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."

Legendary off-road racer Sue Mead went to Mexico and brought back this story about what it's like to ride in the Bronco R.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Professional racer Brad Lovell throttled the Bronco R out of the dirt parking lot at El Rancho Taqueria in Valle de la Trinidad, Baja California ahead of the SCORE Baja 1000. The synapses in my brain instantly lit a bank of grey-matter cylinders that were experiencing a rush of adrenaline. As the Bronco's turbo punched air through the Ford motor, an alluring and seductive exhaust note filled the soft desert air. It was the type of a serenade that's worshipped by those who are wired for racing.

This whistle stop village, situated in a broad valley with nearby access to some of the toughest off-road trails used in Baja racing, is home to approximately six dozen inhabitants. It is cherished by off-roaders and dirt racers for its Pemex fuel station and muy delicioso tacos.

Sue Mead Baja 1000 Bronco R 2019 Mead suits up before her ride in the Bronco R.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

A small corps of Ford Performance team members, along with a cadre of engineers from Geiser Brothers off-road racing had descended on the town with the mission of putting some on-and off-road miles on Ford's prototype truck.

Visible to the naked eye was a body designed to tease the looks of the upcoming street-legal Bronco, with cues that harkened to the original icon. It was punctuated by a color scheme and a "2069" badge that reflected Rod Hall's legendary 1969 Baja 1000 win in a Bronco; the number honored Hall and reflected the class the Bronco R would compete in the next day. The shell rode on top of a purpose-built, roll-caged race truck, with a stock motor, transmission, transfer case and front differential; the "race rear end" and other add-ons were not from the Ford stables.

Ford confirmed that the engine and transmission in the Bronco R are the same components that will be in the 2021 Ford Bronco.

Sue Mead Baja 1000 Bronco R 2019 Mead met up with the Bronco R race team in Valle de la Trinidad.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Earlier in the week, the "R" had been experiencing issues with its added-on race bits. Its first high-speed pre-run earlier in "Valle de T" had illuminated the need for more time and testing. All involved knew those were a limited commodity but, as the long, mud-splattered hood was removed, tools were placed at-the-ready and a team of experts filled every available orifice the Bronco R has to fix its teething troubles.

Electrical wiring was replaced in an effort to remediate issues with fuses and the cooling system of the race vehicle that was developed in skunkworks only five months before-- and had only been driven approximately the same number of miles in testing as the grueling race was long.

As the Bronco R roared back to life, I donned a race suit, helmet, HANS device, and gloves, and slipped sideways through the webbed window. Lovell, one of the world's top racers and fabricators with multiple Baja 1000 wins sat in the driver's seat while I took my spot up front.

Tapped to be on Ford's seven-person Dream Team of notable off-road racers for the '19 Baja 1000, Lovell started our ride along Baja California's Rt.3, in the northwestern quadrant of this Mexican state. "The ride is really smooth," I hollered into the mic, as cactus, yucca, and desert scrub blurred along the roadside. Lovell picked up the pace. "It is smooth and handles really well," he responded.

The other seat in the cabin is a single back seat that is bolted in. During races, that seat is generally reserved for engineers and this ride along was no exception. Its occupant was Brian Novak, Ford Performance off-road racing supervisor. The reserved-but-amiable mechanical engineer has an impressive CV as a track racer and heads up Ford's Le Mans, NASCAR, and Virgin Australia Supercars Racing programs.

Sue Mead Baja 1000 Bronco R 2019 Mead hops into the Bronco R for her 100-mile ride.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

During the ride, his job was to monitor telemetry and, like a parent of a child with a cough and running a high fever, Novak was watchful and concerned. It was less than 24 hours before the green flag would wave at the start of the 2019 Baja 1000 in Ensenada and thousands of eyeballs in Mexico and around the world would be on the Bronco R.

I settled in for the ride in my side-hugging Recarco race saddle. Crisp air blew in through the open windshield and buffeted the world around me. Having raced 30,000 off-road miles around the globe over the last few decades, I felt instantly at home, although mesmerized by the Star-Wars-like bank of controls, gauges, digital readouts, and graphics.

As we turned onto a dirt track to run the truck along a section of race course with undulating terrain, snaking turns, and mud troughs, I noted that Lovell's hands stayed steady and quiet on the wheel. "You're right," said Lovell. "The steering is tight and a bit heavy, which works well."

Sue Mead Baja 1000 Bronco R 2019 Mead rides right side in the Bronco R.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Lovell alternated between letting the intelligent transmission up-and down-shift on its own merit and using the paddles to motivate the truck, pointing out that both fulfilled their assigned function. Most impressive, to me was that the Bronco's Fox suspension seemed perfectly calibrated to allow the 'R' to float, when needed, and collect the reins for straight-line, steady and buttoned-up motoring, when required.

By the time we crested the mountain ridge that led into Ensenada, the lights of this seaside city, known as La Cenicienta del Pacifico (Cinderella of the Pacific), filled the night sky with a glistening yellow glow.

Nearly one hundred miles in, I was impressed with the Bronco R, but noted that the team spent the last 40 minutes of the drive frequently instructing me to push an override switch control, as an ominous red warning light illuminated the dark.

Sue Mead Baja 1000 Bronco R 2019 Mead's ride revealed the good and bad of the Bronco R's engineering and design.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

As we pulled it into the make-shift workshop behind the La Pinta hotel, where a team was waiting to apply fixes and address the overheating issues, I knew the next Bronco chapter is still in outline form, awaiting its instructions to become a true work of art.

This new race horse in the Ford stable had an extraordinarily qualified team of trainers, racers, and support staff. After that initial ride, I thought that the Bronco R had a good chance to complete the world's most arduous challenge over the dirt, sand, mud, mountains, dry lake beds, washes and boulders that make up the Baja 1000. I also thought: this is a colt that might need more time.

Baja 1000 Race Results

Following a 24-hour weather delay, 264 vehicles left the start line early Saturday morning with racers from 39 U.S. states and 22 countries.

After issues with a broken skid plate that wreaked havoc with some underbelly parts, a damaged front suspension, and overheating issues, the Ford pulled the plug at Race Mile 580, as the truck was on track to enter a remote and rigorous stage of the race, where it would have been nearly impossible to get support to the onboard crew.

From there, the Bronco R was able to be driven on paved roads to the finish line in Ensenada, where the team celebrated its efforts and Ford formally announced its sponsorship of SCORE racing for the next three years.

"The Ford production parts performed flawlessly; where we have an opportunity to improve is in the fabricated parts that allowed us to race in an event like the '1000 –to show the rugged capability of our trucks," said Novak. "We will be back."

When the course closed at 11:27:28 p.m. PT on Sunday, there were 145 official finishers for a 54.92 finishing percentage, especially good considering the difficulty of the race course.

Jeep has added an available diesel powertrain to its Wrangler lineup for the 2020 model year.

Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.

The Jeep Wrangler was all-new for the 2018 model year. It showed off a fresh look, updated interior, and improved capability and gave buyer's the choice of several gasoline engines. What it didn't offer was a diesel engine option. That changes for the 2020 model year.

The addition of a diesel engine is a big deal for those who do lots of towing and off-roading. While the Wrangler in its four-door guise can tow up to 3,500 pounds with any of its current engine options, there are several good reasons to go with a diesel if towing is a priority.

2020 Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel The new engine produces produces 260 horsepower.Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.

It all comes down to torque. The turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 EcoDiesel now offered in the Wrangler produces 260 horsepower with 442 pound-feet of torque at 1,400 rpm. That's significantly more torque than the 260 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm of the 3.6-liter V6 or 295 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm offered with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which are the two gas engines available for the Wrangler.

That extra low-end torque makes a big difference when there's 3,500 pounds of cargo trailing behind the Wrangler. It improves the Wrangler's ability to quickly accelerate up to highway speeds so merging into heavy traffic is less stressful. It also makes towing that load up a steep grade easier and helps the Wrangler maintain its speed.

2020 Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel Each Wrangler EcoDiesel model gets badging labeling it as such.Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.

Off-road, that same torque helps provide a smoother and more controlled driving experience. Instead of needing a heavy foot on the accelerator to edge the Wrangler across challenging terrain, the extra torque of the diesel engine does the job with minimal acceleration.

That extra torque required several modifications including a recalibrated 8-speed automatic transmission. There are also third-generation Dana 44 heavy-duty solid front and rear axles, which are only found on the Rubicon trim in models with gasoline engines.

Lastly, there are extra skid plates to protect the urea tank and fuel water separator. Aside from those changes, the Wrangler EcoDiesel is much the same as a Wrangler equipped with a gasoline engine.

2020 Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel The model retains its off road prowess.Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.

This includes impressive capability. There's up to 30 inches of water fording and a minimum of 9.7 inches of ground clearance with fuel tank and transfer case skid plates to protect the Wrangler when traversing uneven terrain.

Inside there's room for five passengers with a durable and comfortable interior. While the Wrangler is a fun way to tackle the morning commute or cart the kids to school, Jeep knows weekends might not be so tame.

2020 Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel The Wrangler is still as capable as ever, including being able to ford 30 inches of water.Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.

After all, this is an SUV with removable doors, a removable roof, and even a windshield that drops down flat against the hood. There's a good chance the interior of a Wrangler will spend some time covered in mud and water. That's perfectly fine. Jeep designed it to handle all that muck.

The Jeep Wrangler with the EcoDiesel engine adds an extra element of off-road capability and makes towing easier than ever. It's available for a $4,000 premium across the 4-door Wrangler range and set to arrive in dealerships later this year.