photo. Not Devin. He chose the D‑MAX after extensive research and on-the-job word-of-mouth ... and then pulled it to pieces. Literally.
"I was that fanatical when I got the car that I actually stripped it all down and rustproofed the whole lot," he says, "and what I found was that when I stripped it down it was all paint-protected anyway. I was really impressed with the car by pulling it to pieces and putting it back together again. The manufacturing of the vehicle is just far superior."
Later, after a long, 80km/h dash along a hard-packed sand beach back to the ferry, spirits are high. Sunset drinks are downed, stories exchanged and plans to meet up again arranged—sometimes for longer, more comprehensive I-Venture trips, sometimes just to redo Moreton at a more sedate pace.
"We've had 4WDs before," says Mostafa Shehab, his eyes crinkling as the sunset kissed the stern, and Moreton Island recedes into the distance. "But this is the first time in about four years that we've been four-wheel driving because I had another 4WD before and I lost it in the ocean! So I just haven't been confident after losing my other car," he says. "Plus, my wife, you know, after that, she wouldn't let me go any more! So it's really good for me that she came today and saw how easy it is.
"I mean, idiot me, no-one had ever showed me what to do before—it was just ‘Here's your car, off you go!' But with I-Venture it's ‘Here's your car, and let's show you how to do it.' I feel like I can come back now and drive with my wife and feel just very, very confident."
It's never too late to start. Off-roading might not necessarily be serious business, but it's seriously fun.