THE REAL DEAL
WRITTEN BY: PETER BARNWELL
PHOTOS BY: KIM JACOBS
It's out there, sitting on the drive, ready for action at your beck and call. You use your Isuzu D‑MAX or MU‑X for 'general duties' like towing the boat or van, or for work or recreation… but there's something missing.
The D‑MAX and MU‑X are tailor-made 4WD adventure vehicles. They're the real deal, with proper selectable 4WD, plenty of ground clearance, super robust mechanicals and solid construction to go pretty much anywhere.
The trick is deciding where to take this tough customer to fully explore its capabilities. If you have the time and inclination, and want to tick off that 'bucket list' trip to a legendary Aussie location, Isuzu's I-Venture Club may have the answer you're looking for.
Since early 2015, the club has provided engaging and affordable opportunities for Isuzu owners to sample some serious off-road 4WD adventure. It's the only club of its kind, run by any manufacturer, to exist in Australia.
This I-Venture Club 4WD escapade was over four days, heading out of Adelaide into the Flinders Ranges. Highly experienced 4WD experts David Wilson and Drew Symonds lead a 16-vehicle convoy into the area first explored by Europeans at the turn of the 18th Century–but in a style that put Matthew Flinders' footsore scrambling up St Mary Peak to shame.
Apart from providing witty repartee on the two-way radios fitted to all I‑Venture vehicles, it's David and Drew's job to get you there (with coaching if needed) and back safely without damaging you or the vehicle. At the same time, they're charged with maximising your enjoyment of the experience.
Each day of the trip is packed with highlights both scenic and skilful. The run up from Adelaide rolling through the gorgeous Clare Valley and along RM Williams Way to Hawker provides a taste, with stop-offs at historic Jamestown for morning tea and a quick squiz at Orroroo. There follows an offroad driving and safety briefing and lunch at Hawker, with plenty of 'comfort' stops along the way.
A feast of photo opportunities presents itself at every turn, building to a crescendo as the convoy regroups at historic Rawnsley Park Station in the shadow of Wilpena Pound. The convoy then strikes into the heart of the Flinders itself, turning off sealed road onto the Arkapena Scenic Adventure drive and up through the Chance Ranges with breathtaking views of the ABC Range.
After advice from Dave and Drew, this is where you engage 4WD and deflate your tyres to around 24PSI for better grip and to prevent punctures. You will be in 4WD LOW or HIGH for the next few days.
David and Drew, with help from Isuzu UTE Australia's staff, are fully equipped to help with this and all other vehicle adjustments needed to complete the trip safely. They have comprehensive recovery equipment, as well as electric air compressors, stowed in their D‑MAXs. Overnight accommodation at Wilpena Pound is in the luxury of 'glamping' tents with a sumptuous meal around the campfire, then off to bed for an early morning kick-off heading up to Chambers Gorge with its more than 20,000-year-old Aboriginal rock art.
The drive is all dirt and a breeze in the Isuzu siblings, thanks to their supple suspension, easy select 4WD and torquey 3.0-litre engines. You have to be on the ball, though, dodging shinglebacks and numerous emu that wander onto the road, usually to stand and stare at you.
The country is in stunning condition, strikingly green after heavy recent rains and there's even some water in the many creek crossings and waterholes. The noon temperature in late October is a pleasant 25 degrees. Positively balmy.
Lunch is a salad 'sanga' and juice at Chambers Gorge, then off to the old copper mining town of Blinman for an underground inspection.
Wandering through the hard rock maze under Blinman works up a thirst, so some I‑Venturers decided to take a short run over to Parachilna's legendary Prairie Hotel for a Fargher Lager, then come back to Wilpena through two gorgeous gorge drives, crossing the Flinders at Brachina and Bunyeroo gorges with a dip in the crystal waters on the way.
Overnight is again at Wilpena Pound in preparation for Day Three, with possibly the highlight of the adventure, a challenging drive along Yacca Ridge to Minburra Plains, followed by the big one: a bumping, jinking, scrabbling drive along the Bendleby Ranges' infamous and steep Billy Goat Ridge Trail, which is justifiably rated as 'difficult' on the 'fourbie' scale (not to be confused with the Victorian high country's Billy Goat Bluff Trail).
"THE COUNTRY IS IN STUNNING CONDITION, STRIKINGLY GREEN AFTER HEAVY RECENT RAINS. THERE'S EVEN SOME WATER IN THE MANY CREEK CROSSINGS AND WATERHOLES."
Tonight's digs are a shearers' quarters farm stay at Bendleby ranges, where we arrive at noon for check-in. Then it's off into the boonies for the challenge ahead. What a challenge it was, with the D‑MAXs and MU‑Xs all crawling along at a snail's pace over shale rock steps, washaways, scree slopes and diagonal ruts with steep drop offs each side.
David and Drew were right in among it, coaching the less-experienced drivers over the hardest spots. "Put your left wheel here in this rut, aim your steering wheel straight at me and keep going until I say turn sharp right"–or a variation thereof– was crackling over the two-way for most of the day as the two experts got us through. Progress was slow but the satisfaction factor was high as the Isuzus essentially walked through the rough terrain. As a shirt somewhere should probably say: race car drivers finish too fast, 4WDers enjoy the experience.
We rolled off Billy Goat Ridge at about 4.30pm before heading back to our accommodation for a beer or three, followed by another stunning campfire dinner around the fire pit under a starry sky. It's an addictive way to unwind.
Day Four was essentially a transport stage back through Orroroo to Adelaide, punctuated by a great lunch and wine tasting at the Stone Bridge winery in Clare (try the shiraz and the riesling).
Over the four days the convoy covered about 1000km on- and off-road with plenty of time in both HIGH and LOW-range 4WD. Two punctures were the only issues for the 16 Isuzu vehicles along for the fun, plenty of which was had by the I‑Venturers who took part. Two of them were Narelle and Bruce Bowden, who'd made the trip down from Queensland in their 2014 D‑MAX.
"We sampled an I‑Venture drive on Moreton Island and were sold, so when this 'big one' came up we had no hesitation at all in enlisting," Narelle said.
The couple spend about six months a year on the road seeking 4WD adventure in their D‑MAX, which hasn't missed a beat in two-and-a-half years.
The youngest I‑Venture attendee, Jayden Day from Moss Vale, in NSW, took the wheel for the first time in father Ian's MU‑X, while out on one of the more remote Flinders tracks, on private land.
And loved it.
"I'll definitely be coming back with mates when I get the chance," he said.
"This place is so cool. Everything is fun." Which was the overall reaction from all of the I‑Venturers on the first 'big' Flinders run. Many more are planned at numerous locations around the country.
Get ready to rumble.