Long Form

Jeeps, Sand, Sky: Crossing 1,100 dunes and dodging wombats in the Australian Outback

The Jeeps set off across Australia to cross the Simpson Desert.

Photo by Chris Collard

In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of its coastal towns, Australia's Outback remains a mostly desolate and barren landscape. Tumbleweeds blow about and flies swarm. Temperatures soar during the day and plummet at night.

Fifty years ago, the Simpson Desert was first crossed by an expedition group led by Ian McDonald in two Jeep Overlanders and a Jeep J300. The adventure was half journey, half marketing scheme, designed to promote the abilities of the Brisbane-built Jeep Overlander.

1969 East West Expedition Jeep When the team set off in 1969, the Simpson Desert was more barren than it is today, though just barely.Image courtesy of Seven Slot Expeditions

Fast forward to July 2019. After a year of planning by Australian Vaughn Becker, a Jeep history buff, a group that included Becker, Michael Bowen, Chris Collard, Ben Davidson, Paul Graham, Justin He, Alan McMullen, Karen McMullen, Rick Péwé, Sue Mead, and Derek Redmond set off to recreate the 6,000-km trek, dubbed the 2019 BFGoodrich East-West Australia Jeep Expedition.

Another essential member of the cast was an Australian affectionately known as "Emu". Emu, whom Mead says is well-known in the Australian Outback, was the team's fueler. He traveled with the team from the eastern coast of Australia to the edge of the Simpson Desert, then met the team in the middle of the desert and again at the western edge of the desert for refueling.

Warakurna Road House sign 30km The roadhouse is a classic Australian fixture and the only place to source petrol in the Outback.Photo by Chris Collard

Two members of the original journey, McDonald and photographer John Eggleston, joined the team for stages of the trip.

The route would take the crew through cities and aboriginal lands, small towns and desert outposts. The plotted points started at Byron Bay, the easternmost point in Australia. The plan was to trace the original adventure's route through Birdsville and Alice Springs, near Uluru and Kata Tjuta. The group would then travel on through the Simpson Desert, which has the most north-south facing sand dunes in the world, to Steep Point, the westernmost point of Australia.

The team traveled in five modern-day Jeep vehicles, referred to by nicknames: El Jefe (a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sahara Overland), PoPo the Mule (a 2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited), Oz JK (a 2013 Jeep Wrangler Sahara Overland), Big Red TJ (a 1997 Jeep Wrangler), and Outback JK8 (a 2009 Jeep Wrangler JK-8).

Alice Springs sign Australia Outback When the BFGoodrich East-West Australia Jeep Expedition reached Old Andado Station, they turned north toward Alice Springs.Photo by Chris Collard

Each Jeep was unique but included some assortment of the following: BFGoodrich KM3 mud-terrain tires, Warn Zeon winch and bumper, a TeraFlex suspension, axle lockers, MaxTrax, and Factor55 and Bestop products.

Jeep Outback Australia East West Expedition Simpson Desert 2019 The Jeeps on the expedition were kitted out with a variety of off-roading products including BFGoodrich KM3 mud-terrain tires, Warn Zeon winch and bumper, a TeraFlex suspension, axle lockers, and MaxTrax.Photo by Chris Collard

With decades of off-road racing and adventuring under her belt, Mead, 68, had felt that it was time to begin phasing down her career to make time for volunteering. Mead had not sought to go on another expedition, yet the honor of being asked and the fact that this trip would use so many of her skills convinced Mead to take the plunge.

"I feel like I've been so blessed and there are so many people that have so little," said Mead. "One of my goals is helping out after natural disasters using my four-wheel drive skills. I would like to help out more as my career comes to a close. When I was one of three journalists from the U.S. that was asked, I was so honored and I felt like: 'Woah! I still have a lot of stamina to do something tough. I really was so thrilled to be asked to go on this expedition."

Jeep Outback Australia East West Expedition Simpson Desert 2019 During the journey, the team camped most nights and had to carry their own food and find firewood.Photo by Chris Collard

The 20-day journey tested the team's mettle. They camped most nights and had to carry their own food and find firewood. Mead is quick to point out that this was an expedition, not a race. Rather than competing, the participants were working together, "against the clock of danger [and the potential of] running out of water, running out of fuel." The Jeeps' technology, which had come a long way since the original expedition, played a crucial role in the team's success.

We Conquered the Simpson article Ian McDonald told the story of the Simpson Desert crossing in this 1969 magazine article.Image courtesy of Seven Slot Expeditions

"Our GPS units enabled us to meet up with our refueler in the middle of the desert. It wasn't perfect, but we had hundreds of miles around us with nothing. We were able to find him and pinpoint his location and then radio to him, 'We're here, coming over the ridge we think.'"

This precision was not only a feat, but a necessity. Running out of fuel would be deadly.

Jeep Outback Australia East West Expedition Simpson Desert 2019 The Simpson Desert is a desolate space.Photo by Chris Collard

The Simpson Desert is vast and treacherous. The east-west route the team took is tougher than the west-east route due to wind patterns.

"You not only have the tallest dunes in the world, we had 1,100 of them – 1,100 – to cross," Mead recounts. "It's rough terrain; very few dunes had any kind of smooth path. Most of them had a lot of a ground plant called spinifex. It's really gnarly and not fun or easy to cross over. The dunes in that area are really difficult. People wouldn't take the route we did if they weren't explorers or didn't want an expedition."

Australia is notorious for its wildlife and the group encountered many of its native species along the way. The team had to be wary of deadly spiders and twenty-one venomous (ten of those lethal) snakes. The winter timing of their trip meant that temperatures dropped sharply at night, yet it did provide some benefits.

Tjukarusu Road sign Jeep East West Expedition The 1,000-kilometer long dirt road to the Tjukaruru Roadhouse, the most remote roadhouse in Australia, is home to thousands of feral camels, which roam freely across the majority of Western Australia.Photo by Chris Collard

"One of the Australian guys slept under the stars every night," Mead shared. "He kept trying to get me to sleep under the stars. At first, I was really paranoid about leaving the tent in the dark with a headlamp, thinking that I was going to run into snakes or spiders. Australia is pretty raw."

The going wasn't easy – the team faced hazards such as animal crossings and poor roads. The team wasn't alone on the road, which was strewn with reminders of these threats. "There are a lot of kangaroos and wombats that run across the road kind, of like deer in the United States, and people sometimes drive too fast on these dirt roads," Mead continued. "Vehicles laid rolled over, most abandoned."

Jeep Outback Australia East West Expedition Simpson Desert 2019 Australia installed a telegraph line across the continent in the 1860s. The BFGoodrich East-West Australia team utilized one near Eucla for a basecamp one night during their return to Melbourne. Photo by Chris Collard

While deep in the Outback, the group came upon one set of travelers whose Skoda vehicle had rolled over and injured one of its occupants. The team called the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, who flew in and landed on one of the dirt highways before taking the injured man to get the medical care he needed.

It as a reminder to be careful. Thankfully, the team stayed safe and healthy overall, save for one brief scare.

"We did have a team member collapse when we were remote," Mead recollected. "It was dusk and we wouldn't have been able to get a helicopter in to pick him up. He was dehydrated. There were two of us who immediately responded to him and were able to revive him pretty quickly. It was confidence-inspiring for me to know the right things to do."

Jeep Outback Australia East West Expedition Simpson Desert 2019 After 15 days and nearly 6,000 kilometers, the BFGoodrich East-West Jeep Expedition team celebrated reaching Steep Point, the westernmost point on the continent.Photo by Chris Collard

In late July, 15 days after they had embarked, the team arrived in Steep Point, ready to take a hot shower and sleep in a proper bed.

Though she has just returned from Australia, Mead already wants to go back. She took great joy in both the place and the people and adored seeing the beautiful, diverse landscape change as they crossed the continent. Mead especially enjoyed hearing the stories from McDonald and Eggleston about their trip experience 50 years ago.

Although this trek across Australia was certainly an epic journey, Mead notes, "It's not all about the big adventures, sometimes it's just about the small places of the heart that can reshape and change our lives, and for me… vehicles have done that, cars have done that."

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The Grand Cherokee L features a third-row seat for the first time.

Jeep

The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of the longest running and most off-road capable SUVs on the market today. But for buyers needing to haul more than a few people, the Grand Cherokee wasn't the roomiest choice. To remedy that problem, Jeep created the Grand Cherokee L, a three-row version of the popular SUV that will go on sale in 2021. Today, Jeep announced pricing for the new stretched Grand Cherokee.


2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Pricing starts under $40,000.Jeep


The Grand Cherokee L is the first three-row SUV to wear the nameplate, and will land in 2021 with a starting price tag that comes in under $40,000. The SUV will include four trims: Laredo, Limited, Overland, and Summit. The base Laredo trim will start at $36,995, the mid-range Limited trim at $43,995, and the range-topping Overland trim at $52,995.

The base powertrain for Grand Cherokee L models involves a 3.6-liter V6 that makes 290 horsepower and 257 pound-feet of torque. It's paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive is available. As in previous models, the Grand Cherokee L will be available with a V8. Here, it produces 357 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque.


2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Higher trim levels can be quite plush.Jeep


Even the base Laredo trim gets a fairly generous list of standard features that include adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, LED exterior lighting, an 8.4-inch-inch infotainment display, a 10.25-inch frameless digital gauge cluster, and Uconnect 5. Top trims get upscale features like ventilated seats, navigation, a dual-pane sunroof, an electronic limited slip differential, and more.

The new Uconnect 5 infotainment system enables advanced capabilities, such as wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Grand Cherokee L will also be offered with a head-up display system, a digital rearview mirror, and a 950-watt McIntosh audio system.


2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L The Grand Cherokee L should bring better cargo space with seats folded down.Jeep


The three-row Grand Cherokee L beats its two-row counterpart to market. While the L is expected soon, Jeep says the standard Grand Cherokee and an electrified 4xe version are scheduled to debut later in 2021.

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Twelth-grader Vincent Piaskowski took top honors in the Stellantis competition.

Photo courtesy of Stellantis
Stellantis, formerly known in the U.S. as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, has just wrapped its annual Drive for Design contest and has crowned three impressive winners. The contest gives high school students an opportunity to win prizes, meet influential member of Stellantis' vehicle design teams, and spend time at the College for Creative Studies.
  • First Place: Vincent Piaskowski, 12th grade from Michigan
  • Second Place: Rocco Morales, 10th grade from Michigan
  • Third Place: Alex Wang, 12th grade from California

Second place winner Tenth-grader Rocco Morales won second place.Photo courtesy of Stellantis

The winners submissions were impressive, but the prizes they won are pretty cool, too. First place took home a Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16, a Virtual Day of Design that includes a one-on-one portfolio review with Stellantis design leaders Ralph Gilles and Mark Trostle, and a scholarship for a four-week virtual summer program at the College for Creative Studies. Earning a second- or third-place price wasn't so bad, either. Those two got an Apple iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, a visit with Head of Ram Truck and Mopar Design, Mark Trostle, and the same four-week scholarship.

Before they could claim a prize, artists' submissions were scrutinized in four key areas, each evenly weighted in judging. Craftsmanship, design quality, illustration, and originality were all scored to find the winner. Looking at the top three entries, it's clear that the choice before the judges was a tough one.

Third place winner Twelth-grader Alex Wang took home third place.Photo courtesy of Stellantis

The winning submission was a concept called the Jeep Grand Teton. It's accompanied in the sketches by its own reconnaissance drone, and doesn't look all that far-fetched, as far as concept vehicles go. The second-place submission is called the Jeep Crazy Horse. It's quite a bit more "out there," and features a sliding battery unit to improve vehicle balance off road. Third place, while futuristic, looks to be a throwback to the vintage Jeep Forward Control pickups of decades past. Named the Adversary, the concept features solar cells, tent storage, and a unique cabover design.

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