One by one, a quartet of Infiniti SUVs crested the rocky dune and roared across Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.
The convoy headed straight to the base of the Flaming Cliffs, a remote, sun-flecked mountain range rising majestically from the surrounding grasslands. If there were ever a place to picture dinosaurs roaming the earth 70 million years ago, this was it.
Fossil hunting the old-fashioned way
Paleontologists have unearthed dinosaur fossils from the red sands of the Flaming Cliffs for more than a century, but the rate of discovery accelerated in the 1920s when American adventurer Roy Chapman Andrews led the first expedition into the region by car. His fleet of open-topped Dodges delivered roughly 29 horsepower and was prone to getting stuck in the mud for days. Not an auspicious combination for off-roading.
However, the expedition proved fruitful. At the Flaming Cliffs, Andrews and his team stumbled upon a nest of well-preserved dinosaur eggs, becoming the first scientists to definitively classify dinosaurs as reptiles.
At first blush, paleontology has little to do with trucks. But consider that early explorers crossed the desert by camel, taking weeks or months to accomplish what a luxury SUV can do in hours.
Andrews, a flamboyant, fedora-wearing explorer who later served as a director of the American Museum of Natural History and said to be the inspiration behind the character of Indiana Jones, was limited by his tools. Though he and his team traveled by car, a camel caravan carried their supplies. He used their fur to pack and store the fossils he found. He had no drones, satellites or mapping software. All-wheel drive wouldn’t come along for decades.
This summer, Infiniti teamed with The Explorers Club of Hong Kong and the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology to discover uncharted territory with its full-size Infiniti QX80 luxury SUV.
Infiniti re-created the historic journey with cutting-edge technology, including the first combined use of satellite, drone and thermal mapping in a paleontological expedition.
A harrowing trek to the Flaming Cliffs
A century after Andrews uncovered that nest of embryonic dinosaurs, we set out with the team to revisit his route, this time with 400-horsepower, 5.0-liter V8 engines.
Even for modern travelers, getting to the Flaming Cliffs is not easy. The trip entailed a 14-hour flight from New York to Seoul, a three-hour flight to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar and a 90-minute flight south to the far-flung Dalanzadgad airport.
From there, we drove about an hour across the central Mongolian landscape, where the most modern roads resemble tire tracks cut into the steppe. There is no asphalt for as far as the eye can see.
Driving along the flat, muddy plains at 50 mph, we passed wild horses, cows, Bactrian camels and a trio of egrets whose wings seemed to span half the empty plain. Without houses, trees or any other geographic markers, a tableau of brown mud, green grass and blue sky stretched for hundreds of miles around us. It was difficult to tell if the herds grazed within our path or in another ZIP code.
We clung to the roll bar for the bumpy ride, but the SUVs tackled the tough terrain, as the landscape changed from mud to sand to flooded grasslands, with more power than any horse or camel.
A rare Mongolian storm puts the Infiniti QX80 to the test
Eventually, we reached a constellation of white yurts. The Three Camel Lodge, an eco-resort for archaeologists, adventurers and luxury travelers, would be our home for the next three days. Called “gers,” these tents used latticed wood structures covered with layers of felt and canvas to trap heat and withstand the steppe’s harsh weather, the traditional style of nomadic herders.
We were warned that the storm’s aftermath posed a “deadly serious” problem for our journey. It had flooded the route, disguising terrain steep enough to swallow an entire QX80 to appear flat from a distance.
We would be navigating an expanse measuring thousands of square miles without geographical markers or posted signs. The QX80’s navigation system could chart the path using the SUV’s latitude and longitude coordinates. More intrepid explorers triangulate the car’s system with local maps, but we stuck close to our guides, who knew the routes.
“A wrong turn could be costly,” said Trevor Hale, Infiniti’s global manager of communications. He cautioned us to beware of sudden bluffs and added that “getting lost or stuck wouldn’t be unexpected.”
We already had witnessed this within 15 minutes of leaving the Dalanzadgad airport. A driver of a submerged Isuzu, mired in mud up to its axles, said he had been stuck for five hours. Within minutes, we hitched a towline from the muscular QX80 to his bumper and easily pulled him to dry land, mud splattering hundreds of feet in every direction.
Infiniti joins the Explorers Club
For Infiniti, partnering with The Explorers Club, the international society dedicated to exploring and advancing field research, was a natural fit.
The prestigious group pioneered the first expeditions to the North Pole, South Pole, top of Mount Everest and the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean. Neil Armstrong carried The Explorers Club flag in his pocket when he walked on the moon.
Infiniti President Roland Kruger, the first German to go to the South Pole alone, is a member. The club parallels the ideals that Infiniti, long the trailing Japanese luxury brand, wants to embody: Empowerment, wanderlust and pluck.
“We’re a challenger brand with an exploratory ethos,” Hale said. “We always want to push forward.”
Infiniti doesn’t sell any vehicles in Mongolia, but some brand visibility in this country of 3 million people is advantageous. Only about 2,000 new and 40,000 used vehicles are sold in the country each year, but manufacturers have noticed a developing appetite for luxury SUVs.
Though horses outnumber people 13 to one, nomads prefer wheels to get around. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche recently opened dealerships, and BMW plans to open one in Ulaanbaatar next year. Priuses reign supreme in the capital city, while the sparse Gobi region belongs to Isuzu and Toyota. No single luxury automaker has cracked the market, but open season is near.
Luxury SUVs were born to hunt fossils
“Rock,” said Chinzo Tsogtbaatar, an expert at the Mongolian Institute of Paleontology and Geology and our expedition guide. He squatted in the sand, turning over the nickel-sized white fragment in his hands. “Bone-shaped rock.”
An hour earlier, we zipped across the Gobi from the Three Camel Lodge in a plush QX80 with a suspension smoother than Andrews might have dared imagine. Now we were scouring the sand covering the Flaming Cliffs searching for fossils.
When it comes to unearthing dinosaur bones, the Gobi assumes a serendipitous quality. The landscape teems with potential treasures that peek from the dirt like marshmallows in rocky road ice cream.
However, it’s not as obvious as it may appear. Even the eagle-eyed can mistake a pebble for a dinosaur toe or piece of vertebrae.
The fastest way to tell the difference is to put your tongue to it, and if it sticks, it’s a fossil, Tsogtbaatar said.
Poachers and scientists have long picked over the site where we gather around Tsogtbaatar, as he examines our finds with his paleontologist’s toolkit. Discoveries are still possible, however. Prior to our arrival, The Explorers Club pinpointed potential sites using data collected from drones and satellites to begin prospecting. Tearing across the desert in Infiniti’s SUVs, they located hundreds of bones at five new sites, including three potentially new dinosaur species.
Cataloging the bones is a slow process, and exploring new sites could take decades. But thanks to modern vehicles like Infiniti’s QX80 — and its creature comforts like A/C, leather seats and satellite radio — the mysteries of the desert’s dinosaurs are far more reachable than ever before.
Editor’s note: all photos courtesy of Wouter Kingma/Infiniti.