Is the Victorian High Country one of the top five 4WD destinations in Australia? I reckon the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’, which is why it features prominently on the bucket list of many ‘off-the-beaten-track’ enthusiasts.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have made numerous trips to this part of the world, and it lives up to the hype, quite literally having something for everyone. You can dial up the type of off-roading that you want to experience, from relatively easy touring, right through to truck breaking madness. The choice is yours, and whichever way you decide to cut it, the scenery will blow your mind.
If you’re an Isuzu 4WD owner (new or old), you don’t need a bunch of mad mates to visit places like the High Country. You can instead, sign up for one of Isuzu’s I-Venture Club (IVC) multi-day trips. Just make sure you get your foot in the door quickly, as they book out within hours of being announced. I’m guessing the best way to keep up to speed regarding upcoming trips would be to subscribe via the I-Venture Club website – https://www.iventureclub.com.au/
Now, I know a bit about the I-Venture Club for a couple of reasons, chief among them being the fact that Loaded 4X4’s David Wilson is the face of the I-Venture club and because I attended an Adelaide I-Venture Club course – held in the Barossa Valley – back in late 2016.
The I-Venture Club is all about getting Isuzu owners off the bitumen, teaching them how to operate their 4X4s and giving them that first push towards the adventure that this type of vehicle puts at their fingertips, should they choose to accept it; and it seems many do. Where the one-day Adelaide I-Venture Club experience gave owners a complete understanding of their Isuzus and how to operate them off-road, the four-day High Country trip adds daily destinations and a real chance to get to know your vehicle and fellow I-Venture Club attendees.
This trip was interesting in that there was a mix of Isuzu owning IVC customers and motoring journalists. Whatever you do, don’t let the attendance of a handful of media blowhards put you off one of these trips, I can assure you they’ll mostly, with the rare exception, have less of an idea about 4WDs than any of the Isuzu owners in attendance.
Speaking of rare exceptions, we were lucky enough to have Carlisle Rogers attend this trip, and there’s no arguing his credentials. You may know Carlisle from his high-quality 4WD Touring magazine and television series. We’re more than happy to give Carlisle a plug because he lives and breathes quality content, and that’s something we respect. Carlisle rolled into Bright, the meeting point for attendees on the first day, in his recently finished custom D-MAX called Shadow. If you’re planning a D-MAX tourer build, there is plenty that Carlisle can teach you, and if you happen to bump into him, ask him about his upright fridge and how much easier it makes life on the road.
Our trip leader or guide was Mr Vic Widman. Vic is a well-known and respected 4WD driver trainer, tag along tour leader and owner of Great Divide Tours. He’s also a disarmingly funny man and try as you might to resist – and I did resist – he’ll find a way to punch some mirth through your morning fog. Riding shotgun with Vic was our David. David is the I-Venture Club driver trainer, and he kept the convoy on the straight and narrow, regaling them with regular UHF banter that included driving tips and terrain observations. He also jumped between vehicles to assist the Isuzu owners through some of the trickier sections.
Day 1 Bright to Blue Rag
The adventure kicked off in beautiful Bright, the gateway to Mt Hotham and like most of these Victorian Alpine region towns, it’s one of those picture-postcard perfect kind of places. Lunch was followed by a short driver’s briefing, and then we pointed the noses of around 14 Isuzu 4WDs towards Mt Hotham. The sealed road up Mt Hotham is a never-ending series of curves and switchbacks, with the kind of steep drop-offs you’d expect to find on a serious mountain. It’s deer country as well, so keep your eyes peeled for those elusive sambars. There are millions of them in them there hills apparently.
The road straightens out a little as you near the summit, and we pulled into a lookout area that provided mind-blowing views back over the northern side of the mountain.
Soon after leaving the lookout, we were onto the dirt for the first time, as we headed south towards Blue Rag Range Track. We stopped briefly to air down to 20psi before turning up what is arguably the best-known track in the High Country. Blue Rag isn’t difficult for the experienced off-roader, but there are some tricky sections that can get the blood pumping and the climb to the Trig Point lookout can be unnerving for the first-timer; 1700m drop-offs on either side of the track can have that effect!
Once you’re up at the Trig Point, the view soothes away any reservations you may have had about the drive-in and (hopefully) gets you pumped for the return journey, which for us was a case of retracing our steps back to Bright. There were one or two sections on the way out of Blue Rag that, depending on your wheel placement, had the traction control working hard in both the D-MAXs and MU-Xs, but in stock form and on stock rubber, they made Blue Rag look easy.
Day 2 Bright to Mansfield via Buckland Valley and Lake Hovell
The second day was the easiest of the four and a chance for those flustered by the Blue Rag climb to have a bit of a relax. According to Vic, a lot of the places we were visiting today had Aboriginal names, all of which meant ‘the meeting of two rivers’. You’d think Vic would know, wouldn’t you?
Anyway, we toured the Buckland Valley. Drove a track that followed the powerlines at Mt Buffalo. Had lunch at Lake Hovell and drove back up through the mountains to visit a couple of renowned cattlemen’s huts (including Tomahawk), before heading into Mansfield for the evening and we did it all without seeing two rivers even get close to each other.
The driving was easy, and those 4JJ1 Isuzu turbo-diesels barely broke a sweat, making this the perfect ‘cool down’ day.
Day 3 Bindaree Falls, Bindaree hut, Bluff hut and Sheepyard flat
Day 3 found us on the infamous Circuit Road that runs around Mt Stirling. As the name implies, it circles a mountain, and its infamy is derived from the perception that you seem to spend a lot of time circling that mountain in this particular neck of the woods. All of the circling is worth it though, as, like us, you’ll arrive at places like Bindaree Falls – do not drive past without taking a look – and Bindaree hut further down in the valley. Bindaree hut guards the entry to 16 Mile Jeep Track, which climbs 1,650 metres up to Bluff Hut, which just happens to be my favourite High Country hut. It oozes High Country charm, and a short walk over the road is an escarpment that you can perch yourself on and take in some breathtaking views. You could do worse than spending a night in this spot.
As we left Bluff Hut, an old Land Rover Perentie arrived, and if you know your 4X4s, you’ll understand the Isuzu connection. These old Landys were unique to the Australian Army and have only recently been auctioned off to the public. The reliability of their truck-derived 3.9-litre 4BD1 Isuzu diesel engines is the stuff of legend. They are quite possibly the first melding of a 4WD vehicle with an Isuzu truck engine, and it’s a formula that continues today with the Isuzu N-Series truck derived 4JJ1 3.0-litre diesel powering both D-MAX and MU-X. The Isuzu owners that I chatted with over the course of this trip revealed that it was ‘that engine’ and its reputation for reliability that sold them on the brand.
From Bluff Hut we descended to Sheepyard Flat and from their back out onto the bitumen for a short drive into Mansfield.
Day 4 Mount No3 Refuge Hut, Monument Trail and Craig’s Hut
The final day of this I-Venture Club adventure began with a drive back into the Mt Buller/Mt Stirling area. This time we wound our way up Mountain No3 – which according to Vic was next to Mountains No1 and No2 – to the Mountain No3 Refuge Hut, before heading out and back down to the Circuit Road, which we followed around to Monument Trail. Monument Trail is the harder of the two ways to get up Mt Stirling to Craig’s Hut.
Monument is steep, and there are a handful of rocky sections that keep the drive interesting, especially for factory stock vehicles that don’t have suspension lifts and rock-sliders to protect the sills. The hardest section – a narrow low-traction piece of track bordered by rocks on one side and track wall on the other – was tackled with the aid of a spotter and put the Isuzu traction control to the test. This is the type of track that so many inexperienced 4WD owners would never dream of attempting on their own. It’s also the type of track that David’s expert guidance can turn into a fist-pumping, remember forever, experience.
The prize at the end of Monument Trail is, of course, Craig’s Hut. Undoubtedly the High Country’s most popular hut, it’s also the one imposter, as it was never built to house High Country stockmen in winter storms. Craig’s Hut was constructed as a prop for the 1981-82 The Man From Snowy River film. It was later lost to a bushfire in 2006 and subsequently rebuilt to be re-opened to the public in 2008. Does that make it a replica of a replica?
From Craig’s Hut, it was a relatively easy drive back down to Circuit Road and the entrance to Mt Stirling, where we aired up and said our goodbyes.
The takeaways from this trip for me were three-fold. Firstly, the High Country never gets boring – ever. Secondly, every trip away is as much about the people as it is the destination, and Isuzu owners are in my experience, an interesting and down-to-earth bunch. And thirdly, Isuzu has some serious faith in its product. Isuzu is the only manufacturer that offers driver training days and multi-day destination trips, and in doing so, it’s putting its product under ongoing scrutiny in a variety of difficult conditions across the country, often with a media contingent present.
If you own an Isuzu and want to know more about the Isuzu I-Venture Club and their upcoming events, head over to their website – https://www.iventureclub.com.au/