Isuzu I-Venture Club: Blue Mountains

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New to Isuzu 4×4 ownership? A trip with the Isuzu I-Venture Club is a great place to start…

The Isuzu I-Venture Club’s mission is simple: take drivers who are new to four-wheel driving or new to Isuzu ownership – or, as is often the case, both – and impart some fundamental off-road principles while exploring some of Australia’s popular four-wheel drive hotspots.

Carsales recently joined the I-Venture Club on a three-day expedition to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, to sample some of New South Wales’ best off-roading against a backdrop of stunning sandstone ridges and sprawling valleys.

It’s one of many destinations on the I-Venture Club calendar. Single-day destinations include Moreton Island (Qld), River Island (NSW), the Melbourne 4×4 Training and Proving Ground (Vic) and Lancelin Dunes (WA). Day trips typically cost $300 per vehicle (your own vehicle, up to two occupants), while longer trips – including the Flinders Ranges (SA) and the Blue Mountains (NSW) – can cost considerably more.

This three-day, two night Blue Mountain trip costs $1500 per vehicle, which seems really very reasonable given it covers the accommodation and all meals, plus non-alcoholic drinks.

This particular trip was limited to eight vehicles for customers, but with a lead vehicle, a tail-end Charlie, and a several media representatives along for the ride, the total swelled to 15 – eight D-MAX utes and seven of its SUV sibling, the MU-X.

New kid on the block

Isuzu UTE Australia (IUA) is a relatively young company, the brand first opening for business here in 2008. However, it’s grown significantly in the years since and arguably bats well above its weight with both the D-MAX and the MU-X – to the point that in April 2017 it celebrated the sale of its 100,000th vehicle in Australia.

The growing popularity of the brand’s four-wheel drive models gave birth to the I-Venture Club in 2015, and nearly 2500 people have enjoyed the I-Venture Club outings staged in the years since.

It was on that first I-Venture outing that I met David Wilson, of off-road training organisation Adventure 4WD. David leads these I-Venture expeditions and he’s perfect for the role, imparting his extensive knowledge in his own inimitable, laid-back and friendly style.

With everyone in contact via UHF radio – a unit can be provided if you don’t have one yourself – he’ll guide first-timers down, up, through, over or around any tricky obstacles, while occasionally hosting an impromptu outdoor ‘class’ to take the group through any tips or techniques relevant to the terrain.

David hails from Adelaide, so on this particular trip he was joined by Greg ‘Simmo’ Simpson, of Simmo’s Offroad Tours. Based in Bathurst, Simmo’s local knowledge combined with David’s expertise meant everyone from absolute beginners to off-road veterans were in good hands, while the team from IUA ensured all the logistics ran smoothly.

Majestic kick-off

Proceedings kicked off at that grand old dame of the Blue Mountains, the Hydro Majestic Hotel. Overlooking the scenic Megalong Valley from its location in Medlow Bath, with breakfast and coffees duly devoured it was time for a driver briefing, where David touched on some basic off-road theory before we headed out to the cars.

I’d snared a new 4×4 D-MAX ute – a Space Cab in the mid-spec LS-U trim grade – and it looked the goods in its Cosmic Black Mica paint scheme, complete with back factory bulbar, snorkel and driving lights. I really should have taken a photo at that point, because it never looked quite that shiny for the remainder of the trip…

In contrast to the largely-standard press vehicles were some of the Isuzu owners’ rigs, which cut an impressive form indeed with their lift kits, all-terrain or mud-terrain tyres, custom tray-backs and more.

Mark from off-road accessories giant ARB was also along for the drive, his D-MAX also sporting a number of upgrades.

However, after turning off the highway near the Zig Zag Railway, my faith in the D-MAX even in stock trim was soon reaffirmed, as it lapped up everything our route threw at it.

The D-MAX and the MU-X may lack the locking rear diff found in many of their competitors, but even on standard highway tyres these vehicles have the low-revving grunt, off-road geometry and rugged suspension to handle a whole lot of punishment. Click here for a closer look at both the D-MAX and the MU-X and how they performed over the course of this trip…

Pressure point

As we turned off the main track and onto a far tighter trail, we ‘aired down’ our tyres to 20psi, while David explained the importance of running appropriate pressures for any given off-road situation. The lower the pressure, the longer each tyres’ contact patch and the greater the traction – but also the greater the risk of running a tyre off a rim when cornering.

Don’t forget to increase those pressures once you’re back on the blacktop, too. Running low pressures at speed on the road will cause them to heat up considerably, possibly to the point of failure.

We also learnt that while those massive bog holes might look like a truck-load of muddy fun, they should also be treated with caution. If the wheel ruts are deep enough you risk beaching the underbody on the crown and getting yourself stuck, while sticks and branches from past recovery efforts could well stake a tyre.

The key takeaway? Be sensible and pick your battles – especially if you’re travelling solo…

After reaching the Lost City – a collection of sandstone pagodas just north of Lithgow that could easily have served as an alien backdrop from Star Wars, we moved on to the Wolgan Valley and the great old pub at Newnes, an otherwise abandoned old shale mining town.

The pub might not have a liquor licence these days but it’s packed with memorabilia, while the nearby camping ground – a beautiful spot ringed by soaring peaks and home to kangaroos in their hundreds – was the perfect spot for a group photos.

The few campers here accepted the Isuzu invasion with good grace, but they need not have feared – it was time to roll on to check out the nearby Maiyingu Marragu (Blackfellows Hands) indigenous rock art site.

The rock shelter, accessible from the trail via a five-minute walk, features an array of hand prints, and even that of a boomerang. The stencils hold special meaning for the Wiradjuri people, who still use the site to this day to educate youngsters about their heritage.

It’s a poignant place, that’s for sure, but with the sun sinking lower, it was time to head to our digs for the night, at the Black Gold Hotel in Wallerawang.

Wallerawang is considerably quieter these days since the main coal-fired power station closed down, but it’s a hotspot for four-wheel drivers and dirt-bike riders, and for good reason. Head off in just about any direction and there’s some fine driving or riding to be had, and after a hearty meal in the hotel’s restaurant that night and a solid night’s sleep, we were ready to tackle some more.

Upping the ante

After a solid overnight downpour the next morning dawned bright and clear, which was just as well as the easy trails of the first day were about to make way for some considerably more technical descents. I swapped the D-MAX LS-U for an MU-X LS-T, the top-spec version of Isuzu’s seven-seat SUV, before our group plunged back into the bush.

After taking in the splendour of a breathtaking view over Wolgan Valley, we then descended through Wolgan Gap, learning plenty about negotiating rocky terrain in the process.

Approach and departure angles were put to the test and rear wheels dangled over a metre in the air, as we gingerly picked our way down a series of rock shelves amid the towering sandstone outcrops. David’s ‘live’ guidance was appreciated by many, and all 15 vehicles made it down safely and with all mudguards, side steps and bodywork intact!

Getting on the blacktop back at Wallerawang, we then pushed north through hamlets like Cullen Bullen and Capertee before turning west to Sofala, where a pizza lunch awaited at the nearby Tanwarra Lodge. After getting the group through the Wolgan Gap we were running a little behind schedule, so we collected the pizzas and headed down to the Turon River for an outdoor feast.

Our bellies full, we could fully concentrate on a gold-panning session a bit further up the river, where Simmo demonstrated his prowess before handing the pans over to us.

I have to say, I don’t think I have the requisite patience for gold panning, although one of our group did manage to find a solitary spec. Rest assured no-one was about to fast-track their retirement, but Simmo’s vial of past efforts proved the stuff was there to be found for the determined…

After the isolation of the bush, our last night’s stay – at Rydges hotel at the bottom of Mount Panorama’s Conrod Straight – was a bit of a jolt back to civilisation. It was a little surreal to be circling Australia’s spiritual home of motorsport in a four-wheel drive, but then perhaps it was all for the best, too, as we met not one but two highway patrol cars while out on the track. It is a public road, after all, with bi-directional traffic and a 60km/h limit (excluding race meets, anyway!).

Our final day saw us take picturesque sealed roads east through Tarana to Marrangaroo National Park, a spot that makes up for its relatively compact size with some challenging and steep terrain. The importance of a little momentum was hammered home on one such ascent, while the mud of the last few days was well and truly washed away by a thorough dunking in the Coxs River, where our vehicles’ wading depth (600mm) was put to the test.

Then it was south for a final feed at the Hampton Halfway Hotel, on the road to the Jenolan Caves, and the dash back to the Great Western Highway to Sydney, our break from the daily grind sadly at an end.

Summing up

This three-day I-Venture Club trip cracked the trifecta: great trails, great scenery, and great company. Want proof of the club’s winning recipe? Many of its trip participants are repeat customers – in fact Paul and Kathleen, from Queensland, had attended six or seven of them. The couple were even heading over the WA the following week, to attend the Lancelin Dunes trip. That’s dedication!

If you’re new to Isuzu D-MAX or MU-X four-wheel drive ownership, you’ll learn a lot and boost your off-road confidence considerably, mastering safe operation of your new vehicle from the basics up. Best of all, you’ll do it in the company of others just like you, while discovering the fun the Isuzu off-road lifestyle represents.

(motoring.com.au, http://bit.ly/2PxQthF)

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