In Australia, we are unequivocally spoilt for breathtaking holiday and getaway destination choices, but many are overlooked as ‘too expensive’.
It’s true that, when compared with popular all-inclusive package deals to overseas locations including Thailand and Bali, a break on home turf can appear quite pricey, but that needn’t be the case.
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We set out to prove the point and went in search of an Aussie doorstep holiday that is every bit as memorable as a break abroad, without costing the earth.
Key to our WhichCar ‘budget adventure tour’ is transport. With more families choosing a dual-cab or large 4x4 as the main car, many Australians already have the perfect vehicle for setting out on a home-grown holiday sitting on their driveway.
In accordance with our low-cost mantra, we chose an example that’s affordable, capable and dependable away from the beaten trail, and offers a compelling package from a trusted brand – the Isuzu MU-X.
This Japanese seven-seater has been on the market in its current form since 2017 but it attracts consistent sales and it’s the third most popular large SUV on sale in Australia to the end of October this year. Only mighty Toyota can outdo it with the more expensive Kluger and Prado.
Comparison: Isuzu D-Max LS-U vs Isuzu MU-X LS-T
On a tight budget, the MU-X range starts at $42,900, the cheapest four-wheel drive version will cost you $50,200 but we saddled up the current range topping LS-T, which comes in at $56,200.
With transport decided on, the destination is next. Heading overland to the deserts of central Australia is certainly one option, but with 50,000km of coastline, more than 10,000 beaches offer unlimited options for those looking for a relaxing and picturesque destination.
After weeks of unrelenting Melbourne winter we were looking to kick-start the summer early and Queensland’s balmy climes beckoned. About an hour out of Brisbane you’ll find a small drive-on ferry that will float you across to North Stradbroke Island in about 45 minutes.
At about $140 return, the Ferry is one of the more expensive elements of a Stradbroke escape, but we’ll aim to offset that with the rest of the trip.
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If the kids are after the bright lights and fairy floss of a resort, make a small detour and stop in at one of the Gold Coast’s numerous water parks. With a coil-sprung rear axle and tall tyres as standard, the MU-X is completely happy covering the freeway miles. Our top-shelf version was even equipped with an entertainment screen for the rear occupants that cleverly hinges down from the ceiling.
In the performance stakes, the Isuzu has a 3.0-litre diesel that produces an acceptable 130kW and 430Nm, which is at the lower end when compared with most rivals. Diving out for overtaking moves requires a bit of planning at freeway speeds and, while there’s good off-the-mark shove, it drops off sharply as the revs rise. There are better SUVs to pilot on roads but there’s nothing offensive or unlikable about its somewhat benign nature when covering distance.
But while pursuing your own Australian adventure will certainly involve some highway miles, it’s what happens after the blacktop ends that matters. That’s when the true fun starts.
Rolling off the boat along a narrow concrete ramp into Dunwich, the MU-X is faced with more sealed roads. In fact, you can negotiate a large part of the island in any car at all, but discovering the hidden gems of this natural wilderness requires a decent 4x4.
After picking up a few provisions and a 4x4 pass (it’s advisable to book camping and vehicle passes in advance), we headed away from the tarmac. While the low-slung 2WDs were left to circumnavigate the island by road, the Isuzu has a proper four-wheel drive transmission and low-range box. Combined with standard highway terrain tyres, the MU-X promised decent go-anywhere potential and we were not disappointed.
As a sand island, you might expect Stradbroke to present some real traction challenges. You won’t find sticky mud bogs or epic water crossings (unless you try to get back to the mainland without the ferry), but the omnipresent soft sand will undo anything but a proper all-terrain vehicle fast.
No such trouble for the MU-X though. Simply flicking the electronic selector from rear-drive to all-four was enough to tackle almost any inland trail and allowed us to take a direct route through the middle of the island over the highest peaks.
Spectacular vistas are reserved for the most adventurous and finding them is also huge fun too. With powdery sand under tyre, the MU-X is in its element and its four-cylinder diesel hums on contently while the tyres find their way through deep ruts without complaint.
There are more challenging tracks for modified and the most hardcore machines including severe climbs on equally loose sand. Only once did we have to turn back after finding the very limit of traction and it’s possible a little pressure removed from the tyres would have allowed progress to continue, but Stradbroke is a labyrinth of trails and navigating them is part of the fun.
A short time later we were rolling out the swags in our first camp for the night – Amity Point. Powered sites, full amenities and even shark nets in the designated swimming beaches represent the luxurious end of the camping options on the island and our first night was about as comfortable as you will find under canvas. Not bad for around $30 per night.
But the next day it was time to set a course for the true Stradbroke wilderness camping experience.
After an excellent egg and bacon brekkie cooked on the tailgate of our Isuzu D-Max support vehicle, we were once again off into Stradbroke Island’s stunning forest.
Emerging an hour or so later, the leafy surroundings part way to reveal some of Australia’s most arresting beaches. Unlike many however, almost all of Stradbroke’s sand can be driven on.
It’s not quite a free-for-all and rules apply including a 60km/h speed limit and you can be stung with fines for reckless behaviour, but you don’t have to flout with the law to have a brilliant time behind the wheel here.
A precautionary twist of the transmission mode into low-range avoided an embarrassing bogging in the very deep sand where the harder-packed road comes to an end, after which the Isuzu blasted out on to the expanse of Main Beach.
This 30km stretch of pristine sand is flanked by protected dunes on one side and on the other, nothing as far as South America. In the middle there’s you and a 4x4, and the experience is truly unforgettable.
With firmer sand, two-wheel drive could be engaged once again and the Isuzu had no problem tackling the terrain. However, an excursion into the looser stuff highlighted just how capable this machine is.
Deep fluffy sand that threatened to grab each corner of the car and drag it in up to its axles was fended away by a combination of generous ground clearance and tyre pressures lowered to 20psi. Even with the significant drag of deep sand, the trusty diesel plodded on at 2000 rpm, the temperature gauge unfaltering just under the ‘normal’ zone. It really wasn’t breaking a sweat.
As the MU-X powered on, eagles hovered overhead, Coral Sea waves broke onto the flat shoreline and we even pulled up to watch a turtle making its way back to safety after laying eggs in the dunes.
A short time later and we had arrived at our camp for the evening, this time devoid of any luxuries. Nestled in behind the dunes are designated camping areas and after engaging low range once more, the Isuzu carefully clawed its way over the embankment and up into the coastal canopy.
The D-Max was once again commandeered, this time to gather fire wood and the resulting blaze took the edge off a cool evening breeze while deterring any of the more persistent flies.
If you are travelling with a family, a trailer or some form of roof storage may be the go to fit everyone and everything in, but the boot accommodated everything for our trip including a 12-volt camp fridge. We would love a power socket that remains energised when the ignition is off, same as the D-Max’s does, but the ARB unit still dispensed a perfectly chilled beer when all the hard work was done.
4x4 authority ARB also provided the furniture including palatial folding chairs and a penthouse swag that makes my own look like a tired old windsock by comparison.
Over an expertly grilled sausage and vegetable medley a-la-tin, we pondered the adventure from sprawling metropolis to deserted beachside paradise.
Sure, a package deal from your local travel agent will keep you topped up with cheap Pina coladas and as many hours by the pool that you can tolerate. And there’s no denying the climates that you’ll enjoy.
But if you’re after complete autonomy, independence and the ability to call the shots on your holiday, you simply cannot beat the flexibility of your own car, especially one that can take you virtually anywhere.
It’s also worth noting that a trip away in your own family car hosted by our incredible country avoids the pain of airports, getting there and back, the jet lag, vaccinations, turning up to find the hotel isn’t finished yet, suspicious water quality, language barriers and you can’t take the dog.
Even with a limited amount of off-roading experience, the MU-X (and its D-Max companion) had done everything we had asked of it including freeway cruising, hauling all our kit, and plenty of spirited off-road skirmishes.
And you definitely can’t do that on a hired scooter, somewhere in South East Asia.