We joined a paleontology expedition to the Mongolian Gobi Desert armed with a bunch of Infinitis. The mission? 70 million year-old dinosaurs! But first, we need to land this Fokker…
I’m sure that was rain on the window as our little Fokker 50 banged down in Dalanzadgad, a tiny airstrip with a one-room airport in the Gobi desert, 580km from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.
After weeks of warnings about heat, sunstrokes and plenty of sunscreen, the drivers for our 60-minute airport shuttle to the lodge advised that it may take longer due to localised flooding. And also because there were no roads between the airstrip and… anywhere.
So with a pair of V8-engined Infiniti QX80s, we headed across the drenched plains for what was to be an adventure in itself, taking over two hours to cover 54km with a few rescues along the way.
In case it hadn’t dawned on me already, this was not to be a normal cookie-cutter PR event. Unlike every drive program I’ve done with the focus on the car and clocking up miles on a loop from a hotel via lunch to an airport, this journey in a fleet of Infiniti’s newest SUVs was a means to an end. We were hunting 70 million year-old dinosaurs!
Through the enthusiasm of Infiniti’s global boss Roland Krueger and Corporate Affairs chief Trevor Hale who are both avid explorers and members of the Hong Kong Chapter of the New York Explorer’s Club, we were offered the extraordinary opportunity to join an expedition looking for dinosaur fossils and eggs as part of Infiniti’s association as the official vehicle supplier.
But first we had to just get to the Three Camels Lodge, crossing a dozen swollen rivers and rescuing a loaded five-tonne truck for good measure. With snatch straps, we pulled the truck free from numerous bogs and towed it behind the QX80, sometimes as a train with a second QX80 towing us, for more than 50km to the stricken man’s farm.
Eventually we were forced to abandon our heroic QX80 mid-stream and perform a ‘ship-to-ship’ transfer after it found itself up to its axles in mud, stuck in a fast-flowing river.
With little time and some reassurance from the locals, I had to leave my luggage and work gear behind – computers, cameras, the lot – to jump barefoot into an adjacent QX80 that just missed the sinkhole.
My life in two bags was left to the mercies of the local Mongolians who retrieved the car when the rains eased that night.
At base, the QX80s were joined by the V6 QX60 and the all-new, two-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder QX50 which shares its platform with the Mercedes-Benz GLA.
Our mission the next morning, which thankfully was dry, was to join the expedition team led by Chinzorig “Chinzo” Tsogtbaatar, a PhD fellow at the Institute of Paleontology and Geology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.
The ambitious plan was to recreate a journey made almost a century ago by American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews – widely believed to be the person George Lucas based Indiana Jones on – who discovered the first dinosaur eggs in the area in 1922 with the aim of finding our own.
The rain was a bonus as it had washed away a heavy layer of top soil, and over the next two days uncovered literally dozens of random dinosaur bones, egg fragments, ribs, teeth, spine, skull, toes and more from what were mostly the Protoceratops dinosaur, a herbivore that lived 70 to 85 million years ago.
We set about marking any finds and if significant, as a few were, to alert our guides who geo-marked their position so they could return later to make plaster casts for display at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in Ulaanbaatar.
Without satellite navigation, we were at the mercy of Chinzo and his crew who were much like the Aborigines or Arab Bedouins. As Indigenous people, they read the terrain in ways that left us astounded as we followed in their footsteps and wheel tracks.
The Explorer’s Club was formed in New York in 1905 and aside from helping Andrews, the Club was the first to reach both the North and South Poles in 1909 and 1911 and supported Charles Lindbergh to make the first flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
In 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary took their flag to the summit of Everest while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore the Explorers Club flag on their suits when they landed on the moon in 1969.
We were now carrying the same Explorers Club flag, Number 2, that Andrews took with him across the Gobi in the 1920s.
Funded by John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, Chapman crossed the Gobi five times using the latest technology available at the time, the motor car, and it was at an area he named the Flaming Cliffs where his team literally stumbled over the first nest of dinosaur eggs.
Andrews’ convoy was lost, so while he asked local farmers for directions, one of his crew strolled away from his car and tripped over the eggs.
In keeping with the modern technology theme, this expedition comprising paleontologists, geologists and archaeologists borrowed help from NASA and their latest thermal imaging drone cameras to uncover 200 new data points and potentially three new species.
Parking the QX50 on the edge of some particularly soft sand and under the guidance of Chinzo, we carefully walked around what we were told was quick sand, not able to walk on let alone drive on and was indiscernible to the untrained eye.
It had the consistency of a gooey, sand covered water balloon that should you put a foot into, would remove your boot. It’s these conditions that trapped dinosaurs as they drank from the stream and also where we found a pair of juvenile Velociraptor twins discovered by Infiniti’s Trevor Hale, which were tagged and covered over for further examination.
Moments later, a near full rib, more than 70 million years old, from a Protoceratops was found partially exposed and after uncovering it further, the team will return to give it the plaster cast treatment for the museum.
Among other new finds was also the biggest tooth discovered in the Mongolian desert. At 14cm, it’s believed to belong to a Tarbosaurus, a cousin of the fearsome North American Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Most likely it was attached to the top half of a Tarbosaurus’ skull we found protruding out of a sandy cliff further on as this species was considered rare in this part of the Gobi.
Our final trek to dinner at the foot of the Flaming Cliffs, so named after the bright red colour they give off at sunset, sprung a few last surprises.
This location, 96 years after Andrews found those first eggs, wasn’t done with us yet, as our walk uncovered new fragments of eggs found under our feet by Chinzo as we stepped gingerly down the cliff face.
Under the stars with some additional lighting provided by the fleet of SUVs nearby, we farewelled a memorable and successful expedition with good Mongolian food while being entertained by young traditional musicians from the local school.
The work that Infiniti is doing through the Explorers Club is far from over but it was a fascinating insight to see how the car industry uses its resources for such worthy ventures.