In this first essay of three, the Isuzu I-Venture Club team venture into the lofty wilds of the Victorian High Country, reprising their visit in 2018. No mucking around because Blue Rag is in their crosshairs. Read on…
For something completely different you ought to try 4WDing in a cloud, or in a blizzard, with visibility just about non-existent. That’s been my lot now on two occasions when I’ve been trying my luck leading Isuzu’s I-Venture Club on their long-form journeys, the first time in Tassie on the Climies Track in 2020, and now, just last week, up in the Victorian High Country.
In case you didn’t know about it, Isuzu Ute Australia has a 4WD customer retention program par excellence (a Froggie way of saying it’s the best), that’s the envy of other vehicle makers. It started way back in 2014 and I’ve been lucky enough to be its lead trainer in all that time. Covid excepted, I’ve been flitting from State-to-State with the team, delivering three single days of driver training per month at each location, to a captivated crowd hell-bent on learning how their D-MAX or MU-X works.
That’s best job in the world status!
The long-form trips take that fundamental single day experience, a wee-bit further, with an exploration of a wilder space. So far we’ve visited the Flinders Ranges (2016) and Coffin Bay (2019) in SA, the Blue Mountains (2018) in NSW, The High Country in VIC twice (2018) and (2023), Fraser Island twice (2017) and (2018) in QLD, Kalbarri (2019) in WA and the Strahan District in TAS (2020).
The formula for the long-form trip is to invite eight retail customers with their personal cars and join them up with four media cars, plus top and tail with I-Venture Club hero vehicles, a convoy typically of fourteen vehicles.
The range of 4WD experience amongst those attendees will be wildly different. Some were new chums (a couple of the journos), whilst all the retail attendees had participated in a prior single day I-Venture Club course and had some personal touring experience up their sleeve since.
The vehicles, with the exception of half of the retail customers cars, were stock-standard Isuzu products, and deliberately to prove a point about capability being possible with the right skills and technique, rather than having all the gear and no idea!
Having said that though, having some of the gear and some idea is better!
Kick-off commenced in Bright after Anzac Day and the weather was pretty bloody good for a late-Autumn explore of the Alps, clear skies and no rain predicted.
The rain bit is the one to worry about in these parts, because the previous fortnight when we conducted our recce assessment of the trails we got clobbered, and that made the driving deeply-challenging. But we like snatching victory from the jaws of defeat at I-Venture Club HQ and managed the recce’s filthy yellow slime that passes for wet clay, with great gusto, dirty but not to be outdone.
And that is the essence of this whole 4WD thing, visiting a new environment with a bunch of great people and pitting your collective minds to come up with solutions to awkward moments, and all whilst savouring a spectacular landscape.
Bright has a lot to offer and I reckon, must be just about the mountain-bike capital of Oz!
Parks Victoria and the local burghers have seen the benefit of promoting low-impact activities, having developing a trail network for walkers and cyclists. And they come in droves. So too the 4WD brigade, because the fire trails and vehicle access tracks from the legacy days of forestry and cattle grazing, are the stuff of overlanding legend and need exploring.
Corey is Isuzu’s I-Venture Club events guy and a gun 4WDriver and fisho. It’s been a habit for his family for decades and he’s grown up fixing them and driving them and is a veteran of a lap around Oz at a time of his life when his peers were travelling OS. Armed with his trusty Hema we navigated roads slightly less-travelled and safe in the knowledge his research was sound. That’s very reassuring.
The Great Alpine Road in late-Autumn is awash with colour and something my young Queensland buddy was unfamiliar with, because in the Sunshine State they miss the changing colour of the trees. Today was like God had chucked buckets and buckets of red, orange and amber paint at the European trees lining the road and then decided it wasn’t enough and turned up the filter some more. It was the making of plenty of pictures.
The Great Alpine Road follows the twists and turns of the Ovens River where you’ll see plenty of holes with fly-fishermen and women having a crack at a brown or a rainbow. I had to restrain Corey on a couple of corners as he strained his neck spotting fish in the water from a hundred metres.
Do you remember that line about being patient and grasshopper? It works here when it’s time to tempt some piscatorial action.
LMAO. Remember the Forestry connection? That’s gotta be why there’s a sleepy hamlet along this road called Smoko.
From Harrietville the bitumen snakes drunkenly up the range and at a place called St Bernard Hospice (elevation 1,475m), around 10 kilometres shy of Mount Hotham, we turned onto the unsealed Dargo High Plains Road and aired down, because the balance of the day was going to be on the dirt.
I’ve found 20psi/135kPa works well on corrugated dirt as a good starting point, stretching the length of the footprint for better grip and shorter braking distances (especially useful when a big stag jumps in front of you from the scrub and they will), offering better comfort levels and puncture resilience and leaving something up your sleeve for anything gnarlier.
The Dargo Road is one subject to seasonal (AKA Winter) closures, so you want to check what the status is of all of your dirt legs before you get here. Another peril is speed.
We saw a camper trailer that had rolled (thankfully the hitch kept the car, a D-MAX, upright) and disappeared over an embankment and I suspect the driver likely wasn’t using 4WD. On any dirt road use it, it makes a massive difference when push comes to shove.
The Blue Rag Track intersects the Dargo Road at a little dam and with a hard right-hander it’s time for a heavenly ascent. OMG, look at that trail picked out of the scrub like a ribbon to the roof of the world.
LOW range now and our mob were initially content in Drive, letting the transmission pick the gear. Our solitary manual owners Ron and Di were happy mostly in second and third, with a stern warning to leave the clutch alone.
Right through the morning’s drive in the hills you couldn’t help but notice the skeletal remains of ancient Alpine eucalypts, torched back in 2019 when the Australian summer landscape was an inferno, whole hillsides of it and for kilometres. Bit-by-bit, nature is making a return, but its slow going.
Every fifty metres or more the road builder created a berm to slow erosion, without it the rainfall would run downhill unobstructed and rip the track to shreds. Most were pretty easy to clamber up and over, but on the peakier ones, our stock suspension height brought fragile sidesteps to a crunch and the brittle bash-plates copped plenty of scrapes. You’ll be back in second gear a lot of the time and first in the steep pinches.
That same manual vehicle was struggling as soon as the hills and screes started, with no grip, despite Ron, its owner, plonking nearly 250kgs of water ballast onto the back of the single cab D-MAX pre-trip. This why you don’t want a GVM upgrade if you don’t need it, because what you gain carrying that overweight GVM, you lose when the suspension needs to stretch and it can’t. We fixed it with tyre pressure, fronts down to 16psi/110kPa and rears down to 12psi/80kPa. Tyres will yield easier than seven stiff leaves.
Where the intersecting Basalt Track terminates, Blue Rag goes spectacularly skywards and on up to the peak at the Blue Rag trig point, a heady 1,725m and a panoramic view that’ll have an iPhone in meltdown. It’s big!
It was also good to see the gum on the back of our 2018-issue I-Venture Club stickers had still stuck to the trig’s face, along with a million other stickers declaring “been there, done that”, despite the five summers and five winters.
We spent an hour at the top savouring that view, tucking into a fine lunch and conducting the myriad of interviews the media contingent were wanting before the return journey to Bright and largely retracing our steps.
Next: David and the team head out to Lake Hovell via the backest of back-block routes
About the Author: David Wilson’s day job for the last thirty years has been as a professional 4WD driver trainer at his SA-based business Adventure 4WD. He has had a strong Isuzu connection for most of his working career, responsible for the delivery of the Isuzu Specialists Weekends (Holden/Isuzu partnership 1996-2003) and of late, as lead trainer and brand ambassador for Isuzu Ute Australia’s customer retention program called I-Venture Club (2014-present).
He’s also been keen to promote 4WDing to the masses and was the first to produce and present a dedicated 4WD TV series called “Beyond The Bitumen” seen on TEN and Foxtel between 1998-2000. He’s been a freelance 4WD writer for News Corporation for a decade, had stories posted in every mainstream 4WD magazine in Australia and a few overseas in the past, and today manages to squeeze out articles as the “Tech-Head” in Isuzu Ute Australia’s MAX’d Magazine and also subs as Western 4WDriver Magazine’s roving reporter. He’s a partner in the Loaded 4X4.Media and Loaded 4X4.Store businesses and committed to providing fact, not fiction, when it comes to vehicle and travel advice and the development and supply of quality bespoke equipment.