Isuzu I-Venture Club on Moreton Island
Isuzu launched its I-Venture club for Isuzu 4WD owners and our Jane Speechley headed to Moreton Island to get a taste of what club members can expect.
“If I hear anyone say the word ‘SUV’ today, they’ll be chucked overboard.”
This early warning delivered by David Wilson, 4WD expert and licensed driving instructor of some 21 years’ experience, should be no surprise given he’s clearly not from the school of four-wheel-drives-that-never-actually-leave-the-road. It is, however, a clear indication that I’m learning from folks who are serious about their sport, and that my first four-wheel-driving experience may not be an easy Sunday drive.
We’re with the Isuzu I-Venture Club and we’ve just left the Port of Brisbane on the MICAT ferry, for the 75 minute journey to Moreton Island. The ferry is large and very comfortable, capable of carrying over 50 vehicles and up to 600 passengers. It has a fully-stocked café and is fully licensed, though of course, we pass on the drinks until after the drive.
Our destination, Moreton Island, is the third largest sand island in the world and home to the famous Tangalooma Resort, where visitors can hand-feed the wild dolphins that visit the beach. In addition to being a favourite destination for swimmers, snorkelers and fishers alike, it’s a well-known mecca for off-road driving enthusiasts from Australia and beyond.
After loading our vehicles on to the boat, which requires some slightly hair-raising parking manoeuvres, we’ve settled in for our pre-event briefing. In our group of a dozen or so, experience levels vary enormously – there are several first-timers like me, as well as some who have a little experience in off-road driving. We’re all very competent drivers on the road, but are keen to see how our skills hold up on the sand.
The itinerary for the day consists of five hours of exploring beachside and inland tracks as well as Island highlights such as the Cape Moreton Lighthouse and Tangalooma Wrecks. More importantly, the briefing also introduces us to two essential elements to ensure a safe and fun day: understanding how four-wheel-drive works, and tyre pressure.
Thankfully, in modern vehicles like the Isuzu D-Max, MU-X and limited-edition X-Runners we’ll be driving today, when it comes to switching to the four-wheel-drive function, much of the work is done for you. These vehicles use a traditional part-time 4WD transmission, driving the rear wheels on the road, all four offroad and a low range (crawler gear) set for really rough and slow terrain. Changing is as simple as turning a knob.
High range, which can be selected while moving, is for use on higher-speed offroad surfaces such as dirt roads or firm sand.. When things get slower, steeper, more messy or boggy, stop the vehicle and put it in Neutral before engaging Low range, to shift the gear ratio and – basically – give each wheel a bit more grunt.
As we approach Moreton Island, we use the time to prepare our vehicles for the sand and to put the second element into action. Managing tyre pressure is, without doubt, one of the most critical aspects of successful four-wheel-driving, particularly in soft sand like the Island. By flattening out the base of the tyre through the lower inflation, you increase the amount of rubber that’s in contact with the ground, resulting better flotation rather than the tyre digging in. We’re shown how to estimate the pressure by counting the seconds of releasing air – to drop from the standard inflation of 36 psi to our desired 18psi is equivalent to about 45 seconds of hissing air, but it’s definitely better to use a tyre pressure gauge.
We’re told you can go as low as 5-10 psi in an emergency – for example, if you’re bogged – but you face a greater risk of popping the tyre off the rim), and you definitely shouldn’t drive on normal roads at any pressures other than the normal settings for reasons of safety and handling. Note that each 20% reduction in air pressure should be accompanied by a 20% reduction in maximum speed – while you can do over 110kmph at 36psi, our drop to 18 psi means we won’t be going above 50kmph. We’re also reminded to make sure we have access to an electric air compressor pump to reinflate the tyres before returning to the road: fortunately, the MICAT ferry comes equipped with several, but it’s one of the first purchases for offroaders
While it won’t be an issue on the all-sand island today, we’re also very sternly warned about the dangers of using the 4WD function on high-traction surfaces like bitumen. However, use of 4WD for slippery, dirt or gravel roads is fine, and welcome traction improvement.
Before long, we pull in to the island near the Tangalooma Wrecks, just north of the Resort. There’s little room for hesitation as, with no wharf in place, the MICAT ferry’s ramps drops straight onto the sand and vehicles begin to exit. Jumping off the end of the ramp early, ahead of the rush, gives me the opportunity to see a lot of common mistakes in action. Wilson’s commentary explains as they go: “See, that’s what happens if you come off too quickly,” he says, or “ah, see, he’s already stuck because he didn’t shift into 4WD before he left the ramp.”
It quickly becomes apparent that good four-wheel-driving is as much about etiquette and courtesy toward your fellow motorists, as it is about practical skill. Pull off the ramp too quickly, and you’ll slide around in the sand, digging in deep furrows that make the journey much less comfortable for the next vehicle. Likewise, forget to switch over to 4WD and you’ll have little choice but to stop as soon as you hit the sand, which will delay and frustrate those stuck waiting behind you. Of course, the benefit of getting involved with a program like the I-Venture Club means you can learn all the tricks, and hopefully, avoid those rookie mistakes.
Our group waits until the crowd passes before setting off up the beach, and we’ve only travelled a couple of hundred metres before it’s time for our first practical lesson. Moving from the firmer damp sand closer to the waterline to the softer dry sand further up the beach, it’s a struggle to get the vehicle up and over a ledge at the high tide mark – it just wants to slide back down. We’d be content to stay on the lower side of the ledge, but Wilson is having none of that; he jogs up to the side of our truck, explains the method and encourages us to give it another go.
To the delight of several enthusiastic members of our party, the answer to many a four-wheel-driving dilemma is – in part – to increase your power and speed, at least in sand anyway! Contrary to popular perception, slower on soft surfaces isn’t always better, as you might find yourself lacking the momentum to push your vehicle across some challenging surfaces. In our case, by widening the angle of our approach to face the ledge almost head-on, and giving it a lot more throttle, we’re up and over very comfortably. This is really our first taste of the more thrilling side of four-wheel-driving, and the urge to high-five someone is strong
As we make our way along the beach, heading up the western side of the Island, we learn about the importance of reading the surface – a constant requirement and an important skill to learn for off-road driving. The sensation of driving on the softer sand, particularly, takes some getting used to. It’s an unusual feeling for the everyday road driver, for whom, feeling the wheels sliding out from underneath the vehicle is usually cause for concern. While we’re deliberately trying out different surfaces on this trip, it’s generally best to stick to the firmer, damp sand that’s closer (but not too close) to the waterline.
Our instructors also emphasise the value of following other vehicle’s tracks. By keeping your wheels aligned with the existing tracks as much as possible, you’ll enjoy a much smoother and more comfortable ride with less sideways movement. In addition, existing tracks can alert you to potential hazards and show you the best way to approach various obstacles. For example, tracks that approach a sand dune, mud patch or water crossing, and successfully exit out the other side offer a good sign. Likewise, tyre tracks that dig in, get lost in a mess of mud or dirt, or disappear altogether can indicate a vehicle that’s had trouble making it through – and especially so, as Wilson jokes, if the tracks are accompanied by a vehicle that’s still stuck there.
As we continue toward the romantically-named Champagne Pools and Honeymoon Bay, several water crossings and sand hills give us an opportunity to try different techniques and test our nerves. Before each shift in the terrain, we stop to talk through the process and possible risks, and learn by observation as each vehicle makes its way through. We drive up and down some fairly steep inclines, along winding creek beds, narrow tracks and through waist-deep water – always with David’s reassuring voice providing advice, feedback and commentary via the CB radios that are fitted to each dashboard.
There’s no doubt about it – four-wheel-driving, while being tremendous fun, is also hard work. It takes an enormous amount of concentration and can be quite physical, as you constantly adjust your speed to suit the environment and work to keep your wheels pointing in the right direction. By lunchtime, both my co-driver and I feel like we’ve had a decent mental and physical workout.
Over lunch, we chat excitedly and share experiences so far, before taking some time for a few great photo opportunities. But before we move on, there’s serious business to cover. As Wilson points out, getting into trouble at some stage is inevitable for even the occasional off-roader, and so a lesson in recovery is just as important as all the preventative measures we’ve learned so far. A couple of our team members work off their lunch by digging a shining silver D-MAX into the sand, close enough to the rising tide line to simulate the sense of urgency you’ll likely feel if you found yourself stuck in a similar location.
Here again, Wilson’s experience and practical approach come to the fore as he talks us through the process of retrieving the vehicle from the sand – which can actually be a very dangerous exercise if not conducted properly. He describes the tools that make up a basic recovery kit, including a long-handled shovel, snatch straps, dampener bag and bow shackles, and demonstrates how each is best used. There is, of course, a heavy emphasis on safety, but Wilson is full of great advice that will just save you time, energy and frustration as well. For example, where two snatch straps need to be joined to make a longer strap, a roll of newspaper covered in gaffa tape or thick magazine is placed inside the loop when they pull tight to make the straps much easier to undo.
There’s time for a stopover to enjoy the incredible views from the lighthouse and lookout before we make our way down the seemingly endless beach on the eastern side of the Island. Before we turn inland again, we jump out to watch the instructors demonstrate some turning techniques they’d explained earlier in the day. Seeing the lead vehicles power through the soft sand looks like fine hooliganism and makes for some great photos; but there is a purpose behind the frivolity, as David and Dave from Isuzu demonstrate how much cleaner and easier it is to turn with the slope of the beach, rather than against it.
Throughout the day, we have the opportunity to swap between the D-Max Ute, limited edition X-Runner Ute and the seven-seat MU-X passenger vehicle. All handle the terrain brilliantly – particularly notable if you want to pile all the kids and their toys (or yours) into the MU-X – it’s perfectly able to meet the challenge. The cabin is comfortable, though as my colleague remarks, ‘it still feels like you’re driving a truck’. Certainly, there’s enough engine noise and bounce to remind us that we’re not cruising down Main Street Kansas anymore.
We’re all feeling a little more relaxed and – dare I say – a little more confident as we near the end of the day. Predictably, this is where the trip throws up its greatest challenge, as we negotiate the incredibly narrow, winding, soft sand track back through the middle of the island to the ferry landing. It looks deceptively harmless, but we find it quite treacherous, as the vehicle slides on the shifting sand, within centimetres of the rock walls that line each side of the track. The Isuzu team assure us they’re realistic about the risk of damage to the vehicles, but still, it’s a relief when we‘re back on the wide open space of the beach, scratch- and dent-free.
Back on the ferry, and weary from the sun, concentration and physical activity, there’s time for a cold (light) beer as we share our stories and lesson learned from the day. For a group of otherwise seasoned drivers, the level of excitement is palpable and is a positive endorsement of both a great 4WD experience and of the Isuzu vehicles we were able to try out for the day. While I may not be a total off-road convert yet, I’ll certainly never look at an SUV (oh, sorry a 4WD!) the same way again.
The writer travelled as a guest of Isuzu Ute Australia. Moreton Island is open to the public year round, but if you’d like to join the I-Venture Club, you’ll need to get yourself into an Isuzu first, as it’s exclusively for Isuzu owners.