by Iain Curry
BOUNDING along a sparkling white sand track, crystal clear lakes and rainforest trees fringing our path, I wonder why everyone with an off-roader isn't doing this.
We're quick to criticise SUV and 4x4 ute owners for clogging up our urban roads, but they start making a lot more sense in an environment like Fraser Island. The world's biggest sand island gives these rugged, advanced and highly capable off-roaders a chance to shine.
Yet how many 4x4 owners actually get their wheels dirty? According to Isuzu Ute, the majority of its Australian customers don't use their vehicles off road. Surprising really as the brand offers only two models - the 4x4 MU-X seven-seat SUV and D-MAX 4x4 or 4x2 ute. Barring the latter these are talented off-roaders and most aren't being allowed out to play.
Isuzu is leading the way to change that. The brand's I-Venture Club program, introduced in 2015, is there to help owners use their 4x4 Isuzus in a safe and structured environment under expert instruction.
It's not a club as such - there are no dull monthly meetings or annual fees - instead you apply for an event, pay the fee and join other like-minded 4x4 drivers on a one-day or multi-day all-inclusive trip. Only stipulation? You've must own an Isuzu 4x4.
It is the only manufacturer-run 4WD training in Australia, 70 events have been held so far, and it's attracted more than 1000 customer participants.
Most are one-dayers to the likes of River Island in NSW, Moreton Island in Queensland or the Melbourne 4x4 training ground in Victoria, each costing $300.
I was on a big one through. A four-day excursion to Fraser Island with ferry crossings, accommodation, three meals a day, park passes, guides and 4x4 tuition included for $2000. No small sum, but break it down and it is solid value for a car plus two people. Isuzu subsidises that price, highlighting I-Venture's not for their profit, rather for customer engagement and brand building.
It must be working. Despite only having the two models, Isuzu Ute is comprehensively outselling Suzuki in 2017 and could finish ahead of Audi and even BMW in the sales race by year's end.
Our Fraser Island adventure starts with a ferry crossing from Hervey Bay. Queensland customers, mainly from Brisbane, line up in their Isuzus, old and new, alongside I-Venture Club 17MY MU-X and D-MAX vehicles heavy on off-road accessories.
Plenty of Isuzu-shirted folk dishing out refreshments and information show a good guest-to-staff ratio and in under an hour we're at Fraser's elegant Kingfisher Bay Resort with its own dedicated sand-driving, off-road training area.
Bellies filled at lunch we head to the undulating off-road classroom. I-Venture is about arming customers with basic to intermediate off-road knowledge and skills, giving them confidence to ultimately plan and safely enjoy their own 4x4 adventures.
Instructors guide us through correct tyre pressures, smoothly changing into low range and when to do it, sand driving techniques and how to avoid getting stuck or damaging your car. Even the seasoned appreciate the advice and we're soon confidently traversing terrain that prepares us for the worst Fraser may throw at us.
We set off in convoy the next morning, about 10 cars per group and it soon feels like a hassle-free holiday. Instructors communicate via two-way radio, we stop at key beauty sites and they then serve as expert local guides. There's time to properly appreciate this stunning World Heritage Site, from wildlife-spotting on rainforest boardwalks to swimming in the clear warm water of Lake McKenzie.
Fraser's sand tracks compacted by recent rains, the driving is a breeze in the Isuzus. They may not have the locking rear differential of key rivals, but on these sandy tracks and with the D-MAX and MU-X's bulletproof and now torquier (although a bit noisy at times) 3.0-litre turbo diesel the going is easy.
The ute, with its rear leaf springs, jars over bigger bumps and tree roots, but the MU-X's coil springs help the big SUV bounce over these challenges in greater comfort.
At the end of each day's touring we're given expert fishing tuition (it didn't help me sadly), before stories are shared over a group meal in the evening. The final day offers incredible beach driving along golden 75 Mile Beach, a dingo encounter and a visit to the ghostly SS Maheno shipwreck, beached on Fraser Island since 1935.
Action and activity packed from start to finish, participant feedback was universally positive from our group.
D-MAX driving Andrew Joyce said he'd always wanted to do Fraser's combined track and beach drive, and the I-Venture's tagalong system with expert guides was the perfect opportunity.
"It's good training and you meet a lot of people with a similar mindset,” he said.
Trevor and Alicia Deegan brought their MU-X LS-T, and singled out the trainers as excellent in improving 4x4 driving skills, giving confidence to owners in both their vehicle and their ability.
"Fraser Island is beautiful and we'll now be comfortable coming back ourselves,” Alicia said.
Isuzu Ute seems to be nailing customer satisfaction in more ways than one.
The D-MAX and MU-X may sit behind some rivals in luxury and technical equipment, but good, honest and well-priced product with a strong diesel engine allied to old-fashioned customer engagement like this I-Venture Club is fuelling sustained growth the envy of much of the industry.
Getting more 4x4 owners into our country's stunning wilds is cause for celebration too.
If Australia's obsession with SUVs and 4x4 utes continues, kudos to Isuzu for making sure at least its customers have no excuse to not muddy those tyres every so often.
More information: www.iventureclub.com.au