Panoramic Playground

WRITTEN BY: IAIN CURRY

PHOTOS BY: IAIN CURRY

First-time visitors to Australia seem well versed in the ways our country can kill you.

Crocodile Dundee, The Reef, Wolf Creek and their ilk must shoulder some of the blame. If it’s not the crocs snatching you from a billabong, the great whites will get you on a snorkelling trip. Steer clear of water and you’ll perish via a snake or spider bite, or dare venture into the Outback and your car shall (inevitably) break down and the furnace-like heat will do you in. That’s if the serial killers don’t find you first.

One thing tourists neglect to fear about Australia is the cold. Mountains, snow and exposure simply don’t fit the Aussie stereotype, but Victoria’s High Country is not a region to take lightly. Elevation nears 2,000 metres in places; lows colder than –10°C have been recorded and heavy snow fall and biting winds can quickly trouble the hardiest of adventurer.

The window of opportunity to explore many 4WD tracks in the Victorian Alps is small. Isuzu I-Venture Club’s off-road driving trainer David Wilson suggests mid-January until Easter is your safest bet. Even then, there’s a chance of huge rains, or even snow in the upper reaches.

Camaraderie that comes with shared experiences alongside fellow explorers, are key drawcards of Isuzu’s I-Venture trips. The Club’s single-day tasters are great introductions to the true abilities of D-MAXs and MU-Xs, but hop on a four-day epic and your Isuzu wakes muscles you never knew it had. And drivers—two to each vehicle—can’t help but absorb an indispensible amount of off-road driving techniques under the tutelage of expert and engaging guides.

The claustrophobia of Melbourne in our mirrors, we convoy the few hours from city to the rare air of the Alpine National Park town of Bright. The town’s central car park becomes an Isuzu D-MAX and MU-X party, showroom-spec shinies mingling with a few tastefully modified examples dressed for a long weekend of off-road mountain play.

Owners—some retirees, some younglings—have ventured from many corners of Australia to partake. Pleasantries exchanged and sandwiches scoffed by a glisteningly clear Ovens River, it’s time to climb some mountains.

"ROADSIDE SNOW MARKER POSTS AND WOODEN CHALETS COULD HAVE YOU BELIEVE WE’RE VENTURING THROUGH THE AMERICAN ROCKIES OR FRENCH ALPS."

A wave of happy escapism washes over us from the outset. The sky is a richer blue, the air stiller and clearer, and the trees hardier to withstand the brutal winters. We can see hints of mountains above us from the town—free of snow in these latter stages of summer—and make our way up the sealed and smooth Great Alpine Road.

The light is so pure it almost hurts the eyes, while roadside snow marker posts and wooden chalets could have you believe we’re venturing through the American Rockies or French Alps. This is not the Australia they typically show in tourist brochures, but it’s no less beautiful than the big red rock or giant ocean reef.

The first ‘Oh, wow’ moment comes as we suck in the thin air at Mt Hotham’s Danny’s Lookout. At 1,705 metres elevation we’re afforded an endless Alpine panorama; Mt Buller and Mt Feathertop are just a couple of lofty highlights as the muted blues and greens of the mountains ripple to the horizon. A lone cyclist puffs by after what must have been a leg-burning climb, not least in the unexpectedly hot sun we’re enjoying. Almost guiltily, we sink back into the air-conditioned cabin of our MU-X and cosy into our more cossetting leather saddles.

Final destination today is Trig Point, reached only along the steep and rocky Blue Rag Range Trail. Arguably the High Country’s most spectacular track, this was our champagne starter to the upcoming banquet. Damn good champagne, too. Tyres down to 20psi, low range engaged and the land opens up ahead of us.

With less air in the tyres meaning more contact with the trail’s loose rock-coated surface, I am, as ever, astonished by the MU-X’s climbing skills. In low range the reams of torque mean we can slowly pick our way up the trail, a gentle dab on the throttle is met with instant shove to all four wheels. With steep drop-offs either side of the road, the final ascent demands concentration, but playing follow-my-leader behind the experts is great for the confidence.

Dusk is coming and hopping out for yet another flawless vista we get our first blast of true mountain air. The mercury has plummeted during our climb and it’s easy to see how quickly changing conditions could catch bushwalkers out.

The sun setting as we make the return leg, the sky becomes a sea of pastel colours through illuminated ghost gum trees, rising like spindly fingers along the roadside. Breath firmly taken on day one, we’re already converts to the beautifully stark nature on show here.

Day two is our off-road transit stage finishing at Mansfield in the Alps’ foothills. We make rapid progress along the stony red dirt, before the Isuzus enjoy a cleansing wade across the King River. We spot numerous bush huts, relics from as long ago as the mid-1800s when cattle musterers, loggers, miners and fishermen hand-built these wooden ‘survival’ huts.

We find a fireplace, firewood and even some basic supplies inside each shelter, highlighting how wild the mountain weather gets. They look more aesthetically appealing, spacious and structurally sound than million-dollar ‘renovator’s dream’ properties in gentrified Sydney suburbs, and even today can mean the difference between life and death to lost or trapped souls in need of emergency four-walled refuge; typically bushwalkers or skiers.

The third-highest hut in Australia, Bluff Hut, is our target on day three, via the lush Bindaree Falls waterfall. The original hut, built in the 1950s, was lost in the region’s devastating 2007 bushfires, but the rebuild already has a postcard-worthy rusty patina of age to its tin skin. A massive open fire inside has us almost wishing to get stranded up here in a blizzard. As long as there was plenty of firewood, good company and a few bottles of the local red.

Bluff Hut is at 1,650 metres and we throw our ride for the day, a D-MAX ute, into its hardest challenge yet. Incredibly steep in places, all we can see at times are sky and treetops as we find dramatically steep angles. Slow and steady remains the tactic, and once again our charge walks over the terrain. The cavalcade of Isuzus doing likewise ahead of us, some with novice off-roaders at the helm, shows how effortless these cars make it look.

Our Mansfield base serves up a fine mix of old town charm and modern restaurants, with the local wines (yep, dozens of grape varieties can be grown here) surprising with their range and quality. By morning of our final day we’re again greeted by a deep blue sky. Yes, this region can get all nasty, but we’ve barely seen a rain cloud, let alone been troubled by any of the powdery white stuff. The trails have been dry, well-maintained and forgiving as a result.

Our final fling involves a dose of movie magic. On top of Mt Stirling is Craig’s Hut, built specifically as a set for The Man from Snowy River. We put the Isuzus into low range again for another steep climb along Monument Trail—the panorama and openness somehow eclipse all the views we’ve marvelled at so far. The scenic backdrop of Mt Cobbler is finer than anything Hollywood could produce and the picture-perfect hut overlooking it captures the essence of the High Country’s magic in one magnificent scene.

"WE’VE ONLY SCRATCHED THE SURFACE OF WHAT’S ON OFFER IN VICTORIA’S HIGH COUNTRY IN OUR D-MAXs AND MU-Xs."

As enchanting as Jim Craig’s horseback riding was in the film, to be able to drive almost to this iconic hut’s front door is a rare privilege. It shouldn’t be this easy, but we’re agreed we’re very fortunate it is.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s on offer in Victoria’s High Country, but have literally climbed mountains each day in our D-MAXs and MU-Xs. The climate may have been at its most benign, but to have not a single vehicle even look like getting stuck, or even backing up to re-attempt an obstacle, has us confident and hungry to explore even deeper into this gem of a region.

KEELAN STRACHAN AND LAUREN FERGUSON WATSONIA, MELBOURNE 2013 ISUZU D-MAX SX CREW CAB

“I’ve been amazed how easy the D-MAX has found the off-roading. In low range it really is just point, shoot and steer. You wouldn’t believe what these things can do unless you try it. Lauren was in the passenger seat the first three days of the High Country trip, but on the fourth day she stole the keys and she won’t let me drive now, which is awesome. No, really!

“I’ve owned the D-MAX for two years now and it’s always full of tools as it’s used every day as my work vehicle, so it’s really nice to just unload and go.

“Trips like these give me a heap more confidence and although we’d love to come out here by ourselves, you’re always a bit worried in case something happens. It’s great with the guidance and if you do get stuck there’s someone to help you out.

“The Blue Rag Track was incredible with 360-degree views. I’d love to go back there and hopefully camp overnight. I’ll just have to get all the work gear out again!”

GLENN AND SHARON GRIFFITHS HOPPERS CROSSING, MELBOURNE 2015 ISUZU MU-X LS-T

“Sharon was nervous about some of big climbs, but if you do the right thing, get the tyre pressures down, the car will walk itself up.

“We bought the MU-X because we were retiring. We needed something to tow a caravan and we like to free camp in out-there places so needed the 4WD to get us there!

“We did a lot of research, got lots of recommendations and couldn’t find a bad word about the Isuzu.

“In the past we’ve done a one-day I-Venture Club training drive and on our own we’ve done Outback Queensland, NSW and Northern Territory with the caravan.

“We chose to do the High Country four-day trip because we’d trained before with David Wilson. He’s an expert at giving great guidance and we have confidence in him. We thought it’d be the place to go to have fun and learn, too. And it was!

“We think we could do this sort of trip on our own now, but prefer to do it with others. It’s the social aspect that makes it so enjoyable— it’s a wonderful shared experience.”

VICTORIAN HIGH COUNTRY

How do I get there?
Mansfield is an attractive country town to base yourself for High Country exploring, located about 200km north-east of Melbourne, or 2.5 hours drive. For even more challenging off-road tracks David Wilson from the I-Venture Club suggests a base at Dargo, some four hours or 315km north-east of Melbourne.

Where to stay:
Mansfield has motel and hotel options (we used Mansfield Valley Motor Inn: mansfieldvalley.com.au), while in summer the nearby ski resorts such as Mt Hotham and Mt Buller are quiet so there are countless lodges, apartments and hotel rooms available.

When to go:
David Wilson suggests between mid-January and Easter for the safest weather. Check out Parks Victoria (parkweb.vic.gov.au) and Four Wheel Drive Victoria (4wdvictoria.org.au) for the latest trail news and conditions.

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