Isuzu D-MAX and MU-X In The Victorian High Country
By David Wilson
Despite the fair State of Victoria being a neighbour, it’s the tyranny of time, not distance, that prevents me from visiting that 4WD Holy Grail in the Great Dividing Range, the Victorian High Country, more regularly.
My first visit was near-thirty years ago, the last five years ago and again I find myself there in 2023 and twice. Too long between drinks, and there have been a few of those too.
I-Venture Club by Isuzu Ute Australia is a customer retention program par excellence and nine years in the making.
My latest gig with Isuzu Ute Australia and their I-Venture Club had me leading a group of paying customers and a media contingent, on a wild ride through the Alps over three days in search of hills, huts and rivers. It’s all about the experience and for the customers, a chance to use their new D-MAX or MU-X in a genuine 4WD environment with some coaching. For the media, it was a chance to generate some content for their various publications. Win-win.
Vehicle-wise it was a mixed bag.
With the exception of one 2018 MU-X, the rest were all new, or near-new Isuzus, and of the eight customer cars, four had had some mods waved at them – tyres and suspension the major focus, before some rack and drawer solutions. The other eight were pretty much bog-standard, especially the media vehicles and the “hero” I-Venture Club D-MAX and MU-X, right down to the tyres.
Hero “D-MAX” is bog standard. There is one parked in each capital city for official duties.
A fortnight before I was in the region doing the pre-trip recce with the I-Venture Club cars and what I feared the most was rain. I got lucky on the first two days, exiting Melbourne and up to Mt Buller, I was down to shorts and t-shirt in the middle of April.
Add some rain to these parts and you’ll find progress sorely tested and likely unnavigable.
Day three however, Huey got a bit ropable and sent down around 30mm in a 24-hour period and the red and yellow clay hills turned to poo. On the last day the sun came out and the wind got cracking on wicking out the moisture, thankfully restoring my traction fortunes. But was this going to be a taste of what to expect on the event?
Day One – Bright to Blue Rag
Bright makes a great spot to launch a journey into the Alps, a town usually of around 2,600 people, but that number jumps dramatically in the summer months and peak winter weekends. It’s a magnet for bushwalkers, mountain-bike riders, the horse-riding set and skiers, all drawn to the majesty of those hills and streams.
Bright looks bright in Autumn.
Our late-autumn arrival was timely, as the leaves were about to fall and the colours were spectacular, the streets awash with red, orange and yellow and as far as the eye could see.
The first day’s destination was atop Blue Rag, and the run out of Bright on the blacktop and alongside the Ovens River was typically postcard material, might have been in Switzerland were it not for the Aussie bush. You’ll go past a little hamlet called Smoko (population 46) that raised a giggle, likely called by forestry workers in days of old.
At a place called Harrietville the bitumen snakes skywards and you’ll come to a junction named St Bernard Hospice, which conjures up a thought-bubble of a big fluffy dog with a miniature keg of brandy (medicinal of course) around his neck, coming to the aid of a soul lost in the snow. I put that one down to the altitude. At 1,475m you don’t want to be giddy to acrophobia.
Airing down is very sensible when spending the balance of the day on dirt. 20psi is a good starting point but remember it needs to be accompanied by a speed reduction too.
This is where the dirt starts on the Dargo High Plains Road.
Coming up the Buller road on the bitumen is not without its hazards, forestry trucks and tourist traffic ply their trade frequently and there’s the risk of errant deer suddenly appearing out of literally nowhere, so I say thanks to the 4WD Gods for the creation of stability control and traction control hanging off the back of ABS. especially when it’s wet.
On the dirt all that risk is multiplied, so some adjustments are warranted (never more obvious than seeing a D-MAX owner having had a wrestle with his camper trailer on a bend and the camper rolled over an embankment).
In anticipation of our big ascent we selected a median pressure of 20psi/135kPa. Enough air to support 50-60km/h initially on the Dargo road with a stretched footprint for shorter braking distances, less puncture-potential and a comfier ride and flexible enough to provide some grip on the rocky steps en-route to the summit, with more up our sleeve if we were struggling. It was also the moment to engage HIGH range.
The Blue Rag Track sign appears before too long adjacent to a little dam, and from there it’s all uphill and LOW range.
Stunning climbs are all part of the Blue Rag experience.
This is where the first little challenge emerged. One couple in our group had a single-cab D-MAX in basic spec, bought for future travel with a mind to a slide-on camper. Now, I’m not a fan of this type of setup and I’ll never recommend it, because slide-ons are heavy, cumbersome and set a 4WD up for a fail. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll be doing some chassis repairs after a couple of bumps and that’s provided you can keep it upright.
A single cab ute weighs bugger-all. Tyre pressures need a big old dip to make them work.
To carry the load they opted for a GVM upgrade. And that is something else I loathe.
We’ve said it in these pages and over at the Loaded4x4.Media site that GVM upgrades are the ruination of a vehicle. If you want a stiff-as-a-board ride with zero comfort and constantly reminding you on every bump, further magnified by stupid tyre pressures, knock yourself out. The touring world needs to calm down with this desire to take everything and the kitchen sink because it’s all I’ve said before and dangerous. And don’t get me started on the 3,500kgs capacity claimed by nearly all vehicle manufacturers in their towing arms race. It’s the great towing lie.
So, our problem and in the first few metres of this trail, was that seven stiff leaves, comprising the rear spring pack, weren’t budging with the miniscule weight of the alloy tray and the near-empty travel ballast they were carrying, weighing around 250kgs. Even with the lower 20psi/135kPa and careful use of the accelerator in LOW range, all this D-MAX wanted to do was hop.
Can’t fix the springs, so time to drop some more air. At 16psi/110kPa in the fronts and 12psi/83kPa in the rear, we found the purchase that wasn’t evident before, and grip was restored. Have to learn sometimes to think on-the-fly!
This ribbon of a track is a peach when the sun’s out, with stunning views.
Trekking to the summit of Blue Rag is technical in a couple of places. Some of it you’ll manage in Drive in your autos, when the hills roll out into a saddle, but be ready to use the manual-mode on the climbs. Second gear in LOW is often a great all-rounder.
The track-maker was good at his craft, positioning erosion-control berms at strategic points in the climb and funnelling water off the track’s face. However, this is where you’ll likely sorely test your clearance and at around 230mm for the vehicles in stock-standard form, it doesn’t take too long before the scrapes are pealing from below.
There are sections requiring a bit of steering prudence.
Isuzu is not alone these days in offering rudimentary under-vehicle-protection. There are a couple of flimsy steel plates protecting radiator, front suspension and sump, whilst the gearbox and transfer case are shielded by a composite (plastic) cover. None are any good if you reckon your future 4WD journeys are going to involve even a modest trail, in the mountains like today, or even something as innocent as a beach.
It doesn’t take much of a knock to mis-shape these stock UVP plates to oblivion.
Luckily here at Loaded4X4.Store we’ve given this some thought and have designed the best UVP for Isuzu D-MAX and MU-X (and Mazda BT-50), with our four-plate 6mm alloy kit. It looks great, but its real purpose is to save a stranding, when you are miles from home and the lifeblood is draining from that cracked sump or transfer case. You can buy that here.
Here is the real-deal, Loaded 4X4 UVP in 6mm alloy… tough as old boots!
With all the vehicles summited and lunch produced from the tucker-truck, the media throng got their cameras out and interviews done. All the while we’re standing there gobsmacked at the panorama, made picture-perfect with near clear skies. Day one, done and dusted.
MU-X wagon atop Blue Rag.
Day Two – Bright to Lake Hovell
The second day’s instalment promised plenty of 4WDing, the route travelling in lower altitudes than yesterday and on secondary trails and likely to be muddy.
Exiting Bright on the Great Alpine Way we took to the Buckland Valley Road en-route to the Buckland River Bridge. The morning air-down ritual done in a little cul-de-sac before taking to the Goldies Spur Track.
Heading aloft once more, the trail follows the contours of a hill on the other side of a narrow valley shared with Mt Buller, a strip clear-felled for the installation of a series of coat hangers with powerlines feeding energy to the resort and surrounding district.
The Goldies Spur Track is steep and follows the easement for the power lines to Mt Buller.
The track offers some great views before reaching its peak and we head downhill and into the Buckland Valley and the Wabonga district, a mix of scrub and farmland.
We found the Rose River Track an easy rustic meander and providing access to the Basin Track, before passing through a seasonal access gate to an easement of cattle grazing land before the trail disappeared into the bush.
Shared access is common in the High Country, so treat it with respect and close gates behind you.
If you got a map out now and looked at the contour profile it is peppered with hills and valleys, so needless to say you’ll be up and down like a yo-yo, dropping into the odd creek or mudhole, before scrabbling up a greasy slope to the next section.
The mother of bog-holes will always be waiting for you at the bottom of the hill.
Speaking of mudholes, we came across one that was a doozy, a central path was flooded to a depth around 450mm deep and was about 30m in length. That type of bog is always hard to predict because you don’t know what’s in there – submerged, timber, rocks, a hollow deep enough to swallow a vehicle, so it demanded a prod with some timber to check it. The two flanking tracks took a more cautious and wider approach, yet shorter in length, the entry in and out required a change in direction and that can be problematic too.
Taking the plunge and gently to test the waters.
Something I learned ages ago is the importance of keeping your steering straight in these situations because you don’t want resistance that comes with a steering wheel that’s being steered. Even if the morass you’re about to drop into is on a bend, it’s better to keep the front wheels in the dead-ahead and let the ruts guide you, rather than lose sight of where you’ve been steering and grind to a halt with your front wheels at 45 degrees. It’s the equivalent of jamming the brakes on.
The alternative method looks cool for the camera, but it’s messy.
Right around about now I was craving some extra height, better tyres and better protection downstairs because I was concerned that there may have been a high-crown, invisible because of the slop.
My personal D-MAX is setup that way, running the Loaded 4X4 lift kitwhich provided a healthy and sensible jump in height along with greater carrying capacity, and, and this is the most important bit, offers a ride quality with compliance and comfort levels usually the province of kits costing three time the price. It does all of this without silly shock adjusters that seize in time, or remote reservoirs that eventually will either get snagged and ripped off or leak. You can read more about the Loaded 4X4 suspension that I run here.
IFS on an Isuzu needs little to make it more effective and our Loaded 4X4 kit in “Dynamic” tune is an extraordinarily good way to get some extra height, carry a load and keep it comfy.
My worry with the stock rubber was the obvious lack of tread depth and voids, a passenger car face on the Bridgestones that fills with goop and won’t bite down on the surface and their flimsy construction, because the double-embarrassment would have been getting bogged and copping a puncture. I knew if I had my personal winter treads on (Toyo R/T), I wouldn’t have been pondering those potentials.
I use Toyo R/T on my home D-MAX and it is critically better across a range of surfaces.
And lastly, the Loaded 4X4 UVP on my truck has copped an absolute hiding in exactly these same conditions and with nothing other than a couple of scrapes to suggest the abuse, which allows you a lot more latitude when driving into the unknown.
Like lemmings we sent the convoy through and luckily my fears were largely unfounded apart from a couple of stumbles, but no-one got stuck. Techniques varied wildly from Captain Sensible second gear and at walking speed to send it. Send it might look spectacular, but you can guarantee it’ll require of you a lot more housekeeping of you at day’s end.
Mud, glorious mud… better have plenty of tokens at the ready when you hit the car wash.
With the promise of our day’s end destination at the lake being just a little way down the trail, we pushed on along the Upper Kings River Track until the rocky crossing at Evans Creek emerged from the scrub. In stock standard vehicles making the descent to the creek’s base, a height difference on only three metres or so, was going to be a challenge.
Technically difficult and demanding of all your attention.
Over the years drivers have tried different descending routes resulting in a broader and broader face. Add the inevitable erosion due to vehicle use and abuse and the bedrock is fully exposed and littered with plenty of witness-marks of chassis contacts.
There were two not-so obvious routes off the rocks, and both required spotting. Without it you’d have no hope of getting down to the relative safety of the creek bed unless you were driving some massively lifted buggy on 35s.
Fully exposed rock is peppered with complex challenges.
So, with spotters in place on the UHF we guided the fourteen vehicles down the gulch and watching, waiting, for a miss-step and the likely clang of a chassis rail or the crunch of a sidestep. From my vantage point it was obvious that the client cars that had made the basic mods were finding heaps more clearance and flex and thus more grip, the stockies sliding and landing on their undergubbins as they ran out of travel and cocked a wheel, as we manouevred millimetre by millimetre.
To their credit, everyone had a crack at this descent.
Having some of the gear and some idea obviously helps the cause.
Lightly modified Isuzus make good, honest and reliable 4WDs.
An hour later and we’re at the picnic grounds adjacent to the boat ramp at Lake Hovell and high-fiving our success.
Day Three – Mansfield to Craig’s Hut
Day three promised a more leisurely affair, less emphasis on the gnarly-meter, more on having a gander at some heritage and scenic wonder.
The weather overnight had taken a bit of a turn. We’d finished yesterday at Lake Hovell with the rain starting to fall and it had continued to do so during the evening, which doesn’t augur well when your plan is to head up and into the heavens, which they were with cloud socked in to around a thousand metres.
Exiting Mansfield via the Mt Buller Road we trundled along and up to the turn for the Mt Stirling Road where we stopped for the air-down as we’d be on the dirt for the balance of the day until we returned to this spot. There’s a big check point here and broad car park space where punters heading for the ski fields can rent their chains and fit them when conditions are icy.
No fear of ice for us today so with a better footprint we choofed on up the hill and past the now abandoned Telephone Box Junction and Mt Stirling Café, the business lost to the world thanks to good-old Covid. Beyond the café is Circuit Road which links a lot of trails running in the Mt Buller foothills to campsites and other points of interest.
Howqua Huts, old and new
Our first item on the itinerary was Howqua Gap Hut, since it was hut day.
The Gap is up around the 1,500m mark and there were two things to note, the wind chill made the ambient temperature by my dashboard record 6C and stepping out of the car was decidedly brisk. The other was the intermittent visibility, something that was going to re-emerge later in the day.
Refuge for when things get a blizzard on
Right through the Alpine National Park are a series of huts, some dating back to first settlement in these parts to aid the cattlemen and women seeking shelter when the weather turned to shite. They are an amazing record of man’s interaction with the natural forces up here. Some are derelict, others improved. Howqua’s can boast of a combustion heater and a wall larder topped up by visitors for those poor souls who might get stuck in a blizzard.
Taking the Bindaree Road gets you to the Bindaree Falls, a nice little diversion of the scenic kind in amongst all this driving.
A short ten-minute walk will get you to the cavern at the base of a little gorge, where the waterfall cascades over the top and the viewer is treated to a shimmering curtain of water looking inside-out.
Given the nature of the Great Divide, prospectors have always been keen to try the streams for that elusive fleck of gold and we had to try our hand at the nearby Bindaree Flat campground along the Howqua River. With plastic gold pans at the ready we swirled a shovel load of grit from the creek and bugger me, found a couple of flecks.
Panning for riches
If you’re looking for a diversion for the kids to have a play, this will keep them amused for hours!
Play time over it was the moment to make for the summit.
Craig’s Hut is a modern-day fiction, built for the motion picture The Man from Snowy River (1982), telling the story of the mountain horsemen and women. It’s been burnt to the ground in bushfires and rebuilt again, to keep the spirit of the cattlemen’s legacy alive.
This is what Craig’s Hut looks like on a clear day
Access to Craig’s Hut comes from the Monument Track, an honest 4WD trail that today was completely obscured by a deep, dense fog, as the cloud we’d been dipping in and out of now completely enveloped the mountain because the wind had dropped right out.
An Isuzu in the mist on the Monument Track
There is something surreal about tackling a steep gradient track with an unsound footing and you can barely see three metres in front of you. That was the challenge and from the lead vehicle there were a few times that demanded a view from outside to see what was coming up.
Tricky track conditions on the best of days
The Monument has a couple of sections of exposed rock shelf peppered with loose scree and some clever placement required. Luckily grip will never likely be an issue because the rocks provide a toehold, as against the clays we’d endured elsewhere.
Again, I was rueing not having my D-MAX, as the hero I-Venture Club car touched down on a couple of occasions, suspension too soft and shocks unable to control the rebound. Isuzu have made a better fist of their suspension setups with this new edition of the D-MAX and MU-X, compared to the previous generations of their fleets, but it can be improved.
A little later we reached the Clear Hills Track intersection and the Craig’s Hut car park space was found.
Craig’s Hut appears through the mist
Picture time was going to be a bit of a let-down today. No big panoramas of layer-upon-layer of hills stretching into the distance, just the hut barely visible in the grey mist and only just beyond arm’s length.
I-Venture Club is an amazing program for Isuzu owners and is unique amongst the 4WD motoring landscape. Isuzu have a lot of faith in the capability of their vehicles even straight off the showroom floor, something that I heard more than one journalist comment on.
We’d driven a fleet of 4WDs, with drivers of disparate skills across some of the country’s highest trails and apart from some sidestep scuffs, some serious underbelly thumps and scrapes and some departure-angle towbar drags, we’d survived. A lot of that success had come down to the guidance, so we’ll take some credit for that, but when you’re lucky not to be driving vehicles in isolation and you can sample useful mods, you realise how much easier it can be and with dramatically less risk.
If you’ve just bought a new D-MAX or MU-X, a Loaded 4X4 conversion will make a massive difference to your vehicle and make it very handy for exploring the bounty of trails that Australia has in wait for you, without the scapes and the angst that comes with it.