'Max and Sandy: A Love Story

WRITTEN BY: Ben Smithurst

PHOTOS BY: Mark Watson

One was a ute, the other, an endless expanse of dunes. Theirs was a match made in Stockton—on a deeply romantic Isuzu UTE I-Venture Club jaunt north of Newcastle.

They’re not much to look at from the outside,” says Bruce Boyle, chopping a leathery hand through the air towards Tin City, a low, spare cluster of 11 post-apocalyptic shacks (“They filmed that one for Mad Max!”). Our D-MAX X-TERRAIN's dash display says it’s 33°C. Bruce runs Stockton’s 4WD Tag-Along & Passenger Tours; his insider banter is the only thing keeping two-dozen I-Venturers from scrambling back into their climate controlled rigs.

“Some of these sheds are pretty flash inside, though,” he continues. “They’ve even got air-con. That one’s got Foxtel.” Bruce points out a satellite dish bolted, incongruously, to a sheet of Colorbond. “Although I’m not too sure whether Foxtel knows he’s got Foxtel.” Everyone laughs. Nicole, too. She’s heard Bruce’s stories a hundred times, but true love runs deep in the dunes. And Stockton is no place to begrudge your husband a giggle.

Tin City is a tiny squatter shanty town, still inhabited, that’s clung on here since the Great Depression. We’re in the 4200-hectare Stockton Bight Sand Dunes, in the Worimi Conservation Lands, just south of Nelson Bay, NSW. And the best bit? It’s that Tin City isn’t even the best bit. The Southern Hemisphere’s largest expanse of shifting sandhills is an untamed paradise. Bruce and Nicole’s is a cinematic love story written in sand, like Antony and Cleopatra. Or The English Patient’s Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. Or Tatooine’s tender Jawa. Swirling and romantic. Gentle and giving. Occasionally gritty. Only with more chat about diff lock. They know the place backwards.

Today, they’re our guides, seconded to I-Venture Club's crack team of off-road tutors. The Isuzu crew are here looking for off-road love of the most fun kind: sand driving. In this literally moveable feast, Tin City is just a minor course. A postprandial mignardise; the bite-sized dessert served after the banquet. The cherry on top. All morning our I-Venture convoy has been gorging on the mini-Sahara’s main attraction—its 32km beachfront stretch of ever-moving dunes. Some of them top 30m, towering above deep, powdery troughs. That’s as high as a nine-storey building; some slopes are as steep as 60 degrees. It’s intimidating. 

Love is in the air. Or maybe that’s just churned up sand. But it’s intoxicating—if you have the right 4WD ... and around 16PSI of tyre pressure. And some recovery boards aren’t a bad idea, either. Or, even better, a couple of I-Venture Club gurus with your interests at heart. In this vast expanse, with groundwater just below the surface, there are even spots of bona fide quicksand. Perhaps it doesn’t quite match Inskip Point, the infamous Sarlacc Pit for unwary off roaders just south of Fraser Island. But Stockton also has much less passing traffic. Get stuck here and you’ve got to be prepared to save yourself, or to have assistance at hand. Also, these dunes move fast. For dunes.

Back in 2014, long-time Tin City resident Alwyn Garland complained to a local reporter that anyone who left for a weekend during a big blow risked returning to find their home buried in sand. “[Southerlies] can cover your place in two days,” he said. On Stockton’s I-Venture Club experience, drivers covered Stockton’s dunes—or, at least, the sections allowed by the land’s traditional owners—in just one day. Hence Bruce and Nicole. Their love for the sprawling sandhills runs deep. Only Tin City’s tenuous tenants—and the Worimi, obviously—know the place better. 

Bruce explains the Worimi’s off-roading guidelines as our convoy of 12 D-MAX and MU-Xs repeats a meandering, highly technical, football-field-sized midday loop through rollercoastering slopes. The area’s significance is both cultural and environmental. Stockton features delicate ecosystems and shell middens that date millennia. In the 1980s, Tin City residents discovered the ancient bones of an Indigenous girl that had emerged from the sand. The Worimi’s no-go areas are carefully delineated and rigidly respected. 

Touring Team D-MAX heroes Matty Taylor and Paul Goodwin—both of whom were stuntmen on Mad Max: Fury Road, shot in Namibia—are also in their element. Having begun the day with a rollicking presentation covering everything from tyre pressure and towing to transmissions and trailer sway, their post-lunch session saw the tutors pitch club members at the steepest inclines of the day. One after another, with advice tailored to novices and seasoned dune-monkeys alike, the afternoon was capped by an all-out assault on the largest dune yet. Emotions ran high, but smiles were broad. Morning’s tension was now excitement.    

It was see-sawing climax where the horizon appears all at once as the bonnet noses past the tipping point, common-rail diesel powerplant poised and ready, your progress as sure as houses. (Not Tin City houses, proper ones with letterboxes and footings and plumbing.) Should you visit Stockton? Yes. And: yes, as soon as possible. Your Isuzu is built to reach wild places. Few of Australia’s are as startling—yet as accessible—as here. Better still if you have an old hand to show you around. Matty Taylor and Paul Goodwin, for example. Or Bruce and Nicole. Don’t think of them as guides. Think of them as matchmakers. Between your D-MAX or MU-X and a sandy new significant other. You’re the chaperone.

Barry White on the stereo. An endless horizon painted across the windscreen. A romantic lunch and a crisp Hunter Valley Semillon stowed in the back. Perhaps a couple of servo pies and a lukewarm Moove chocolate milk. Whatever. It’s the setting that matters. 

“This is my fourth I-Venture trip,” says Peter, who is here from Merimbula with his son, John. “In the past I’ve learned all about getting up and down pretty rough tracks. I did Moreton Island and now I just want to do dunes. “I love picking up the skills as we go along. I love the D-MAX—I’ve had it for three years—because it just keeps going. That’s why I bought it! “And it just loves the dunes.” True romance! Sometimes it’s written in the stars. Other times it’s painted across sandhills in D-MAX wheel ruts.

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