Isuzu’s tough off-roaders rip through desert dunes
SPARKLING white sand, rippled dunes to the horizon and a deep blue sky framing the scenery, it's hard to believe this isn't the Sahara.
Our location is somewhat closer to home - but Coffin Bay on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula is, like the African desert, far from easy to reach.
Some eight hours' drive from Adelaide, this remote, sparsely populated place is the chosen playground of Isuzu's latest I-Venture Club expedition.
This isn't some nerdy club bogged down in annual membership fees and dull monthly meetings, rather like-minded enthusiast owners gather to explore the capabilities of their 4WDs under expert instruction.
Good value too, with Isuzu charging $1750 per couple for three nights' accommodation, excellent food and (soft) drinks, park passes, experiences and 4WD guides.
Formed in 2015, the I-Venture initiative is unique among off-road brands, and any owner of an all-paw Isuzu can tackle a one-day or multi-day all-inclusive tag-along trip, typically in some of Australia's most spectacular settings.
Good. Far too many SUV and ute owning Australians fail to take their 4WDs on anything more taxing than a grass verge outside the school gates. Isuzu likes its customers to exploit the off-road potential of its solid vehicles.
Isuzu sells only the MU-X SUV and D-Max ute yet is a massive success story. Last year the Japanese brand sold more than BMW, Audi or Suzuki to customers keen on value, simplicity and the bulletproof 3.0-litre diesel engines.
My steed is a range-topping MU-X LS-T, which at $52,990 drive-away comes with extended six-year warranty and roadside assist, plus two years' free scheduled servicing.
Decent price for a solid workhorse with seven seats, 3000kg towing capacity, strong off-road ability, leather electric seats, satnav and roof mounted 10-inch DVD monitor for rear travellers.
It's not perfect. The MU-X is utilitarian rather than plush inside with hard plastics, dated infotainment and no modern active safety kit - out in the wilds, you could argue, these are just more things that could go wrong.
Our adventure starts at Port Lincoln where, over breakfast, lead instructor David Wilson - nut brown from a life lived outside and rich with local knowledge - gives a quick brief to the gathered owners.
"This is the best place on earth," Wilson insists, biased perhaps as he owns a property at Coffin Bay. "It's a unique, wild space where you can pull up camp and not see a soul for days. Being 700km from Adelaide dissuades a lot of people from coming over, and that's a good thing."
We convoy to Lincoln National Park, drop tyre pressures to 18psi, engage low-range, and are immediately on meandering sandy tracks.
It looks like it hasn't rained here since 1987, with sparse vegetation and miles of sand in every direction. With temperatures nudging 40C, the turquoise ocean bashing the rocky land looks too good to resist. If it weren't for the local 4m great whites.
We're given practical demonstrations in how to unbog the off-roaders using snatch straps, matrax recovery devices or plain old momentum with a mate pushing.
It's much needed. We lead over a particularly steep dune and bury our MU-X up to its axles. On our own this would have meant panic but we're rapidly strapped to a rescue vehicle and pulled out of trouble. Strength in numbers.
As Wilson communicates to each vehicle via two-way radio, we all gain confidence to tackle some challengingly deep soft sand climbs. Details about local flora and fauna, plus a bit of history, all add to the experience.
It's not all off-roading, either. I-Venturers have all meals covered, which in these parts means incredible seafood: oysters, kingfish sashimi and giant prawns included.
The next morning we enjoy a bush and beach walk, climbing one of the giant sand dunes, before a hosted oyster farm tour where we wade out in clear waters and shuck our own before downing a few of the slippery suckers.
Over the next two days we visit the enticingly named Memory Cove, Golden Island lookout and Sensation Beach, with its mix of big ocean swells and sheltered glassy turquoise waters.
The MU-X proves an excellent companion, surging through soft sand, over dunes and rocky outlooks. The security of having 4WD experts on hand removes fear and we get invaluable advice on correct tyre pressures, steering straight through soft sand and mixing up gear choice and low range or high range for the varying terrain.
Every day's a school day on these I-Venture trips but it's also a unique vacation when you're learning in spectacular settings and sharing friendships and laughs with other drivers.
Isuzu MU-X LS-T vitals
Price: $52,990 drive-away
Engine: 3.0-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel, 130kW/430Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, reverse camera, rear sensors, hill descent control, emergency brake assist