The Searchers

WRITTEN BY: Evan Spence

South Australia's Flinders Ranges is a 4WD paradise. Just ask the Isuzu I-Venture Club. I can admit, now, that I just didn't 'get' the Flinders Ranges on my initial visit a decade ago. The flies were relentless, I missed the beach and why couldn't I drive for five minutes without an emu trying to leap in front of my D-MAX? Perhaps I just went to the wrong places. Perhaps I was depressed (or the emus were). Perhaps, back then, I didn't appreciate the finer things. But I've just returned from a week in that arid and eternal off-roading wonderland, and now I feel compelled to tell everyone I meet. Because I already can't wait to go back. Sometimes you don't 'get' a place first time around. You need to find it.

I've found the magic of Flinders and I predict that if you follow a similar path, you will absolutely have an amazing timeand you'll get to sink your teeth into some of the best off-roading that this wide, brown land has to offer.

Day One: Wrangling the Wowee Track

The I-Venture Club is open to D-MAX and MU-X owners from across the country. It's the brand's program for anyone who wants to get more confident behind the wheel of their off-roader—regardless of their ability—while meeting a bunch of new friends along the way.

We assembled on the first morning at Hawker, population 226, a former railway town around 365km north of Adelaide. The line moved in 1956 and the absence of trains robbed the place of commerce, but what the once-bustling village now lacks in people, it makes up for in charm. Our convoy of Isuzu MU-X and D-MAX 4x4's, including the newly unveiled 1.9-litre Isuzu MU-X and updated MY24 D-MAX, stopped for lunch at the Flinders Food Co, where we introduced ourselves and had a safety briefing. Enthusiasm was running high. With the formalities out of the way, low-range 4x4 was engaged, diff-locks selected, and for those with newer models, Rough Terrain Mode activated—and boy, do I love that button.

We headed out to spend the day at Merna Mora Station to take on the challenging and suitably named Wowee Track. Billed as an 'adventure track for the experienced', it makes the most of the Bourneburra range's ridges with switchbacks. It delivered us to a 360-degree panorama from Wilpena to Lake Torrens. The guides call it 'an aerial view without the plane', but that doesn't do justice to the smells, the silence and the satisfaction of a day well-spent you get by driving in it.

If you're planning on taking the same route—and I recommend it!—plan for a 90-minute to three-hour journey, although we took longer as we kept stopping to take pictures. It is that good.

Day Two: Red Sand and Feral Feasts

It was time for something a little different. Nilpena Station is world-famous, but not necessarily for four-wheel driving. In 2009, the David Attenborough TV series First Life let the rest of the planet know what had been blowing paleontologists' minds here since 1985. The unassuming sheep and cattle station is the place where proof of the emergence of Earth's earliest complex animal life has been found. Predating land animals—and even land plants—the fossils of mostly tubular or frond-shaped organisms date to 650 million years ago.

Less exciting in a scientific sense, maybe, but great for four-wheeling, are the station's red dunes. Moreover, I was keen to test the 1.9-litre Isuzu MU-X on sand. I was impressed with the performance of the 1.9-litre when in low-range. Piloting a 4WD on red sand is something I'll never forget. It was challenging driving on the soft, powdery surface, but with a little momentum most of our convoy made it through unscathed.

For others, it was a lesson in how to safely and correctly use recovery techniques, such as using MAXTRAX recovery boards. And nothing quite builds camaraderie (or contributes to stories for later on that evening) like helping a fellow traveller get unstuck. If the red sands of Nilpena weren't exciting enough, lunch at the Prairie Hotel certainly would test the more adventurous members of almost any group. We sat down to a feast consisting of Emu Liver Pâté, Camel Salami, Kangaroo Jerky and, er, smoked ham. I'm open minded, so will try anything once—it was delicious, too.

Pastoralist and cattleman Ross Fargher is a fourth-generation Flinders Ranges farmer, it was his family that sold two-thirds of Nilpena Station to the state government in 2016 to facilitate the creation of the Nilpena Ediacara National Park. Ross and his wife Jane bought their 'Iocal' in 1991 and it's since become an icon of both Outback fine dining and unusual menu options.

Day Three: Time to Lift Wheels

We all knew day three was going to be a cracker, filled with technical low-range four-wheel driving and terrific banter among the group. It's always amazing to see people come out of their shells once they see just how capable their vehicles are, and after several days in each other's company the repartee was flowing.

Starting with a leisurely drive up to Stokes Hill Lookout we witnessed Wilpena Pound from elevation. A naturally ringed amphitheatre of mountains (before being claimed by geologists, a 'pound' was an old English term for a livestock enclosure ringed by stone walls), Wilpena Pound is one of the most spectacular sites in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.

Things were about to get serious and the skills of the last few days were put to the test as we climbed Angorichina Trail and the Carey Hill Summit. This saw the convoy lifting wheels, testing our traction control systems and smiling like lunatics. This is what I-Venture Club trips are all about: safety in numbers and excellent guidance from Lead Instructor David Wilson. If ever you need assistance, be that changing a tyre or navigating tough terrain, Wilson and his team are there in a flash.

With tyres reinflated to roadgoing pressure, we headed back to our starting point at Wilpena Pound for a hot meal swapping stories around the fire. We were also treated to a Welcome To Country ceremony and stargazing session from two Adnyamathanha Aboriginal guides. They taught this group more about the area than any book could. I tell you, you've gotta get out there and experience it for yourself.

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