KING OF THE HILL

The D-MAX takes on the mother of all hills at Deua National Park, NSW

Words: Ian Neubauer

I have a confession to make.

After three years at the helm of this mag, I’ve only gone hardcore off-road driving once, and then only for a few minutes. So when I heard about Deua National Park—a wilderness area touted as the most remote, hard-to reach and challenging 4WD destination in NSW—I knew I’d hit pay dirt. For once and for all, I was going to prove—or disprove—the All-New D-MAX’s off-road credentials.

Set in the hinterlands of the NSW south coast, Deua is home to gentle rivers, near-constant rainfall, abundant wildlife and spectacular rock formations. Its peaks and valleys can see snow in winter, turning travel along its deliriously steep tracks into a devil’s dance. So I planned my trip for mid-October, well outside the snow season. But when I arrived at the village of Breadalbane, 90 minutes’ drive north of Deua, to pick up my camping buddy, environmental scientist Shlomi Bonet, the entire countryside was carpeted in snow.

"We do get this late-season snow but it doesn’t happen very often," the NSW Bureau of Meteorology said, issuing a severe weather warning for dangerous winds and flash floods set to worsen later in the day. I spent the rest of it making snowmen with Shlomi’s kids and sinking beers with his neighbour Julian Standley, the third member of our trip. We weren’t going anywhere today.

The Mother of all hills

The next day we awoke to brilliant blue skies. The snow had melted and the roads were now ice-free but our route could be littered with fallen branches and trees. “You’ll thank me if we need this,” said Shlomi as we lugged his chainsaw into the tray.

After breakfast, we jumped in the ute and headed south. Following a quick pit stop at Braidwood for groceries and diesel at a Caltex, we veered on to Cooma Road and into the Shoalhaven Valley, where great sweeps of farmland fold into the horizon.

We stopped for lunch at the Berland campsite in the western quarter of Deua National Park and then walked it off with an hour-long hike to the Big Hole. Discovered by surveyor-general Thomas Mitchell in 1832, this gaping 96m-deep chasm is a sight to behold. A sign on the viewing platform says a lyrebird lives here and, if you’re lucky, you can see it glide gracefully into the abyss. We didn’t, although we did see a mob of beautiful black swamp wallabies and a few fat goannas scampering off the track.

Clouds descended upon us on the return leg and by the time we reached the ute it was sprinkling. It turned into a downpour when we reached Middle Mountain Road and the start of the off-road part of the trip. I slipped the D-MAX into 4WD mode and coasted along the muck until we hit our first serious hill. Serious in that it’s so steep it actually vanished into the treetops far above our heads.

I’ve done extreme hill-climbs of this kind many times before on dirt bikes. But it took years to master, is an absolute killer on the forearms and legs, and stacking it is a given. Yet with the D-MAX it was child’s play—all I had to do was give it a bit of gas and steer around the largest ruts or boulders in my path.

With low-range 4WD now engaged, 80-odd years of dedicated diesel engineering came into play as the turbocharged Isuzu powerplant carried the three of us and a tonne of car up the mountain without pause, without missing a beat and without issuing the slightest objection during the hour it took us to complete the 9km ascent to Dampier Lookout.

The onboard GPS said we were 1,350m above sea level, and we felt it when we stepped outside; the air was unusually cold and crisp and hail fell on our heads. There’s an awesome lookout here, but with only 30 minutes of sunlight left and the hail picking up speed, we decided to jump in the ute and begin our descent into the velvet green Bendethera Valley.

This side of the range is just as steep but the trail was in even worse condition, pockmarked with rocks as big as helmets, low-hanging branches and potholes the size of bathtubs. On a dirt bike this would be seriously hard work, but in this D-MAX there was nothing to do but hang on to the steering wheel and breathe as the Electronic Brakeforce Distribution system did all the hard work and delivered us safely to the valley floor.

The Garden of Eden

In the city, I’m often woken by the sound of traffic. Today, I was woken by a chorus of chirps, whips, whoops, hollers and squawks. Ninety kinds of bird have been identified in this park, including robins, honeyeaters and doves as well as threatened species like the sooty owl and glossy-black cockatoo.

The rivers are full of platypus, there are six kinds of frog and the place was chock-a-block with kangaroos, wombats, quolls and all manner of marsupials.

“The most amazing thing for me is the wildlife,” Shlomi said. “I live nearby so I take the beauty of the countryside for granted. But this place is something else. It’s really spectacular.”

I walked out of my tent on to a grassy clearing, stoked the embers of last night’s fire and looked out to the misty green hills. As far as the eye can see there are only trees, and I finally understood how, despite its proximity to Sydney, Deua has remained so rugged and pristine. You need a helicopter or tractor to get in here. Either that or a car that thinks it’s a tractor.

Julian cooked up a sensational bush breakfast— eggs, sausages, toast, coffee and jam—all with that delicious smoky edge only a campfire can do. Our stomachs full, we then set out on the 4km hike to Bendethera Caves.

At the start of the track we came across a large brick oven overgrown with plants and a sign telling us it’s all that is left of a homestead built by the George family in the 1860s. In 1875, Benjamin George, the eighth of 15 children, stumbled upon the main cave and began spreading the word about its strange limestone formations. Soon, more than 100 people a year were making the week-long ride on horseback from the coast, so the Georges created an 800-hectare public reserve to protect the area for posterity. Today, Deua protects 122,000 hectares, making it one of the largest national parks in Australia.

The track meanders along the banks of Con Creek, under tree ferns and past fields sown with wildflowers. “It’s like the elves live here,” said Julian as we came across yet another perfect bend in the creek.

Two hours later we reached a final 350m climb to the cave and a terrace that looks out on to the vast, blue-green valley. This is the only place in the world where Bendethera wattle (bluebush) grows naturally; if you stare from a distance, entire mountainsides take on the leaves’ turquoise glow.

Stairs and ladders run deep into the cave, but we hadn’t brought rope or torches so didn’t venture far from the mouth. Shards of light poured into a cavern showing a stone column 30m high and huge stalactites hanging from the ceiling. I could only wonder what ancient creatures visited this cave over the millennia it took the slow drip, drip, drip of water to create these unusual shapes.

"You need a helicopter or tractor to get in here. Either that or a car that thinks it’s a tractor."

The end of the road

Two days later we were up to our necks in it again, bashing our way through a fire trail in the northeast corner of the park. I can’t tell you its name or exactly where it is, because we took a wrong turn some 15 minutes before. What I do know is it’s one of the many 4WD-only access roads that spill out onto Kings Highway and the last leg of our journey.

Unlike the hill-climbs and crazy descents we tackled over the past two days, this trail hugs the side of the mountain like a snake. Parts of it are reinforced by rock walls built with the blood, sweat and tears of early pioneers like the Georges, who drove horse-drawn carriages through here. To our left, a valley of treetops tumbled hundreds of metres into an abyss, leaving little room to negotiate the countless logs, rocks, ruts, puddles and pits. We often had to jump out to walk across flooded streams to make sure they were not too deep or to clear away trees and branches. And while Shlomi’s chainsaw was never called upon, it was reassuring to know it was there.

I moved at a snail’s pace in low-range 4WD, concentrating hard but never breaking a sweat as the D-MAX found its way through this terrible but beautiful terrain. The only time I felt the slightest loss in traction was while crossing a gushing 60cmdeep creek. A moment later, the ute’s TCS (traction control system) executed a correction that gripped all four wheels firmly to the ground.

“It was amazing the way it held on,” Julian said when we found the highway. “I never lost confidence in this vehicle. I never felt worried it was not capable of doing what needed to be done. Not even once.”

"I never lost confidence in this vehicle. I never felt worried it was not capable of doing what needed to be done. Not even once."

Fact File

Getting there

Starting from Braidwood, follow Cooma Road for 45km and turn left at the sign to Berland/The Big Hole. The turn-off for the Bendethera Valley, Middle Mountain Road, is 25km further south. Bendethera Camp Site is only 9km from here but you’ll need to set aside 1–2 hours and remain in low-gear 4WD. For detailed maps and up-to-the minute road and off-road driving conditions, visit the Braidwood & Village Information Centre on Wallace Street, Braidwood. Call (02) 4842 1144 or visit visitbraidwood.com.au

Where to stay

There are six campsites in Deua National Park. Fees of $5 per adult and $2.50 for pensioners/kids apply at all campsites except Bendethera. Call (02) 4476 0800 or see environment.nsw.gov.au for more information. Otherwise, Deua Tin Huts on Cooma Road charges $125 a night for rustic cabin accommodation. Call (02) 4847 1248 or see deuatinhuts.com.

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