Jeep 2019

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On the ground at the 53rd Easter Jeep Safari

Reporting in from 4WD heaven at Moab, Utah

Red rock abounds in every direction. There are low and wide valleys, intersected by meandering creeks and peppered with stunted, gnarly shrubs. Mesas and pagodas pop up abruptly and erratically, making for a landscape I doubt you could find anywhere else on the planet.

Some of these are huge, flat and incredibly square, thanks to the shaping force of erosion over millions of years. I initially suspect someone has invested in the world’s biggest green screen, because the La Sal Mountains sit on the Eastern horizon, still snow-capped, looking impossibly pretty.

You’d think country this impressive, this stark, wouldn’t be accessible by 4WD vehicle, maybe foot traffic only. However, you’d be wrong. And I'm happy. There are tracks in all kinds of conditions in all kinds of directions, giving you access to experience this unique landscape. And there is no busier time than Easter Jeep Safari.

It’s huge event, which started back in 1967 when a group of like-minded Jeepers started exploring the many old uranium exploration tracks that surround the little township of Moab. It’s grown significantly and organically since then, to a point where thousands now to come to drive the tracks (ahem, trails), and the event is heavily supported by many big brands. Jeep Included.

Special mention goes to BFGoodrich, who run an auspicious little shelter called BFGoodrich garage each year. It’s a complete goodwill operation: turn up in your 4WD that’s worse for wear after tackling some tough tracks, and a team of mechanics at the BFGoodrich garage will fix you up (or patch you up, at least) completely free. I heard of one guy who’s hydro steering setup took a holiday after one too many rock steps, and got about $700 worth of repairs done for nothing. How’s that for giving back?

Kudos to Jeep, too. The big American doesn't just roll into town, throw up some banners, do some social posts and call it good. It has a huge interactive display smack-bang in the centre of town, which shows off its six custom-built concepts for the event.

These concepts are truly unique and incredible bits of machinery, as well (you can read more about those here). Custom bodywork, suspension, engines and differentials, I would hate to think of the dollars and man hours Jeep sink into its concepts. But I love that it does, and so does the public.

This event is something I love about Jeep. Jeep gets out of the office and into the action, actively engaging with its most dedicated fan base, and garnering feedback and ideas. It speaks to everyone, even old mate who just bought an old YJ Wrangler off Craigslist and modified the buggery out of it. Jeep wants to speak with this guy, and understand better what he likes about the brand, and what he might like to see in future models.

And it works, too. You can fit a 35-inch tyre in the underslung spare location, because that’s feedback Jeep gets from everyday punters.

“More room for more tyres!” So Jeep obliged. Incredibly, you can fit 35-inch tyres with no lift onto a Gladiator, and 37s on with a factory two-inch lift. That’s awesome. The passion for the brand is palpable in every direction, something Jeep values very highly.

I flew about eighteen hours total, not including layovers, to drive the upcoming Jeep Gladiator. It’s going to be a telling vehicle for the Australian market, and one with big potential. Hence, the big effort in going over to cover it. Read that review here.

The extra benefit of all of this was the location and timing: it was in Moab, which sits along the Colorado River on the eastern side of Mormon-settled Utah. It's also flanked by the 12,721ft (3877m) La Sal mountains, amongst an incredibly stark landscape of red mesas, arches and canyons.

Typically inhabited by around 5000 people, Moab swells under the invasion of many thousands of Jeepers during Easter Jeep Safari. It’s full of enthusiasts, along with their customised rigs, who come from around the country to participate.

The cars. Let’s talk about cars you see on the main street. When you come from Australia, the land of strict vehicle modification laws, and 35-inch tyres are a bit of a treat to see on the road. I was constantly and consistently picking up my jaw from the ground as I walked the streets of Moab.

Even 37s and 40s are commonplace, fitted to Jeeps of all ages and sizes. Rather than lifting the vehicles up to accommodate all of that rubber, the bodies get chopped mercilessly and big aftermarket diff assemblies set wheels free with massive increases in track width.

Suspension is all high-end stuff, too. Fox and King are the most popular choice, with big reservoirs and bypassing being normal, aside from the full-blown coil-over setups. It’s truly a wonderland for 4WD-types.

These 4WDs, with many tens-of-thousands of dollars spend on them, don’t get babied. Look closely, and those beautiful Walker Evans and Method Racing beadlock wheels are flogged with rock rash. Likewise, those chromoly cranked control arms have been gouged by rock.

A little bit more about 4WD stuff: You quickly get an idea about the difference in the 4WD ‘scene’ between the USA and Australia. Many trucks get trailered around stateside, which is a rarity in Australia. It’s all about short, hard and technical tracks.

What Americans call ‘Overlanding’ is closer to what we do in Australia - going away for anywhere between a few days and a few months, living out of your car, camping and driving your way around some beautiful (and often challenging) locations. Let me tell you, the term 'nanny state' was bouncing around in my head non-stop while over here. Australian vehicle modification laws need reform, big time.

While the kind of off-roading at Moab can be supremely challenging to the point of some tracks only being suitable for full-blown buggies, we have a different kind of challenge in Australia: reliability is paramount, and we really push our vehicles in terms of payload, long range comfort along with being off-road capable.

While the town of Moab itself is quaint, pretty and endearing, it’s what’s surrounding this little regional town that people come to experience. To the north is Arches National Park, an incredible landscape you only thought possible if John Wayne swaggered through the scene.

Moab became a pesudo Grand Canyon for Thelma and Louise (1990), and the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) offers a great snapshot of the incredible landscape in Arches National Park. Once Upon a Time in the West, an absolute classic from Sergio Leone, also used the country surrounding Moab.

Not mention, only a few hours eastward is the staggeringly beautiful Rockies of Colorado, which has all kinds of staggering drives you can do, both on- and off-road.

The event itself has a great inclusive feel to it, despite having some of the most challenging driving and modified rigs you could swing a panhard rod at. While the tracks are sometimes backlogged with drivers, nobody gets cranky. Rather, everybody hops out to watch the obstacles, have a chinwag and compare modifications.

It’s not Jeep only, either, despite how things look. While it has the naming rights and the vast majority of vehicles are Jeeps, anything is welcome. We saw a handful of old live-axle HiLuxes, some outrageously modified Suzukis, along with a few old LandCruisers. Oh, and lots of Polaris and Can Am side-by-sides. Because they’re road-legal in America. America.

And of course, you don’t need to be on the tracks to get a taste of what’s happening. The town is abuzz with action, along with the constant thrum of big mud terrains whirring down the main street. Jeep’s display in the middle of town if full of activity. Likewise, there is a huge exhibitor display of specials, giveaways and new products towards the end of the week-long event.

It's an impressive event, displaying the kind of passion for a brand many OEM executives would likely trade children and/or limbs for. You can see why the Wrangler has been such a successful performer in America, suiting this kind of event almost perfectly.

The Gladiator is a cat amongst the pigeons of 4X4 utes, which the enthusiast base is already warming to. Let's see if it can really deliver in Australia.

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