Mud Brothers

The Blue Mountains were once thought impenetrable. But with Isuzu's siblings, the MU‑X and D‑MAX, the Newnes Plateau is a 4WD playground

The seven-seat SUV is perched four-fifths of the way up a steep, boulder- and mud-strewn, rocky slope. It looks like a Matchbox car miraculously marooned atop a South American mudslide, mostly right way up but liable to slip 'n' slide its way into the abyss at any moment.

Which is to say it's in exactly the sort of hilariously off-camber spot where proper off-road 4WDs are meant to be.

James' driver's-side front wheel is thrust rakishly skywards, with the opposite rear tread sunk indecisively into a rut, pressed firm against the wheel well. In fact, James is well placed, but he clearly doesn't feel like it from inside the cabin. He has lifted his not-inconsequential girth tight against the steering column and is peering forward at the bonnet, willing it to become transparent.

"I've never done this before," James says. He looks like he might sob, or just shut down. He looks like he's wishing he wore an earthier shade of trousers. It's a bright, cool day after a week of rain, and he's tilted backwards at about 35 degrees.

It's bisected by the Newnes Plateau Discovery Trail, an easy 44km-each-way track suitable for novice off-roaders, but with multiple mapped and unmapped side trails of various degrees of difficulty.

"You'll be sweet," says the photographer, waving instructions. "Right hand down, and give it a bit - you'll need to bounce it over, so don't back off. Once you're up and over, keep going. Are you ready?"

"Okay," says James. "I'm ready."

James doesn't look ready; he looks like a skydiver who's leapt out the door and realised he's wearing a backpack. But he does as he's told, and the 130kW/380Nm common-rail turbo-diesel four-cylinder scrabbles for a second, then lurches upwards, 230mm of clearance boosting it over a particularly jagged anvil of sandstone. Thirty seconds later, he peels himself from the cabin, prouder than Tenzing Norgay.

"I've never understood genuine 4WD off-roading before," says James, puffing out his chest, "but that was so much fun. THAT WAS AWESOME!"

"I thought you were gunna cry," says the snapper."

"I was," says James.

The Newnes Plateau is like that. Perched above Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, it's on the far western side of the Sydney basin, about 150km from the NSW capital. It's bisected by the Newnes Plateau Discovery Trail, an easy 44km-each-way track suitable for novice off-roaders, but with multiple mapped and unmapped side trails of various degrees of difficulty.

A brilliant daytrip from Sydney, with entry points from the State Mine Gully Road, abutting Lithgow, or the Old Bells Line of Road at the recently burnt-out Zig Zag Railway, Newnes is popular among 4WD clubs. Not least because it's an easy opt-in, opt-out area. It's where the bolder drivers can get their teeth into slow, mathematical ascents or churn through deep, muddy wallows, while the less gung-ho can back out for another day.

We've come armed with a pair of Isuzus, each with the same hearty 4JJ1-TC 3.0-litre engine: a silver 2014 4x4 LS-T Crew Ute D‑MAX and the aforementioned pearl-white 4x4 LS-T MU‑X SUV.

D-MAX LS-Terrain Special Edition

About the D-MAX LS-Terrain Special Edition

The LS-Terrain Special Edition has a host a great features on top of the 4x4 LS-U Crew Cab Ute. Including leather seats, reverse camera, passive entry & start system plus lots more, it's well worth checking out.

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The State Mine Gully Road is an easy trail, tackle-able in any 2WD road sedan that, corrugations aside, is willing to take the occasional lump. The D‑MAX is imperious on its tough-nut leaf springs, the MU‑X gentler on its clever five-link suspension. 'Doable' in a sedan, that is— unless you hope to explore its tributaries.

Our day goal is not so much to reach Newnes, 44km away, with its spooky-cool Glow Worm Tunnel, but to follow our noses down as many of these super-fun side roads as take our fancy.

"I've never understood genuine 4WD off-roading before," says James, puffing out his chest, "but that was so much fun. THAT WAS AWESOME!"

Which is how we end up plugged up to our axles in rich, red mud.

March 2014 in Sydney was the rainiest of any March since 2001. The effect on the Newnes Plateau is pure dirty fun. After a sopping fortnight of April, it's sloppier than a two-pot screamer at Octoberfest.

Have you ever prepared to pull out from a parallel park, only to lurch momentarily backwards because you're still in reverse gear? You don't make this mistake with a 21-storey vertical drop at your rear.

Deeply rutted, root-hiding puddles are the norm. The MU‑X's undersides are protected not by plastic but by real steel skid plates and sump and transferguards, and we're grateful for the protection. Despite semi-regular banging, even the running boards remain barely scuffed; a proper sandstone whack to the sump guard produces the barest of scrapes.

The D‑MAX is unflustered up a long, deeply gouged trench, churned-up bottom a hellish lasagne of arm-width logs and microwave-sized rocks. The length of the dual-cab seems like it will be a worry, with its extra 250mm of ladder chassis and its tow ball extending the rear overhang. On extreme upward angles the ball twice plugs into the mud but shrugs it off to emerge without complaint. The shorter MU‑X, meanwhile, surprises another off-roader who's stopped to have a chat.

"I'm impressed," says the stranger, beard twitching lightly as the mudcaked seven-seater hauls its 2075kg from the quagmire. He says he'd snapped his snatch strap helping someone at this track before, and had stopped, anticipating pulling out his spare. (James winces; admittedly, a snapped snatch strap does sound painful.)

"That's proper," he says, nodding at the bog. "I wasn't sure you'd make it."

There are 18 discovery trails in the Greater Blue Mountains Area, but few match Newnes in its mix of topographic and cultural attractions. Newnes itself is an abandoned Wollemi National Park oil shale mining site that shut shop in 1932. Camping is available (first in, best dressed), with cabins in the converted ancient pub. Nearby is the Lost City, a Bungle Bungle-like collection of colossal stone beehives. The tree-lined Blackfellows Hand Trail is named for remarkably preserved ancient rock art.

While the D‑MAX is reasonably shod in 17" x 7" alloy 255/65 R17 Highway Terrain tyres, the MU‑X is under-specced for any serious back trail mudlarking in a set of highway all-season all-rounders. Bridgestone Dueler H/T 840s do what it says on the tin; they're grand for most situations, including tarmac driving, but heavy-duty slop and slopes ought to be a challenge. Except, undaunted, the MU‑X has been plunging into hollows and then clambering out of the depths like a playful kraken. The D‑MAX's reputation for being at home on the range precedes it, but, despite its concessions, the MU‑X is just as capable when things get rough.

Choose the right unmarked side trail off the Blackfellows Hand Trail and you'll end up as we did, overlooking the Wolgan Valley. It's perhaps the most intimate and beautiful valley in the Blue Mountains … with a vertical 70m drop at your rear wheels. As dusk arrives, the setting sun paints the opposite cliffs a rich Uluru-red.

James' first-timer's fear when he was wedged halfway up a steep, rocky slope was one thing. The biblical stress of a yawning, cliff-rimmed abyss in your reversing camera is another thing entirely. Have you ever prepared to pull out from a parallel park into a gap in traffic, only to lurch momentarily backwards because you're still in reverse gear? You don't make this mistake with a 21-storey vertical drop at your rear axle.

You might check—17 times!—to make sure you're not in reverse gear before you accelerate away from the Newnes Plateau. But when a family-friendly 4WD paradise is as easy to find as this, one thing's for sure: You won't hesitate to go back.

Fact File

The Blue Mountains

Starting 50km west of the CBD, the Blue Mountains encompasses 11,400km2. The area was first inhabited by the Gundungurra and Darug people. Early convicts believed China lay on the other side, but Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson's pioneering crossing definitively proved them wrong in 1813.

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