DI­NOSAUR HUNT­ING

Deep in the bad­lands of the Gobi Desert, pa­le­on­tol­o­gists have un­earthed a rich seam of di­nosaur fos­sils, many new to science. Corby joins the dig in an In­finiti QX50 un­der the power of an en­gine push­ing the tech­no­log­i­cal fron­tier

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS STEPHEN CORBY

Life will find a way; Corby and his In­finiti at­tempt to do the same in the Gobi Desert

IF YOU wanted to design my per­sonal Driv­ing Hell it would look a lot like Mon­go­lia. Not only is ev­ery sec­ond car you see on the road a Toy­ota Prius, ev­ery third one is too, and, while the coun­try drives on the right (aka wrong) side of the road, some­thing like half of its grey im­ports are right-hand drive.

Not be­ing able to see around the car they’re about to ma­ni­a­cally over­take doesn’t bother mad Mon­go­lian mo­torists, how­ever, be­cause they all drive with their eyes closed. Oh, and the na­tional speed limit is 80km/h, and even the main free­way has only two lanes, which the truck drivers use for play­ing chicken.

The trick to en­joy­ing this mys­te­ri­ous, mag­i­cal and men­tal place, then, is to get out of the cap­i­tal, Ulan Ba­tor (where we saw al­most as many ac­ci­dents as nearmisses) and off the roads al­to­gether.

For­tu­nately, Mon­go­lia has plenty to of­fer out­side of its cap­i­tal, where more than half of its 3 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion live. A sig­nif­i­cant one third of the coun­try is taken up by the Gobi Desert, where more than 1m of its peo­ple still live a no­madic life­style that Genghis Khan would recog­nise, farm­ing 30 mil­lion herded goats, sheep, camels and hardy horses.

Mostly what’s out there, though, is space – sear­ing sandy hori­zons, seas of grass and video-game-blue rolling hills that look like they’ve leapt off an old Win­dows screen­saver. And then there are the di­nosaurs, which are the real rea­son we’re here.

In­finiti, which re­cently un­veiled some­thing truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­side its QX50 mid-size SUV–a vari­able com­pres­sion turbo en­gine–has de­vel­oped a passion for hunt­ing di­nosaurs.

In June this year, the com­pany joined with an ex­cit­ing group of peo­ple called The Ex­plor­ers Club to re­trace the steps of a Mon­go­lian ex­pe­di­tion by a highly ad­ven­tur­ous sci­en­tist called Roy Chap­man An­drews (a man ru­moured to be the in­spi­ra­tion for In­di­ana Jones), who dis­cov­ered the first fos­silised di­nosaur eggs and was the first to find the bones of ve­loci­rap­tors (pa­le­on­tol­o­gists now re­fer to them as ‘Hol­ly­wood di­nosaurs’ chiefly be­cause the real ones were feath­ered and the size of tur­keys).

And be­cause car com­pa­nies don’t do things by halves, In­finiti also brought along ex­perts in satel­lite and drone imag­ing who had pre­vi­ously worked with NASA on Mars ex­plo­ration. By com­bin­ing mul­ti­spec­tral and ther­mal-imag­ing cam­eras, the team was able to help the sci­en­tists from Mon­go­lia’s In­sti­tute of Pa­le­on­tol­ogy and Ge­ol­ogy to rev­o­lu­tionise the way fos­sils are hunted for.

The re­sult was an en­tirely new kind of three­d­i­men­sional map of vast swathes of the Gobi, which flagged un­ex­plored sites suit­able for fos­sil de­posits.

The re­sults were spec­tac­u­lar. In just 15 days, the ex­pe­di­tion found the largest Tar­bosaurus tooth ever col­lected (the Mon­go­lian cousin of T-rex and thus large and scary), 250 new fos­sil lo­ca­tions, po­ten­tially three en­tirely new species of di­nosaur, a fully in­tact 70-mil­lion-year-old tur­tle and hun­dreds of bones from a meat-eat­ing an­ces­tor of the ve­loci­rap­tor.

Un­be­liev­ably, and rather ex­cit­ingly, even if you’re not a nerd, we’ve been in­vited to join a pre­lim­i­nary dig at some of the sites the map had iden­ti­fied, but which had not yet been searched.

But first we had to get there, and as we soon dis­cov­ered, go­ing any­where in Mon­go­lia with­out end­ing up crazy enough to eat your own shoelaces is a chal­lenge. The na­tional air­line, MIAT, which I think trans­lates as ‘Walk­ing is quicker’ is an­other thing old Genghis would be fa­mil­iar with, be­cause very few planes ever took off in his day ei­ther.

Our first can­celled flight led us to a hired plane flown by a pi­lot who’d done his train­ing on bumper cars. Af­ter a land­ing that would win Fun­ni­est Home Videos we were de­lighted to climb into the new In­finiti QX50 for the drive to the fab­u­lous Three Camel Lodge. Here we stayed in tra­di­tional Mon­go­lian ‘gers’, which are like yurts but warmer (this far-off coun­try has the most ex­treme weather vari­a­tions on Earth, from -40°C in win­ter to 40°C in sum­mer).

In­side, they are a crafty con­struc­tion of tim­ber lat­tices and goat-felt-packed walls, all of which can be packed up

and car­ried away in un­der half an hour.

The in­te­rior of the QX50, with its qual­ity Bose speak­ers, tim­ber-like fin­ishes and gen­er­ally classy feel, is a lot more modern than Mon­go­lia, and is a big step for­ward for In­finiti. The per­cep­tion of be­ing in a blingedup Nis­san used to be hard to es­cape, but this is much bet­ter, and per­haps even more pre­mium than a Lexus.

The look of the car from out­side is also a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment from some of In­finiti’s ear­lier Bull­win­kle the Moose de­signs, al­though it’s still an out­lier of per­sonal taste around the snout.

Much was made of the fact that the cabin also fea­tures Bose noise-can­celling tech­nol­ogy, but we were al­ways go­ing to be hard-pressed to no­tice it on the mix of rugged ter­rain and ‘hey, where did the road go’ tracks we’d spend our first day get­ting lost on.

My co-driver, Toby Hagon, was rav­ing about how amaz­ing it is that the lo­cals don’t get lost, even though they don’t use maps or GPS, just be­fore we were told our guide had taken us the wrong way.

Still, the four hours we spent try­ing to find our des­ti­na­tion gave us plenty of time to eval­u­ate the car, and try out this clever new en­gine.

The 2.0-litre Vc-turbo suc­ceeds where many car com­pa­nies have failed, by cre­at­ing an en­gine – now the sub­ject of more than 300 patents – that can switch be­tween high-com­pres­sion ra­tios and low ones, con­stantly and seam­lessly.

In­finiti uses a multi-link sys­tem that is con­tin­u­ously rais­ing or low­er­ing the pis­tons’ reach – depend­ing on your throt­tle de­mands – to pro­vide ei­ther the best pos­si­ble fuel ef­fi­ciency (a high com­pres­sion ra­tio) or the most power and torque (low com­pres­sion, with help from a very en­thu­si­as­tic tur­bocharger).

In­finiti claims the Vc-turbo can pro­duce the per­for­mance of a V6 com­bined with the fuel econ­omy of a four-cylin­der diesel. Its of­fi­cial num­bers are an im­pres­sive 200kw and 380Nm with a claimed fu­ele­con­omy fig­ure of 9.0 litres per 100km.

Fu­tur­ists whis­per that this could be the en­gine that saves in­ter­nal com­bus­tion, and kills off small diesel pow­er­trains. Cu­ri­ously, how­ever, In­finiti – which has ex­clu­sive use of the tech un­til Nis­san and Mercedes-benz take it, which won’t be long – has de­clared that it aims to be ‘fully EV’ by 2021.

This, then, seems like a very im­por­tant en­gine to be test­ing on roads where any kind of high-speed driv­ing would kill you, or at least your car. Still, I can re­port that this new Vc-turbo does have the mid-range torque you’d ex­pect from a larger-ca­pac­ity unit. Poke it from any­where around 3000rpm and you get a surge of ac­cel­er­a­tion that’s un­doubt­edly im­pres­sive.

In­finiti claims a 6.7 sec­ond time for the 0-100km/h, but it feels like it has the po­ten­tial to be even quicker, be­cause sadly the CVT spends at least the first sec­ond and a half moan­ing about life and ba­si­cally chok­ing all that power from get­ting to the ground.

Turbo lag does not seem to be the prob­lem, as you can see the gauge spin­ning up to 1 bar very quickly in­deed, so I blame the CVT. I’ve never liked th­ese trans­mis­sions, which re­mind me of Marvin the Para­noid An­droid – un­de­ni­ably clever but al­ways moan­ing and slow moving.

There were some squeaks and groans from the chas­sis as well, which In­finiti ex­plained with the all-pur­pose ‘th­ese are pre-pro­duc­tion cars’ an­swer, but to be fair the con­di­tions were harsh, and the QX50 pro­vided a good bal­ance of ride com­fort and in­volve­ment, over­all. And did damn well to sur­vive some of its pun­ish­ment.

Un­for­tu­nately the drive-by-wire steer­ing feels vague and dis­tant from the front wheels, at least on dirt.

Cor­ner­ing wise, the chas­sis cer­tainly feels stiff enough to sit nice and flat. Over­all, this is a far more com­plete

and de­sir­able SUV from In­finiti, and if it can get near its claimed fuel fig­ure (we saw closer to 15 litres per 100km, un­der­stand­ably) its en­gine will be a real sell­ing point of dif­fer­ence.

When we fi­nally got to the site where we would do our di­nosaur hunt­ing, a place seem­ingly named by an Ocker Aussie – the Flam­ing Cliffs – I wasn’t sure what to ex­pect, but I was wise enough to sus­pect that I’d be crap at it.

Pro­fes­sor Zorigt Badamkhatan­had, or Bad­maa for short, had ear­lier shown us around his HQ in Ulan Ba­tor, and never have I seen such a hum­ble, di­lap­i­dated build­ing hid­ing such won­ders. In one cor­ner sits a nest of ac­tual di­nosaur eggs, which im­me­di­ately prompts the Juras­sic Park ques­tions (yes, he likes the movies, in­deed his uni lec­turer, Jack Horner, was a con­sul­tant on all of them, and no, the DNA from mos­qui­toes thing has no chance of work­ing, ever) and on ev­ery sur­face seems to be some­thing al­most as mind bog­gling.

Bad­maa in­sists, how­ever, that the field is where the real ex­cite­ment is, and it turns out he’s ab­so­lutely right. Equipped with my di­nosaur-dig­ging tool set, I spent the first half hour an­noy­ing the pro­fes­sor by ex­cit­edly call­ing him over to see what I’d found. It was a rock. Ev­ery sin­gle time. They sure do look like bones.

Un­til you see the real thing, that is. Bad­maa found

it, of course, and when he did his ex­cite­ment was of a higher regis­ter than I think my seven-year-old daugh­ter could man­age.

“Oh my gosh! Look at this! It’s in­cred­i­ble! I’m so excited, look, look,” the tiny Mon­go­lian pro­fes­sor tit­tered. Get­ting up close to what he was look­ing at, I could clearly see bones – ribs pok­ing from the ground, a shoul­der, a spine – washed clean by some rare rain the pre­vi­ous day, and thus never seen be­fore by hu­man eyes. Then I paused to think that, 80m years ago when this an­i­mal lay down to die, there were no hu­man eyes.

The pro­fes­sor de­clares we’re look­ing at what could be a 98 per­cent com­plete ex­am­ple of a protoceratops. This takes a while to sink in, so I crouched down next to him and took my brush to some­thing slightly white, just to the left of where Bad­maa was ges­tic­u­lat­ing widely, and gently en­quired whether it might be some­thing. Af­ter some more whoop­ing he told me I’d found some­thing “very ex­cit­ing”, a hip-shaped piece of the puz­zle form­ing be­neath us. And that I should stop touch­ing it.

Fos­sils this old are in­cred­i­bly frag­ile, so a re­cov­ery team will have to come out and dig up all the dirt for a good square me­tre around the bones, tak­ing the lot out in a plaster ‘jacket’, back to that hum­ble lab where it will be ex­am­ined by excited sci­en­tists.

Bad­maa, of course, would pre­fer to do it right now. “The wait­ing is hard, I just want to see it, but that’s why sci­en­tists are the worst dig­gers; we get too excited,” he ex­plains, with an apolo­getic shrug. “There are some very fa­mous bone de­stroy­ers among pa­le­on­tol­o­gists. I must ad­mit, I’ve done it be­fore my­self. So we’ll wait, but look, you can see where the skull will be. And the teeth.”

Then he’s off again, this in­cred­i­bly en­er­getic PHD pro­fes­sor, who’s part bi­ol­o­gist, part foren­sic sci­en­tist and all dino-mad.

Not long af­ter, I make an­other, smaller find, and hold in the palm of my hand a red rock, smaller than a ten­nis ball, which con­tains what are clearly sev­eral small di­nosaur bones, com­pacted and trapped by mil­lions of years of shift­ing sed­i­ments.

I’m com­pletely alone with it, stand­ing in the kind of si­lence you can only not hear in a desert as flat, vast and empty as the Gobi. And I am ut­terly hum­bled, shrunken by the scale of his­tory and how tiny my place in it is.

It is, quite sim­ply a mo­ment I will never for­get. A nerdgasm, if you will, and I can al­most feel the sixyear-old boy in­side me hop­ping up and down with ex­cite­ment.

Frankly, it was even worth en­dur­ing the mad­ness of Mon­go­lia for.

THE NEMEGT BASIN: A FINE PLACE TO PITCH UP IF YOU’RE PRONE TO DIS­PUTES WITH THE NEIGH­BOURS

CORBY’S CRASH COURSE ON THE DIF­FER­ENCE BE­TWEEN COPROLITE AND A PROTOCERATOPS: “THIS ONE’S A TRIASSIC TURD”

SPARED NO EX­PENSE. EX­CEPT ON CORBY’S WARDROBE. SPARED A BIT THERE Model In­finiti QX50 2.0 Vc-turbo En­gine 1970-1997cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Max power 200kw @ 5600rpm Max torque 380Nm @ 1600-4800rpm Trans­mis­sion CVT L/W/H 4693/1903/1679mm Wheel­base 2800mm Weight 1795kg 0-100km/h 6.7sec Econ­omy 9.0L/100km Price $60,000 (es­ti­mated) On sale Q2 2019

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